From forgotten man to first-team star: The resurrection of Jairo Riedewald8 min read
When Crystal Palace appointed Patrick Vieira as Roy Hodgson’s successor in early July, they were handing the reins to a foreign manager for only the third time in the club’s history. Leaving aside Attilio Lombardo’s caretaker stint, Frank de Boer is the only other non-British coach to have occupied the Selhurst Park hot seat on a permanent basis, although perhaps that term is not an accurate one to describe a spell of employment that lasted for just 77 days and took in only four league games.
After beginning the 2017/18 season with four successive defeats to nil, Palace chairman Steve Parish decided to act. Appointing De Boer had been a mistake, he acknowledged, with the Dutchman charged with trying to change too many things too quickly. De Boer might have argued (with some justification) that he had not been given enough time or resources to put his own stamp on the team. After all, Palace made only two permanent signings that summer, and one of them – Mamadou Sakho’s arrival from Liverpool – had been driven by the board.
The only other player who put pen to paper on a full-time deal with Palace ahead of the 2017/18 campaign was Jairo Riedewald. The then-20-year-old was very much a De Boer signing. An academy graduate at Ajax, Riedewald was handed his first-team debut for the Dutch giants by De Boer in 2013. Able to play at left-back, centre-half and as a central midfielder, Riedewald was seen as integral to helping De Boer implement his preferred three-at-the-back system.
He started Palace’s first game of the season as a left-sided centre-back alongside Scott Dann and Tim Fosu-Mensah. De Boer’s side lost 3-0 at home to Huddersfield Town, who had just been promoted to the Premier League. Riedewald then missed the 1-0 loss to Liverpool and the 2-0 defeat by Swansea City due to injury, before returning to the matchday squad as a substitute for the 1-0 reverse against Burnley that proved to be De Boer’s last game in charge.
When his compatriot was sacked, Riedewald must have feared for his future. While playing in the Premier League is an attractive proposition to most footballers in the world, Riedewald had joined Palace because of De Boer. All of a sudden his manager was Roy Hodgson, whose methods were very different to those of the man who had brought him to south London in the first place.
Hodgson immediately reverted to a 4-2-3-1 upon taking charge, before shifting to a 4-4-2 a few games in. There was no place for Riedewald in either system. He made only three more starts in the Premier League in 2017/18, as Hodgson successfully steered Palace out of the relegation zone and into the sanctuary of mid-table.
And that was expected to be that for Riedewald’s Crystal Palace career. He was made available for transfer in the summer of 2018, just a year on from his arrival in a deal worth £7.9m. No concrete offers were forthcoming, though, so the Netherlands international stayed put. He was a peripheral figure in 2018/19, though: Riedewald was an unused substitute for 17 Premier League matches but did not get on the pitch for a single minute. His four outings that term came in domestic cup competitions – and it is fair to say he did not sign for a club in England’s top tier for sporadic appearances in the League Cup.
Although rumours of an exit had not come to pass the previous year, very few people expected Riedewald to still be in south London come the end of the transfer window in the summer of 2019. A loan switch to Paderborn, a German outfit who had just been promoted to the Bundesliga, looked set to go through shortly before the market closed for business. Yet the deal collapsed at the eleventh hour and Riedewald remained a Palace player.
“We talked to his adviser. But we were not yet close to reaching an agreement,” the Paderborn sporting director Martin Przondziono told NW.de. “We tried to get some players. But in the end it also has to fit with the finances.”
At that point it seemed as if Riedewald was set for another season on the sidelines. He did not appear to be a natural fit for a team managed by Hodgson, who was never one for making wholesale changes week to week. It was no surprise that the Dutchman was not involved in any of Palace’s first 15 Premier League fixtures in 2019/20.
But as injuries mounted, Riedewald appeared as a half-time substitute in a 0-0 draw with Watford in early December. The following week, he was named in a Premier League starting XI for the first time in 659 days. What’s more, the visitors to Selhurst Park that night were Brighton and Hove Albion, Palace’s arch-rivals.
“We haven’t been unimpressed by Jairo Riedewald these last two years, it’s just he’s been competing for a place in the centre of midfield, where we’ve been at our very strongest,” Hodgson said before the match, in which the former Ajax man filled in at left-back.
“It’s not been easy for him to break in and wrest the shirt from the person who is doing well to keep it. Our results over the last couple of years, by our standards, have been pretty good.
“Now, if he plays left-back, he’ll have another opportunity in a totally different position to show what a good footballer he is. There’s no doubt that he has a lot of football skills and we’re hoping he brings those to bear. As a good footballer, we’re hoping he’ll be able to adapt to a different position.”
