Crystal Palace and Brighton showing ambition to punch through Premier League’s glass ceiling

Both sides aiming for the top half of the table in a season of gradual progression

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Monday 27 September 2021 07:52
<p>New manager Patrick Vieira is changing the age profile of the Crystal Palace squad </p>

New manager Patrick Vieira is changing the age profile of the Crystal Palace squad

Fear not. This is not another explainer about why Crystal Palace versus Brighton and Hove Albion is a “derby”. Or even why it’s not.

Ever since the first meeting of these two teams on Christmas Day, 1920, a run-of-the-mill fixture has morphed into a rivalry that has sought to explain itself. After 107 encounters and 40 wins each, the desire to explain itself has never been smaller. Yet there is a sense ahead of number 108 on Monday that this ninth Premier League encounter feels like the most “Premier League” of the lot.

Both have been in their own holding patterns – the Eagles hovering just below mid-table, the Seagulls bobbing above the relegation zone. Now has come the time for both to try and live a little better.

Perhaps it is wrong to call it “ambitious”, but there is certainly something of ambition behind their willingness to move on from their relative comforts. The idea of merely existing in the top flight is frowned upon, but the financial disparity at the sharper end of English football makes it a unique balancing act. And the fear to contend with as they look for higher peaks is that a misstep will have them falling lower than where they started.

For Palace (10th in the league for estimated total salary) and Brighton (15th), replicating those positions on the league table come May is some form of success. Palace last achieved that in 2014-15, while it would be Brighton’s highest finish in the English football pyramid.

Though more established at this level, Monday’s hosts will be happier than the visitors if the above comes to pass. Brighton under Graham Potter is very much an evolving project, one whose upward trajectory has been noticeable in their manner on the pitch, the underlying numbers beyond raw goals, wins and points, and a hierarchy headed by Tony Bloom.

Palace meanwhile recognised they were plateauing under Roy Hodgson. In turn, they have been proactive: lowering their squad’s age profile from 28.2 at the start of last season (the second oldest) to 27.3 now (the fourth). The acquisition of Patrick Vieira as manager, and the new ideas he brings, was done to build on the foundations established over the last four years, along with the belief they are better equipped for a novice manager after being burned by Frank de Boer after just 77 days. The period since under Hodgson has seen them assumed enough clout to acquire players to improve their first team – Eberechi Eze last season, Odsonne Edouard in this one – while only parting with others on their terms, such as Wilfried Zaha.

Already part of the Premier League’s furniture, the intentions of both are to become more established pieces now. The couches rather than the futons. And one noticeable change in the early stages of this campaign is that both have addressed things at the back to move forward.

Only defending champions Manchester City (six) have faced fewer shots on target than Brighton’s 13 so far – an aspect of their defensive work that has shown steady improvement over their time in this division, linked to their ball retention. Similarly, Palace’s two clean sheets in 2021-22 already puts them a quarter of a way to last season’s eight, with 33 games to go.

Their travails at the other end have followed a vaguely similar path. Brighton of course, were last season’s expected goals (xG) kings, underperforming by a whopping 13.82, while Palace over-performed by 5.71. On the pitch, though, that equated to just one goal more (41) for the latter.

Thus, Vieira’s had the bigger problem of the two. Scoring is, well, quite hard, even if the solutions are pretty obvious. The signing of Edouard from Celtic feels like one, especially after he marked his debut with a brace against Tottenham Hotspur two weekends ago. Palace are also taking more shots, averaging just over 10 per game – up from 9.18 last season – though not with any great success. During last week’s 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, they had enough about them to have 13 attempts, though only two forced Alisson into action. Just 11 of their 51 shots have been on target, and not even the most red-and-blue tinted specs can filter that with the five goals they have managed and view it as efficiency.

Neal Maupay celebrates his goal against Leicester last weekend

Brighton aren’t exactly burning a hole in the net either. They have picked up seven goals so far – just one fixture earlier than last year. But striker Neal Maupay has three of them, suggesting the Frenchman is on course for his most clinical season, having registered 10 in 2019-20. As it happens, Potter’s side are 1.07 ahead of their xG. Palace down by 1.14.

Given the small sample size, it is hard to put pin too much on the data collected or indeed what we’ve seen to date. The late September heatwave is a reminder that this is still the most forgiving part of the season. When patience is high, optimism still a thing, and the difference of 10 places and seven points between Brighton and Palace nothing more than a strong start set against a tentative one.

Nevertheless, as October comes into view, the result at Selhurst Park on Monday evening will either reinforce belief of positive change or sow a seed of doubt that a change from the norm has set one of these birds on a path a little too close to the sun. Such overreactions are the nature of rivalries like Palace-Brighton. Whether it is a derby or not.

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