LONDON — Brentford and Crystal Palace should be absolutely fine. If their performances and underlying metrics tell even half the truth with nearly two-thirds of a season to be played, they are of a high enough footballing standard that they will soon be able to push clear of the half-dozen sides below them (and a few more in Palace’s case). But Saturday’s 0-0 draw might not entirely allay any fears the more pessimistic sections of their fanbase might have as the likes of Newcastle, Norwich and Everton begin to pick up points.
The gap is still chunky, especially in Palace’s case with a nine-point cushion over Norwich in 18th before the Canaries host Manchester City. Brentford are seven clear. For both, relegation is extremely unlikely not least because there are so many inferior teams below them. That is a creditable achievement for two teams who know they have no divine right to Premier League status, no matter how long they have held it in Palace’s case.
Both managers have long since earned the adulation of their supporters for the style of their management and on field product — the travelling Palace faithful serenaded Patrick Vieira from the first minute onwards — for good reason. While the league table may not entirely reflect it, these have been two very good teams who would not have needed things to go much more differently to be well clear of lower mid-table.
Heading into this weekend’s games theses two teams were by far the league’s most unlucky in points. They are tactically shrewd (Conor Gallagher’s oscillation between third midfielder one moment and center forward the next is a triumph for Patrick Vieira). Their football has been easy on the eye and they have done so many of the things needed to be successful in this league. Most crucially of all, in a sizeable proportion of their games they generate good quality chances for themselves while largely limiting their opponents from having as many.
According to Understat’s expected points metric, Palace have the seventh-best record in the Premier League. Brentford are ninth. Instead, these two have by far the greatest difference between their expected points and their actual return in the table that matters the most, 10.1 fewer for the Eagles and 9.6 fewer for their hosts Saturday. As such, two teams that might have been firmly ensconced in midtable at the very least, playing with house money in this second half of the season, arrived in west London with cause to fear the fast rising forces beneath them.
This was some way from a relegation six-pointer — relegation is still so unlikely for these two that it is at best four-and-a-half — but it was apparent from early on that both sides were well aware of the cost of defeat. All those juicy underlying metrics were scarcely evident in a contest that took a quarter of an hour to rustle up a shot of any real note, Rico Henry slamming a cross from the right into an onrushing defender.
For both of these teams, the buildup was elegant and intense but the final pass or delivery was lacking more often than not, though a superb through ball from Sergi Canos might have received a better finish from Bryan Mbeumo. Add Christian Eriksen to the side and those chances will surely be more frequent. The Dane is not yet deemed ready to make his debut less than seven months after his collapse at Euro 2020 but his debut is fast approaching. In the meantime, he was afforded a rapturous reception by his new fans ahead of kickoff.
Palace were largely restricted to counterattacks in the opening period but they executed them with propulsive force, Jordan Ayew slamming an effort into the side netting after Jeffrey Schlupp and Odsonne Edouard had set the Eagles on their path up the pitch. Wilfried Zaha was a constant threat on the peripheries of the contest, slamming an effort into David Raya’s gloves as the interval loomed.
The Ivorian international aside, there were few if any players on the pitch that you really fancied could crack this contest wide open with a goal. Gallagher and Edouard were marked out of the game by the ranks of Brentford’s defensive lines, who were more than willing for goalscoring chances to end at the boot of Ayew.
Meanwhile, at the other end Mbeumo convinces in almost everything he does until he gets in front of goal; there is a reason why he ranks among the bottom three percent of Premier League players on Opta’s shooting goals added metric (a metric which assesses how much a player increases his chances of scoring based on how he hits his shots). Yoane Wissa invariably seemed ready to pounce without actually getting into good shooting positions. Having shown yet more signs of settling into the Premier League of late Ivan Toney, sidelined with a calf injury, was missed today.
Vicente Guaita saved smartly when Pontus Jansson rose highest to meet a corner from the left while a softer touch from Zaha in the last minute might have teed him up for a dangerous shot off Gallagher’s cross-field ball. Joachim Andersen might have won it at the death with a rasping drive straight at David Raya. Still, a share of the points felt like a fair reflection of the game on the whole. This time, then, the table will reflect what Palace and Brentford might feel they deserved.