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‘I don’t see why we do that,’ Zaha sums up frustrations about Palace going defensive

Patrick Vieira’s tenure as Crystal Palace has been defined by pragmatism and progressive football, by bold choices in team selection and formation. It has seen positive changes made at the right time to affect games in a positive way. But there have been some glaring problems, repeated consistently, which have yet to be resolved.

“Concentration” is Vieira’s most commonly uttered word. The demands on his players are to keep their focus and not succumb when under pressure defensively.

On the whole, Palace’s defensive efforts have been commendable. It is difficult to level too much criticism at a team who conceded the fewest goals of any Palace side since promotion in 2013.

But they have erred in the most inopportune moments in too many games. Against Brighton at Selhurst Park last season in the 1-1 draw, Marc Guehi misjudged the flight of a ball over the top after a poor Vicente Guaita goal kick and Neal Maupay capitalised to equalise late on. In a 2-1 defeat by Aston Villa last year at Selhurst, John McGinn scored an 84th minute goal.

In October, they conceded a 95th minute equaliser away against Arsenal, a penalty for a Guehi handball at Elland Road saw Leeds win in the 94th minute.

Joachim Andersen’s own goal at the Amex stadium in January saw Brighton take a point, Hakim Ziyech scored an 89th minute winner for Chelsea at Selhurst Park in February and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s 85th minute goal won the game for Everton at Goodison Park in May after Palace led 2-0.

On Monday night against Brentford, having looked assured for the most part, Palace allowed a cross from Vitaly Janelt to go over the the defence and Yoane Wissa equalised in the 88th minute.

The problem is not just about the defensive lapses, but also the approach taken. Vieira’s desire to operate with five defenders is clear. He has been keen to utilise the option both by changing systems within games and doing so in separate matches. His players have generally responded well, but are clearly yet to master it.

Against Brentford it was more of a psychological collapse with Palace retreating into their shell after defensive substitutions. Introduced with 15 minutes remaining were Luka Milivojevic and Jordan Ayew. Tyrick Mitchell followed five minutes later. They replaced Eberechi Eze, Jeffrey Schlupp and Michael Olise — the latter the most threatening Palace player.

After those changes, Wilfried Zaha partnered Odsonne Edouard up front, Ayew had no apparent defined position. But most importantly, there was no link between defence and midfield. Milivojevic and Cheick Doucoure were sitting midfielders, Ayew was not suited to dropping into an advanced midfield role and there were no other ball carriers to link play.

That invited pressure. Vieira said that “one of the reasons we went to five at the back was to defend the crosses and we didn’t do it”.

If he wanted concentration, then making those changes is unlikely to have helped. Where progressive changes are made, such as at the Etihad in the 2-0 win last season over Manchester City, they have generally been rewarded. This team is set up to attack and pick teams off, it’s not designed to try to soak up significant pressure.

“As soon as we went in the lead we just started to defend, I don’t see why we do that,” Zaha said afterwards. “If we just continue pressing on I feel like we could have got a second and ended the game. We just killed ourselves.”

The manager’s explanation was logical, even if the decision was still the catalyst for that late goal. “It’s always good to look at options,” he said. “We were winning 1-0 and we looked at what they’ve been doing in the last couple of games, the changes they’ve made and tried to match that.

“Having the number doesn’t mean we will defend well and this is something we will have to look at again but I am not satisfied with how we defended the cross.”

Out of the 46 goals Palace conceded last season, 54 per cent came in the final 15 minutes of either half, with 24 per cent of those between the 76th and 90th minute. After that home draw with Brighton, Vieira spoke of how “the players were really affected by the way the game ended.” He insisted they had to “focus from the first to the last minute” but that they would learn from it.

The trouble is there is no evidence that in situations where the lead is slender and the team is set up to defend it rather than to go out and finish the opposition, that as a collective, those lessons have been learned.

For Vieira also, the switching of formation in game is not in itself a problem but to avoid being pinned back with five in defence it needs to be able to switch to a three with attacking wing backs.

That is not what Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Ward or Mitchell offer. The right personnel must be available to ease pressure.

If physical demands were a further reason to make defensive substitutions, as Vieira suggested, then a disrupted pre-season will not have helped, and neither will the lack of genuine game-changing experienced attacking options on the bench from which to choose.

This was a collective failing. Perhaps Vieira is too demanding of his players to repeatedly mention what he perceives to be a lack of focus. Maybe though, the ability to focus is also impaired by constant pressure as it was at Manchester City a week ago.

Palace’s manager must take some responsibility for surrendering the lead, but most crucially he needs to establish a way to ensure his players are able to focus as he continues to insist they should.

(Photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

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