The Season So Far
To say it could have gone better is among the biggest understatements imaginable. It’s now mid-October and Crystal Palace are yet to register their first point and, worse still, yet to even score a goal. One manager, the incredibly unsuited Frank De Boer, has been fired after four dismal games, and his successor, the avuncular but uninspiring Roy Hodgson, has been 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 Chelsea.
Meanwhile, key attackers Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke have gone down injured and suddenly Palace find themselves without spark on the flanks or a recognised number nine when they most need them. Similarly, tweaking with the defence in the hopes that things shore up has only left the backline unable to settle, and the overriding feeling is that the Eagles’ season is close to being over before it ever had a chance to begin.
Certainly, to escape 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 the visit from Chelsea, Crystal Palace can look at the fixture list and say that almost all of the most difficult games are out of the way. Indeed, bar a home game against Tottenham in gameweek eleven, they have a run of winnable fixtures up to Christmas, and if they can start to put a run together, they could yet lift themselves away from trouble – even after such a terrible start to the season, they’re only five points away from safety.
There’s reason to believe that the appointment of Roy Hodgson will prove to be a canny one: his well-known, pragmatic and relatively unambitious methods are certainly more suited to the players at his disposal than Frank De Boer’s Ajax-school ideas. We really shouldn’t be too surprised if, when their key players are back from injury, Palace begin to look far more cohesive and get results.
Hodgson has thus far played 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 on the flanks.
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 game, seeking a clean sheet and a home point. With Zaha and Benteke out, the pacy and powerful but otherwise useless Jeffrey Schlupp has played on the left and Bakary Sako, most definitely not a striker, has played up front. That says it all.
The good news is Palace certainly aren’t as dreadful as results suggest. Their attacking output has been solid, with 11.9 shots per game putting them firmly midtable among Premier League clubs, while 14.1 shots against per game is not among the very lowest figures. Their expected goals ratio, 38.5%, puts them 15th. Basically, we can’t expect them to keep missing gilt-edged chances and gifting their opponents goals.
To take a case in point, 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: 2.4 shots on target per game is the Premier League’s third lowest figure and they’ve allowed their opponents 6.3 shots on target per game, easily 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 a noticeable upturn in form.
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 Chelsea. It’s hard not to feel that if Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend don’t produce the goods, then no-one will – they’re simply not capable of doing so.
Centre-back Dann may miss out due to injury and Joel Ward faces competition from Timothy Fosu-Mensah for the right-back spot. Besides that, there don’t seem to be too many doubts.
As for Chelsea, with a Champions League game against Roma coming up this week, we shouldn’t be surprised if Antonio Conte shuffles his pack — especially with Palace posing so little threat at the moment. That said, we’ll assume he plays his strongest available eleven for now.
If this isn’t a hugely comfortable 3-0 win for Chelsea, Antonio Conte is going to be furious.