Patrick Vieira expects to face a “different Manchester United” to the one Crystal Palace beat on the final day of last season, when the two sides meet at Selhurst Park tonight. More worryingly, Palace look like a different side, too.
Wilfried Zaha’s goal and 1-0 victory capped a fine debut season for Vieira in the Palace dugout, a 12th-placed finish secured and the safety and pragmatism of Roy Hodgson’s reign replaced by swagger and progress more swiftly than most had imagined possible. There had been a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final as well.
But as the Eagles prepare to welcome Erik ten Hag’s resurgent side, Vieira is experiencing perhaps the rockiest patch of his tenure so far. Palace have taken just three points from their last five League games, beating plummeting Bournemouth 2-0 on New Year’s Eve, have failed to score in any of the four defeats and exited both domestic cup competitions during the same period.
The club is paying the price for failing to properly back Vieira in last summer’s transfer window, when only four signings were made, two of them free transfers in back-up goalkeeper Sam Johnstone and Derby’s teenage winger Malcolm Ebiowei.
Full-back remains an area of glaring weakness, where Palace have not spent a penny since signing Patrick van Aanholt in January 2017, forcing at least one of Joel Ward and Nathaniel Clyne to start every League match this term.
In midfield, Cheick Doucoure’s fine maiden campaign has not been enough to offset the departures of Conor Gallagher and Cheikhou Kouyate, while James McArthur’s injury absence has exacerbated Vieira’s struggle for balance.
Zaha’s expected departure at the end of his contract will, for the second summer in a row, see Palace lose arguably their best player. As with Gallagher’s return to Chelsea after his superb loan spell, there will be no transfer fee to aid the search for a replacement.
Vieira, though, is not blameless, occasionally frustrating with his tactical set-up and substitutions.
In particular, his persistence with Jordan Ayew has been baffling, the forward enduring a particularly miserly season, with just one goal in 21 appearances. Odsonne Edouard has not started a League game since scoring three in six in October.
Vieira hinted this week that Palace are looking for an answer to their scoring problems in the transfer market, but the 46-year-old needs more from a squad averaging less than a goal-per-game. “[We need to] keep working, keep believing in ourselves, because the chances are there,” he said. “I want my players to be more ruthless inside the box and take those chances.”
It is not quite panic stations yet: Palace are seven points clear of the relegation zone, having played a game fewer than all but one of the sides below them. But when one journalist began a question to Vieira with the assumption that “you’re comfortably mid-table…” it was telling how swiftly the Frenchman cut across. “We’re not that comfortable!” he said.
Vieira was more upbeat on the prospects of tonight’s opponents, who he believes have every chance of pushing two of his former sides, Arsenal and Manchester City, all the way in the title race. “When you look at the last couple of games they played and how many wins they’ve had, how close they are to the top, I think they will be [challengers],” he said.
United have won nine games in a row in all competitions either side of the World Cup break, answering questions about the strength of opposition during their revival with a showpiece Manchester derby win on Saturday. They needed help from the season’s most rancid refereeing decision, though the fact it went their way at Old Trafford might just be the clearest indication yet that United are on the up.
A 10th win on the spin would see Ten Hag’s men climb above Newcastle and City to go second, within six points of Arsenal ahead of Sunday’s meeting at the Emirates, albeit having played a game more.