Why Crystal Palace had to sack Patrick Vieira
When is the best time of day to sack a manager? Moments before he steps on to the training pitch? Or summoned like a condemned man, easing into his premium parking space for what he knows in his heart is the last time?
Perhaps a phone call at home. Or one while he is in the car. Or by club decree inked on parchment and delivered by a man on horseback. One only asks because there seems to have been much clutching of pearls at the 7am call made by Steve Parish to Patrick Vieira on Friday to relieve him of his Crystal Palace duties.
Done on the basis, one suspects, that once the decision is made it may as well be conveyed quickly so the man concerned does not learn from the newspapers or 24-hour news channels. The other question looms: can it have been a surprise?
Vieira had not won in 11 league games since New Year’s Eve. The club are in a relegation battle in which five of the bottom eight teams have changed managers. The fixture list may indeed look kinder to Palace after Sunday's visit to Arsenal but there are no certainties that the team were in a position to take advantage.
Palace have been terminally unable to score goals. Their only two in their past seven home games have been a goalkeeper mistake against Brighton and a free-kick spanked in against the odds by Michael Olise against Manchester United. They have their lowest goal total at this stage of a Premier League season.
Their expected goals metric, 0.78, since the post-World Cup resumption is the lowest of any club by some distance. At the very least there had to be a conversation about Vieira and his staff at Palace – and when it comes to survival in the Premier League there is significant risk in maintaining the status quo.
No one would wish the sack on Vieira, a towering figure in the history of English football, and a good man, judging by his post-match interactions. But no one can seriously have considered Palace’s form, and the state of the relegation battle, and declared change was off the table.
Expressing his own dismay at the decision, Vincent Kompany, Vieira’s former team-mate, said it was unjustified on the basis of Palace’s position of 12th, the recent run of tough opponents, the injury to Wilfried Zaha, and the resources available. “What they have done,” he concluded, on the basis that Palace are not in the relegation places, “is take out a manager who is overachieving”.
If Palace’s 2023 form is overachieving, then it looks like they might overachieve all the way to the Championship, most likely passing Kompany’s Burnley on the way. A side who cannot score goals, and have gone – like Palace before defeat by Brighton on Wednesday – three games without an attempt on goal, are not one with a strong chance of survival.
In the four divisions, only Forest Green Rovers have accumulated fewer points in 2023 than Palace. There will be, no doubt, questions over Palace’s commitment to the transfer market. Of course, the demand is for every struggling club to spend themselves into oblivion to stay up but that has never been Palace’s way.
They are on their longest consecutive run in the top flight in their history – 10 years – a rebuild that goes back to the chaos of administration in 2010. Most years it is a street-fight for Palace to stay up.
A club in the Premier League’s bottom eight for revenue, and in a stadium with a pleasingly raucous atmosphere and lots of nostalgia. As the old joke runs – if you want to see what Selhurst Park looked like in the 1960s, just go there now.
It is no match for the two gleaming 21st Century creations in north London or indeed Fulham’s redeveloped Riverside Stand or whatever science fiction fantasy Chelsea’s new owners alight upon for Stamford Bridge. Palace spent £70 million in the summer transfer window of 2021, and £40 million last year.
There was more investment in January, all of it a drop in the ocean compared to what others spent but part of a sustainable plan. The wage bill has fallen and the squad is younger than the days of the old guard of 2020-2021. It is by no means perfect but that is the tightrope the club walk every season.
Palace have built a £30 million academy for their south London talent production line. They can claim to have played a role in Chelsea’s English talent too, Conor Gallagher and previously Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The sacking will no doubt sting Vieira and former team-mates have understandably rushed to his defence, but he may well come to look back with pride. Lasting 21 months at Palace is an achievement.
He has a survival season on his record now and that counts for a lot. The task of keeping clubs such as Palace in the most competitive league in the world never ends, and what worked last season does not always work the next. Not a bad start to life as a manager in English football for Vieira.
The only caveat being that at clubs such as Palace you do not get to hang around as a benign experiment to see if your team’s relegation form turns into actual relegation. Vieira’s old mentor Arsene Wenger, was relegated in his final season at Nancy in 1987 and it did his career no harm.
The same summer he got the job at Monaco with a managerial career win rate at that point of 29 per cent. The problem is these days, a club such as Palace cannot afford to grant their manager that kind of learning experience.