Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace beat Watford 1-0 on Saturday, just as they did when the Hornets last visited Selhurst Park in March 2020. But apart from the scoreline, there were very few similarities between that match two years ago and the contest which sent Watford down to the Championship at the weekend.
On both occasions, Roy Hodgson was on the touchline. In 2020 he was in charge of the home team, having signed a one-year contract extension a few days earlier. On Saturday he was in the away dugout in his role as Watford’s third permanent manager of the season.
It is easy to forget that Palace were among the pre-season favourites for relegation. They had swapped a safe pair of hands in Hodgson for an unknown quantity – as far as Premier League management was concerned – in Patrick Vieira. Several stalwarts had been let go in an ambitious attempt to overhaul the squad and the playing style. Many observers felt that Palace were trying to move too quickly, risking their top-tier status in the process.
Even the optimists among the Selhurst Park faithful could not have predicted how successful the transition would be. Palace’s victory at the weekend made certain that they will not be going down this term. A top-half finish is a distinct possibility, while Vieira led the club to only the fifth FA Cup semi-final in their history last month.
A comparison between the two wins over Watford is instructive. Only Joel Ward and Wilfried Zaha began both games. Nine of the starters on Saturday were not at the club in March 2020.
It is not just the personnel that is vastly different. Vieira has given Palace a new on-field identity. In that match two years ago, Palace had 44 per cent of possession. This time around it was 68 per cent, albeit against opponents reduced to 10 men when Hassane Kamara was sent off in the 69th minute for a second bookable offence.
Two years ago Palace had three shots on target. On Saturday Vieira’s charges managed more than that in the first half alone. Palace could have been more ruthless after the break and perhaps did not create enough given their control, but this was another pleasing performance for a team looking to end the season strongly.
Hodgson, who was given a warm reception by Palace fans ahead of kick-off and after the final whistle, did a good job at Selhurst. He had relatively little money to spend but kept the club in the Premier League for four years. Palace were barely troubled by relegation in that time.
The football was far from exhilarating, though, and last summer was the right time for a refresh. Crucially for Palace, the subsequent improvement in aesthetics has not come at the expense of results. Last season they finished on 44 points, a tally they have already reached with three games remaining.
Vieira will want to kick on again next season. There is work to do this summer. Conor Gallagher’s imminent return to Chelsea will leave a huge gap in midfield. Greater depth at centre-half and left-back is required.
Vieira might also seek a goalkeeper more adept with his feet, while none of Palace’s striking options seem to have completely convinced him. Still, this is arguably the strongest squad the Eagles have ever had, and there is confidence that the recruitment team led by Dougie Freedman can secure more good deals in the coming months.
“I think we were always in control, but it was a difficult game because we didn’t move the ball quickly enough to find those players between the lines and create chances,” Vieira said in his post-match press conference on Saturday.
“It wasn’t our best performance but I think we showed maturity with the way we managed and controlled the game. It’s about having the right balance to try and win football matches.”
Palace have certainly added more strings to their bow in what has been an excellent campaign. Vieira has exceeded expectations and there is considerable excitement about the future at Selhurst Park.