The Season So Far
Most Crystal Palace fans must be pinching themselves and wondering if this season has been real. It’s fewer than six years since the Eagles went into administration in the Championship and it looked like the club’s very existence was in danger. Now they’re fifth in the Premier League, four points off a Champions League place, with wins at Stamford Bridge and Anfield under their belt, with one of the league’s best passers of a ball at the heart of their midfield.
The big away wins have been the highlights of the campaign so far, with the resounding 5-1 home victory over Newcastle United a close third. Yohan Cabaye, Wilfried Zaha and Scott Dann have been in great form, while
Frank Drebin Alan Pardew has strengthened his case as one of the division’s most underrated managers, although he is trying to keep expectations low.
The Season Ahead
The rest of the campaign will surely see a regression to the mean. While most would argue that their current position is richly deserved, the underlying numbers should have alarm bells ringing throughout Selhurst Park. They currently have the league’s fifth worst Total Shot Ratio, the third highest save percentage and the sixth highest PDO (source). These numbers suggest Palace are extremely lucky to be where they are – they’re the figures of a relegation battler, not a European contender.
As well as statistical evidence in favour of a coming decline, they’re suffering with a growing injury list and an obvious lack of a decent striker. These issues can be addressed in the January transfer window but unless they start shooting more and shooting better, and stop allowing loads of shots and relying on goalkeeping heroics, they’re going to sink like a stone before long.
There’s nothing complicated about Crystal Palace’s setup: they’ve played a simple and dynamic 4-2-3-1 that usually becomes 4-2-4 in attack, overloading the box and producing lots of shots and attacking set pieces. In true 90s football style, Plan A is still ‘give the ball to the wide-men as soon as possible and all run towards the goal’ and there’s not much of an attempt to control things in the middle. That said, available personnel and calibre of opposition mean that Palace’s Plan A might not be an option, so a very deep and reactive 4-2-1-3 seems more likely, with a third midfielder added to stop Chelsea passing straight through them.
Chelsea got made to look stupid by the attacking trio of Zaha, Jason Puncheon, and Bakary Sako in August but Palace won’t boast such riches this time: Sako is injured and logical replacement Bolasie is injured. Additionally, Cabaye is suspended, robbing Palace of their best player and midfield conductor, so their approach may well change to something even more direct.
Zaha and Puncheon vs Branislav Ivanović and César Azpilicueta isn’t exactly a nice thought for Chelsea fans at the moment – Palace have more than enough about them on the wings to win this. Their high level of flair and good delivery from wide areas allows them to create good shooting opportunities: only four sides take more shots from within the six yard box.
That figure is somewhat inflated by their excellence from set pieces, which admittedly is no bad thing. They have 3.8 shots per game from dead balls, the second highest figure in the Premier League. Centre-back Dann is in good scoring form, having registered goals against Liverpool and Everton in recent weeks, and Chelsea will have to be wary of the threat.
Their defence is in fine form at the moment, having registered three clean sheets in the last four matches. Those have come against Southampton, Bournemouth and Swansea, all of whom have admittedly been in poor form, but as the old cliché goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Palace are unbeaten in six and won’t be scared of Chelsea.
For a team with that decent a recent record in defence, they have allowed a lot of shots on their goal. Only the hapless Newcastle United and Sunderland have let the opposition shoot more than Palace this season, which is somewhat embarrassing. Frankly, they can’t keep letting the opposition have so many shots and avoiding an absolute thrashing.
Most obviously, they need a goalscorer. Cabaye is currently the top scorer with five but three of those were penalties, while two of next highest scorer Bolasie’s four came against Newcastle, and goals against Newcastle shouldn’t count. Crystal Palace’s top four shooters are Sako, Bolasie, Cabaye and Wickham, all taking around 2 shots per game – none will be available against Chelsea. Former Arsenal man Marouane Chamakh should start as the number nine. Helpfully for Chelsea, he is rubbish at football. All things considered, it makes no sense that Patrick Bamford couldn’t get a game.
It’s almost impossible to predict starting lineups at the end of the Christmas period, when squad rotation and unexpected, unannounced injuries ruin everything, but Palace’s squad is fairly thin and their injury list is long enough to leave them with few options. As for Chelsea: who knows?
On paper this is a toughie. On grass Chelsea will walk it. 4-0 and loads of fun.