Riedewald ended up making 17 appearances in the Premier League in 2019/20, seven of which were starts. It was last season in which he firmly established himself as a first-team regular, though. Riedewald was absent from only five of Palace’s top-flight games.
Injuries elsewhere certainly provided him with more opportunities, but the Dutchman was one of the team’s better performances in an unremarkable season. All of his outings – 19 of which came as starts – were as a central midfield, either in a 4-4-2 system or a 4-3-3 formation. He won the club’s Player of the Month award in October 2020, the same month in which he scored his first goal for the club in a 2-1 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage. In February, Riedewald’s consistently good performances were rewarded with a contract extension until 2024.
Of the Palace players who made at least five Premier League appearances last term, the 24-year-old registered the highest pass completion rate with 85.6 per cent. That indicates Riedewald is comfortable with the ball at his feet and tidy in possession, even though he is not what would be described as an incisive, line-breaking passer. Indeed, an average of 0.4 key passes per game shows that Riedewald was tasked with helping to build moves, rather than supplying the killer ball. A season-long expected assist tally of one is further evidence of that.
It will be interesting to see if his role changes under Vieira, who has a very different philosophy to that of his predecessor. The former New York City and Nice head coach favours a 4-3-3 formation, which rules out Riedewald returning to a three-man defence. He will therefore remain in midfield, but Vieira will ask different things of him than Hodgson did.
As things stand it is unclear whether Riedewald will be part of the new manager’s first-choice midfield. Eberechi Eze is out injured, but there is also competition from Luka Milivojevic, Jeff Schlupp and James McArthur, while Cheikhou Kouyate might also be restored to the engine room after spending last season at centre-back. Palace are also pursuing Chelsea midfielder Conor Gallagher with a view to a season-long loan.
There would appear to be two possible roles for Riedewald in a Vieira midfield: as a deep-lying player in the centre of a trio, or to the left-hand side. Schlupp is a contender for the latter role, while Milivojevic is best suited to playing in the middle of a three. Riedewald started in the centre in the 1-0 win against Ipswich Town last weekend, with Schlupp and McArthur either side of him. We should not read too much into team selections for pre-season friendlies, though, and there is no guarantee that Riedewald will be in the starting XI for the opening game of the season against Chelsea.
Still, there are no longer any doubts about the Dutchman’s status at Palace: after spending so long in reserve, he is now an important part of the first-team squad. And his comments after the triumph at Portman Road suggest Riedewald is looking forward to playing in a side that will be more aggressive with and without the ball than they were under Hodgson.
“This is something we worked on the first day of pre-season,” Riedewald told Palace TV. “Creating more chances and being more aggressive when we don’t have the ball. I think if you look at the first-half we had a 20-minute spell where we created a lot of chances.
“It’s just about working and learning. Finish the chances and we walk away with a 3-0 win. Each day we get a better understanding of how we want to play, how we want to press in possession and out of possession. This is the second game of pre-season, and I think like in the first game we played, we made a few good steps in the right direction.
“So far it’s been good for me. Tactically I like the way he wants to play. I like his vision, with Schluppy and Macca next to me. It’s good. Also the centre-backs are stepping in as well and being more aggressive, and the wing backs are high up the pitch. So it’s clear this season we’re trying to be more aggressive and create more chances.
“Everybody is positive. We’ve been training for three weeks and if anyone has a question about the way we want to play, they just ask it. Everybody is very positive about the way we play and the intensity that we train with, so hopefully we can show it in three weeks when the competition starts.”
Riedewald is an Ajax academy graduate, so it is no surprise that he is composed in possession. We may also begin to see him take more risks with the ball. The influence of a manager’s style on individual players is often underappreciated. Riedewald recycled possession effectively last season but did not create many chances. Yet that does not necessarily define him as a midfielder. The Dutchman was following the instructions of Hodgson, who is unlikely to have encouraged him to bomb forward at will.
Under Vieira we may well see another side to Riedewald. That does not necessarily mean he will be pushing into the final third, particularly if he is deployed as the deepest-lying of Palace’s midfielders. But we could see him play more progressive passes, or split the centre-backs when the team builds up.
Riedewald risked being forever known as De Boer’s man, but he has shaken off that tag to become an important part of the Palace squad. Still only 24 years old, he has plenty of time to make further improvements to his game. As the club prepares to embark on a bold new era, Palace fans are grateful that Riedewald will be a part of it.