Why Crystal Palace had to sack Patrick Vieira

Patrick Viera – Why Crystal Palace had to sack Patrick Viera – Getty Images/Paul Harding

When is the best time of day to fire a manager? Just before he enters the training ground? Or summoned like a convict pulling into his premium spot for the last time he knows in his heart?

Maybe a home call. Or one while he’s in the car. Or colored on parchment by association decree and delivered by a man on horseback. One only asks because there appears to have been a lot of bead stuff when Steve Parish called Patrick Vieira at 7am on Friday to relieve him of his duties at Crystal Palace.

On this basis, it is assumed, once a decision has been made, it can also be communicated quickly so that the person concerned does not find out about it from the newspapers or 24-hour news channels. The other question arises: could it have been a surprise?

Vieira had not won 11 league games since New Year’s Eve. The club is in a relegation battle where five of the bottom eight teams have changed coaches. The game plan may look friendlier for Palace following Sunday’s visit to Arsenal, but there is no certainty the team have been able to capitalize on it.

Palace could not score goals. Their only two in their last seven home games have been a goalkeeping error against Brighton and a free-kick missed by Michael Olise against Manchester United against the odds. They have the lowest total of goals at this stage of a Premier League season.

Their expected goals of 0.78 since resuming after the World Cup are by far the lowest of any club. At the very least, Vieira and his staff had to be talked about at the Palace – and when it comes to surviving in the Premier League, there is significant risk of maintaining the status quo.

No one would wish Vieira’s sacking, a towering figure in the history of English football and a fine man judging from his post-match interactions. But no one can have given serious thought to Palace’s form and the state of the relegation battle to explain a move from the table.

Vincent Kompany, Vieira’s former team-mate, expressed his own dismay at the decision, saying it was unjustified given Palace’s position in 12th, their recent run of tough opponents, Wilfried Zaha’s injury 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 overwhelmed”.

If Palace’s form is overachieving in 2023 then it looks like they could overachieve to the Championship, most likely overtaking Kompany’s Burnley in the process. A side that can’t score goals and – like Palace before Wednesday’s defeat to Brighton – have gone three games without a shot on target, doesn’t stand much of a chance of survival.

Across the four divisions, only Forest Green Rovers have accumulated fewer points than Palace in 2023. There will no doubt be questions about Palace’s involvement in the transfer market. Of course, every struggling club will be required to sink into oblivion to stay on top, but that has never been Palace’s way.

They are on the longest consecutive run in the top flight in their history – 10 years – a rebuild dating back to the administrative chaos of 2010. Most years it’s a street fight for Palace to stay on top.

A club that’s in the bottom eight of the Premier League in terms of revenue and in a stadium with a pleasantly raw atmosphere and plenty of nostalgia. As the old joke goes – if you want to see what Selhurst Park looked like in the 1960s, just go there now.

It doesn’t compare to either of North London’s two gleaming 21st-century creations, or Fulham’s revitalized Riverside Stand, or whatever sci-fi fantasy Chelsea’s new owners come up with for Stamford Bridge. Palace spent £70m in the 2021 summer transfer window and £40m last year.

January saw more investment, all a drop in the bucket compared to others’ spending, but part of a sustainable plan. The payroll is down and the squad is younger than the 2020-2021 old guard days. It’s far from perfect, but that’s the tightrope walk the club walks each season.

Palace have built a £30m academy for its talent production line in south London. They can also claim to have played a role in Chelsea’s English talent Conor Gallagher and previously Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The sacking will no doubt hurt Vieira and former team-mates have understandably rushed to his defense but he could certainly look back with pride. Staying at the Palace for 21 months is an achievement.

He’s had a survival season now and that counts for a lot. The task of keeping clubs like Palace in the most competitive league in the world is never-ending and what worked last season doesn’t always work the next. Not a bad start to life as a manager in English football for Vieira.

The only caveat is that you can’t hang around at clubs like Palace as a harmless experiment to see if your team’s relegation form turns into actual relegation. Vieira’s old mentor Arsène Wenger was relegated to Nancy in his last season in 1987, which did not detract from his career.

That same summer, he got the job at Monaco with a managerial success rate at that point of 29 percent. The problem these days is that a club like Palace can’t afford to give their manager that kind of learning experience.

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