Fan frustration understandable but Vieira’s inconsistent Palace just need to sort out midfield

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Losing badly at home to Spurs might have felt ominous for Crystal Palace, but inconsistency is their thing now and it’s better than being consistently bad.

 

The contrast was extremely stark. On September 11, 2021, Crystal Palace beat Spurs 3-0 at Selhurst Park. It was their first win of the season at their fourth attempt following a defeat and two draws, and that inconsistency ultimately came to characterise their season. On their day – and they were certainly on it on September 11, 2021 – they could be close to unplayable, but it sometimes felt as though this high tempo was difficult for the team to maintain over sustained periods. Crystal Palace didn’t win more than two straight games last season – and they only won two in a row once.

This season has been no different. Crystal Palace are now approaching the midway point in their Premier League season. They have failed to win more than two straight games and have only won two in a row once. And this, for a team whose primary goal every campaign is to ensure they don’t find themselves relegated, is perfectly adequate. It’s certainly better than being consistently bad.

But this season and a half of inconsistency is bookended by two very different results against Spurs. In September 2021, Palace’s 3-0 win was the start of a swift downfall for Nuno Espirito Santo. But on this occasion, despite a familiar cloud hanging over their opponents, Palace couldn’t even really maintain a high tempo beyond half-time as Antonio Conte fortified his position.

Palace dominated possession throughout the end of the first half, but two goals in five minutes from Harry Kane put them almost beyond sight within 10 minutes of the restart. Further goals from Matt Doherty and Heung-min Son turned what had been looking like a sticky situation for Spurs into something of a rout.

Coming after a similar collapse against Fulham in their previous home match, Selhurst Park suddenly doesn’t feel like quite the fortress that it has for so long.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

This was not a good result for Crystal Palace, but they remain 12th in the Premier League because Crystal Palace always seem to be in or near 12th in the Premier League. They finished last season 12th in the Premier League. They’ve even got a five-point buffer on the team below them, Leicester City, so they’ll likely remain 12th if they lose another game or two. Separated by just two goals on goal difference from Aston Villa, they could rise as high as 11th – they’ve been stuck between and 10th and 13th for three months, now – but then there’s another three-point gap to Chelsea in 10th, and Crystal Palace’s inconsistency can make three points look huge.

Talking of both big gaps and big differences between this season and last, if there is one in this Crystal Palace team then it’s in the centre of midfield. Palace were terriers last campaign, but Conor Gallagher has not been adequately replaced, even though the club surely knew that the quality of his performances on loan would likely ensure that Chelsea would want him back.

Cheikhou Kouyaté left for Nottingham Forest and James McArthur injured his groin during the summer and hasn’t yet played this season. New signing Cheick Doucouré has not been enough to plug those gaps alone; Jeffrey Schlupp seldom seems to offer much beyond a lot of running.

There have been complaints from some fans about Patrick Vieira being too rigid in his formation and playing players out of position, but the manager believes he has the answer to that conundrum: the January transfer window. But club chairman Steve Parish has already advised that Palace will be more likely to look at loan signings than anyone permanent.

This does make sense. If your team’s issues are evident from the outside, selling clubs will likely consider that they can see the whites of a buying club’s eyes. Couple that with the knowledge that Premier League clubs can afford to pay, and the risk of overpaying starts to look very real.

And at the risk of getting Palace fans too excited, the best way of plugging a Gallagher-shaped gap would be the return of Gallagher, which is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. If every sign is pointing to Chelsea continuing their policy of pursuing every player with a FIFA rating greater than 70, they will ultimately need to free up space in their first-team squad and Gallagher has looked a little like a midfielder without portfolio back at Stamford Bridge. He’s been struggling a little for game time, and a further loan until the end of this season could be appealing.

Human beings are predisposed to see patterns in things. In many ways it’s good for us. Recognition helps us to memorise things. But this predisposition can also make us see patterns when they may not even exist. In the match before their shellacking at the hands of Spurs, Palace ran out perfectly capable winners away to Bournemouth. Prior to their loss at Nottingham Forest shortly before the World Cup break, they’d won four and drawn one of their last six games. Inconsistency works, by its very definition, both ways.

The concern with inconsistency is that when consistency returns, it won’t be the sort that you want. It’s highly likely, for example, that Nathan Jones could do with a spoonful or two of Palace’s inconsistency at the moment. But if there’s a feeling of frustration among Palace supporters over this, that’s entirely understandable because it comes from the same place. They have seen this team do much better. They know what the team is capable of, and when they fall short of that then it can be frustrating.

There remains a core of solid players in their team – Joachim Andersen, Marc Guehi, Doucoure, Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise are all excellent – and the manager has proved himself reasonably adept in his first Premier League job. Vieira does need to instil some consistency into performances and results but the congested bottom half of the table may make Palace look more at risk than they actually are. Rebuild that midfield, and it’s likely that much of this will be forgotten.

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