What Patrick Vieira must do to build on his fine foundations at Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace are 12th in the Premier League but winless in 2023, so should the club be looking up or down?
They were denied their first victory of the year on Saturday when Brentford scored in the sixth minute of stoppage time to snatch a 1-1 draw and leave them six points above the bottom three.
“I wasn’t worried before the game and I’m not more worried after the game,” said manager Patrick Vieira when asked whether he feared being sucked into a relegation scrap.
The Eagles rank third in the division for clearances, tackles won and interceptions, so talk of a defensive downturn from last season would be misguided.
They have shown resolve, with centre-back Joachim Andersen and veteran goalkeeper Vicente Guaita impressing.
However, problems in midfield and further forward have stopped Palace making the progress they might have liked in their second season under Vieira.
When they were thrashed 4-0 by Tottenham at Selhurst Park last month, Palace squandered several clear-cut chances in a goalless first half before being punished after the break.
The story of the match told the narrative of their season.
Forwards Michael Olise, Wilfried Zaha and Eberechi Eze have had no trouble creating opportunities, but a clinical cutting edge once in front of goal has been sorely lacking for Palace.
Zaha is their top scorer with six goals and remains the talisman, but he has scored only twice since August and is nursing a hamstring injury that could keep him out until next month.
The 30-year-old is set to leave Selhurst Park when his contract expires and his parting gift to his boyhood club could be scoring the goals to keep them in the Premier League.
“When you analyse our game and not just base it on the result, it’s about did we create enough chances to score more goals?” said Vieira after the Brentford match.
Often the answer is yes, but scoring more goals is another matter entirely. Zaha is back in training and that will lift spirits, but nothing boosts morale like winning matches.
Palace will hope the Brentford draw indicates they are getting closer.
Even going back to some of Christian Benteke’s woes in front of goal under previous managers, it has been a long time since Palace had a reliable No9.
Vieira has chopped and changed between Jordan Ayew, Odsonne Edouard and Jean-Philippe Mateta.
None has convinced the manager they deserve a regular starting spot.
Yet Palace are by far the worst team in the division for crosses into penalty area. Discounting set pieces, they have played just 22 crosses into the box, so perhaps it is little wonder their strikers are struggling.
Much of their success last season was built on a balanced midfield of Conor Gallagher, James McArthur and Cheikhou Kouyate.
Without that trio, the Eagles are markedly weaker at their core.
The squad voted Gallagher as runner-up for their player of the year last season and Vieira’s midfield has had less quality since the England international returned to Chelsea last summer.
McArthur, a consistent performer last season, has not featured this term due to a hip injury, while Kouyate left for Nottingham Forest last summer.
Will Hughes and Jeffrey Schlupp have featured more, with new signing Cheick Doucoure finding his feet. But, all in all, it has been a downgrade from the vitality and bite of last season.
Palace did bolster their midfield options with two January signings. Naouirou Ahamada has looked promising and the move to sign Albert Sambi Lokonga on loan from Arsenal could benefit all parties.
Taking a glass half-full approach, Palace have lost only one of their past five games.
They are struggling to win but they are not easy to beat, and have conceded only six goals in six League games since they were thrashed by Spurs.
While that is the case, Palace should have enough to steer clear of danger. They host Liverpool on Saturday and a smash-and-grab victory would be just the antidote to their malaise.