The Season So Far
To say it could have gone better is among the biggest understatements imaginable. It’s now mid-November and Crystal Palace are on their second manager of the season but still to register their second win of the season. The incredibly unsuited Frank De Boer was fired after four dismal games and his successor, the avuncular but uninspiring Roy Hodgson, was parachuted into an impossible situation, with two of his first three games coming away to Manchester City and Manchester United and the fourth at home to Chelsea.
Meanwhile, key attackers Wilfred Zaha and Christian Benteke were injured and suddenly Palace found themselves without spark on the flanks or a recognised number nine when they most needed them. Similarly, tweaking with the defence in the hopes that things shored up has only left the backline less able to settle, and the overriding feeling was that the Eagles’ season is close to being over before it ever had a chance to begin.
It was no surprise that the games in Manchester were lost to an aggregate score of 9-0, but the Eagles gave themselves hope by soaring to beat champions Chelsea on Zaha’s return game. Palace salvaged a dramatic late draw away to West Ham last weekend and confirmed that they aren’t going down without a fight. Still only four points adrift and with their star striker soon to return, the great escape is on.
Certainly, to avoid relegation after losing the first seven games without once hitting the back of the net would be among the most remarkable recoveries in top flight history. Doing so with so much uncertainty around the starting lineup and with constant worries about injuries to key players would only make it more unbelievable.
The Season Ahead
The good news is that, after visiting Tottenham this weekend, Crystal Palace have a long run of winnable fixtures up to Christmas. Christian Benteke should be back for those games and if Hodgson can sell his squad on his methods and the Eagles can start to put a run together, they could yet lift themselves away from trouble.
Indeed, there’s reason to believe that the appointment of Hodgson will prove to be a canny one: his well-known, pragmatic and relatively unambitious methods are certainly more suited to Palace’s limited players than Frank De Boer’s Ajax-school ideas. We really, really shouldn’t be too surprised if Palace start looking far more cohesive and get results.
Hodgson began by playing a narrow and conservative 4-1-4-1/4-3-3, with Luka Milivojević protecting the fragile back four. In time Milivojević should become Palace’s key player, anchoring and providing stability where there has as yet been none. This should allow Yohan Cabaye to grow in influence in central midfield, while the returning Zaha and Andros Townsend will certainly pack a potent, if at times unreliable, punch going forward.
The problem which Palace have been unable to solve is the absence of Benteke. Plan A was using the unfortunate Bakary Sako out of position as a striker purely because he has a powerful shot – it didn’t work. Now Hodgson is playing his more familiar, boxier 4-4-2/4-2-4 with an interesting variation: Palace are playing not just one false nine but two. The pacy and creative Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend have both been given roaming attacking briefs, with wide midfielders Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jeffrey Schlupp driving from the flanks through the centre in support. It’s an interesting plan, but of all the ‘magic boxes’ to have been played in the history of football, Loftus-Cheek/Townsend/Zaha/Schlupp has to be the least magic.
Of course, one must remember that for Hodgson it’s almost always a question of horses for courses, and in the here and now we should expect Palace to play a very deep, defensive and unambitious collective game, seeking a clean sheet and a foothold in the game before looking to land a sucker punch and steal the points.
The good news is Palace certainly aren’t as dreadful as results suggest. Their attacking output has been solid, with 12.7 shots per game putting them above the Premier League average, while they’re getting better at balancing things and shutting the opposition out: 12.8 shots against per game is nowhere near the very lowest figures. Their expected goals ratio, 45.2%, puts them twelfth. These are far from the figures of a historically bad Premier League team and to describe them as such is inaccurate.
To take a case in point, Frank De Boer’s last game in charge was the 1-0 away defeat to Burnley. Sean Dyche’s men triumphed due to a catastrophic backpass from Lee Chung-Yong, which gifted an unmissable chance to Chris Wood – a chance Burnley otherwise wouldn’t have been able to create. In the same game, Christian Benteke missed a chance you’d back him to score 99 times out of 100 and Scott Dann sent a hat-trick of more than presentable opportunities into orbit. Palace could and arguably should have won 2-0 or 3-0, and ended up losing 1-0.
If we repeat those situations and that match over and over, more often than not Palace will get the points they deserve. Going forward, it’s reasonable to expect them to produce similar performances and get points on the board.
While it’s certainly true that their raw output is good, they’re certainly suffering for errors in both boxes: 3.1 shots on target per game is way below the Premier League’s average and they’ve allowed their opponents 5.5 shots on target per game, the division’s worst figure. Such slackness at either end of the pitch can’t be allowed to continue – if it is, they’ll go down without ever showing the noticeable upturn in form this column predicts.
More obviously than anything we can see in the statistics, the fact that they’re playing not just without key players but with such poor replacements severely limits their chances of picking up points, especially faced with a challenge such as Tottenham away. It’s hard not to feel that if Wilfried Zaha, Andros Townsend and Yohan Cabaye don’t produce the goods, then no-one will – they’re simply not capable of doing so.
Expect an unchanged lineup as Hodgson tries to find some kind of stability and build morale within a small core of key first-teamers. Hodgson gonna Hodgson.
As you’ll be happy to remember, Tottenham thumped the double-champions of Europe on Wednesday night so Crystal Palace shouldn’t present too much of a problem. That said, Spurs have made hard work of the Premier League’s also-rans of late, so this will probably be tighter than we expect. A nervy 2-1 win.