Patrick Vieira is navigating one of the toughest spells of his Crystal Palace tenure so far – at least in terms of results.
His side have won just one of their last six league outings, a run stretching back to before the World Cup break, although that does include defeats to Chelsea and Tottenham.
Matches against Newcastle – live on Sky Sports on Saturday Night Football from 5pm – Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal are on the horizon, as well as a derby against high-flying Brighton in two weeks time. As ever with the Premier League, there is no easy run of fixtures.
However, Crystal Palace are rarely overawed by an occasion. A well-deserved draw against Manchester United on Wednesday – sealed by a stunning Michael Olise free kick – earned the Eagles their first points of the calendar year.
“That game was really important just to get back some confidence because at times, we played some good football but didn’t get what we deserved and what we wanted,” Vieira said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports ahead of the weekend’s visit of the Magpies.
“I won’t say we deserved to win [against Man Utd], but we worked well, worked hard and we deserved that point. So I was really pleased because that game felt like we won it and we needed that for our head and our confidence.”
A lacklustre 3-0 defeat to Fulham on Boxing Day aside, Crystal Palace have still produced relatively high performance levels. Their vibrant, young side are troublesome for most teams – as Man Utd found out – but a lack of goals has been their Achilles heel and a key factor behind their recent lack of points.
With that being said, the obvious question is just how does Vieira inject goals into his team?
The former Arsenal midfielder explained: “We and I have to be insistent about the way we want to play the game. I have to be more clear with the players about what I want and what I expect from them.
“You look at the game against United where I believe we managed to win a lot of second balls, but the way we used them wasn’t good enough. At times, we are in a really good period of the game where we have a situation and we’re making the wrong decisions.
“So we have to be more ruthless in front of goal. We have to change our mindset and this is a process that is taking time to get where we want to be. The difficulties in the game is that sometimes, you’re making two steps forward and then one step back, and then you can make three steps forward.
“But we have a good group of players. We have the talent, I would say, and we just need to believe, keep working well and try to score those goals that allow us to win those games.
“During the season, and it was the same last year, we had some very good periods and difficult periods. But something I really like about this football club is in the highs or lows, there is this consistency on managing the emotions.
“There’s a togetherness that allows us to go through those difficult periods because it’s important to understand who we are as a football club.
“Yes, last year, we had a good season, but the Premier League is really competitive. You’re looking at the teams around us and looking at the squads they have, the money they spend and of course that makes it more challenging.
Patrick Vieira on Michael Olise’s free kick against Man Utd…
“When you’re looking at how hard he’s been working during the game and to have this kind of calmness to make that decision, that is part of who he is as a player.
“There is a courage, there is a strong personality and then there is the strong football talent we see every day.”
“But we have some young players who need time to keep developing themselves and that’s why it’s important for us to manage expectations. That doesn’t mean we can’t be ambitious, but it’s important to manage expectations.”
It is easy to see what Vieira means. Crystal Palace are far from the richest club in the Premier League, but have steadily built over their nine consecutive seasons in England’s top flight.
Throwing money at a squad does not always equate to success, but cultivation of the right team and environment can. This is the positive direction Crystal Palace are heading in, but they are understandably keeping themselves sustainable in the process.
“Over the last couple of years, this club has been growing,” Vieira said. “Looking at the new academy, the infrastructure we have so the players can work well and looking at the young players we are bringing to our football club.
“Crystal Palace is all about being sustainable as a club. We’re growing but spending what we can and the message has been clear since I arrived about what this club can achieve.
“But again, that didn’t and shouldn’t stop us being ambitious off the field, to keep growing as a club, and on the field because we can still bring those special young, talented players that can help the team and the club go to the next level.”
One of Vieira’s targets when he arrived in the summer of 2021 was to lower the age of the Palace team while playing exciting, attacking football. While this has certainly happened, it is actually some of the so-called ‘old guard’ who have flourished most under Vieira.
Star man Wilfried Zaha had his best campaign for Premier League goals (14) under Vieira last season and has notched up six already this campaign thanks largely to a stellar start.
Explaining how Zaha has added more goals to his game, Vieira said: “It’s about the way the team play. Everybody knows his talent and he’s capable of scoring goals.
“But to allow him to score more goals, that’s when we need to create more chances, we need to have more of the possession, we need to have more players around him, more players inside the box for him to be the player that I strongly believe he can be. I think when we improve that side, that allows him to score those goals.
“But credit to him because he put his head down and he is working hard every single day because he wants to challenge himself and score more goals, he wants to improve.
“Then credit to the players around him as well because we need the Jordan [Ayew] on the other side to give that balance. We need to Jeff Schlupp on this side to track players when Wilfried doesn’t do it. That part of the team works and organising what is the strength and weakness of each other and try to have this kind of consistent performance.”
While Ayew may not be as prolific a goalscorer for Crystal Palace, many have noticed the often uncredited work he does during games that allow this team-mates to flourish.
Vieira added: “Jordan has the qualities that every manager will love. He’s a team player, he will sacrifice himself for the good of the team and this is why he has a lot of respect from every single player here because we’re not making a judgement just on goals.
“He’s about tracking players when you have to, helping your team-mates when you have to do it and Jordan is 10/10 at that.”
Of course, Zaha is one of Crystal Palace’s academy success stories. They have a history of utilising the youth system to great effect, recently opening a start-of-the-art academy camps across the road from their Beckenham training ground. It remains integral in promoting the hotbed of football talent in south London.
Many of these players often train with the first team and feature in matchday squads. Players like John-Kymani Gordon and Malcolm Ebowei have recently gone out on loan to gain more experience.
“What really influences the decision is the DNA of the football club. Crystal Palace always had history of bringing young, talented players into the first team,” Vieira said, who began his own coaching career at Manchester City’s academy.
“We have some young talent and it’s important for us to work with them and to find what can be the next step. A couple of players went on loan because we believe they need first team tests, first team football, playing every week, feeling a bit of pressure of the result and some of them that need to step up and train every day with the first team.
“David [Ozoh] and Jack [Wells-Morrison] have been with us for the last couple of weeks and they will stay with us because they need this kind of exposure.”
Patrick Vieira on academy prospect David Ozoh…
“He is a really young talent. He has the physical attributes that are required to play in the Premier League.
“He’s really good technically, he can play in a really tight space, but he can open himself if the game is needed.
“What he needs is to spend time with the first team players and to understand how you have to conduct yourself every day, what he can take from Luka [Milivojevic] and Cheick Doucoure, to really have a big picture about what the Premier League is about.
“It’s important me and the club is to create that pathway to grow, but to play games at the same time.”
The youngsters will again have a taste of a first team matchday on Saturday as Crystal Palace take on third-place Newcastle at Selhust Park, live on Sky Sports from 5pm. They have not won a game at home since the end of October.
The teams have already played out two 0-0 draws this season – both at St James’ Park in the Premier League and Carabao Cup, with Newcastle winning the cup tie on penalties.
“What we learnt is that this is a team who play with a lot of intensity for 95 minutes,” Vieira said.
“We can’t let them dictate that tempo. We will have to compete at the same level and then when we have the ball, it’s about how we can impose ourselves and make it difficult for them.
“It’s going to be an intense game for both teams because we want to bounce back and start winning games at home. I think the fans and players deserve that so we will be ready for the challenge.”