The Season So Far
Crystal Palace’s season has not gone to plan so far. The wheels haven’t come off quite as spectacularly as they did last year, when Frank De Boer was sent packing after seven goalless, winless games, but nonetheless results have been disappointing, and a very kind set of opening fixtures has been and gone without many points being put on the board. Hugely important home games against Southampton, Newcastle and Wolves have yielded a single point without any goals being scored. A sense of dread is growing as the long Premier League winter begins.
Popular manager Roy Hodgson surely has enough credit in the bank to ride out the storm, but he has some serious work cut out for him in the coming months. The Eagles are hardly a bad side — there’s not much wrong tactically and in Mamadou Sakho and Wilfried Zaha they have two of the best non-Big-Six players in the division — but long-standing minor problems have piled up to undermine their collective efforts, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if Palace are active in the January transfer window.
The Season Ahead
November doesn’t look like bringing Palace much joy, with games against Tottenham and Manchester United following this weekend’s clash against Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea. With non-penalty goals hard to come by, it’s entirely plausible that the Eagles go into the Christmas period stuck firmly in a relegation battle.
That said, Palace looked much more threatening in last weekend’s clash against Arsenal, and maybe the fact that they’ll be expected to lose every week will liberate them to play above themselves in the coming weeks. Additionally, defensive lynchpin and important source of set-piece goals Scott Dann is due to return to first-team action after a ten-month absence, and if Dann and Sakho can reprise their defensive heroics of last season, then that in itself could change the course of Palace’s season.
For most of last season and this, Roy Hodgson has used a strikerless 4-4-2 with Zaha and Andros Townsend playing as nominal forwards with no fixed position. Zaha typically gravitates to the left flank and terrorises the opposition right-back, while Townsend drifts to the right and plays as though he’s convinced he’s Arjen Robben. Not actually being Arjen Robben is something of a hindrance, however, and means that almost all of Townsend’s cut-inside-and-shoot-from-distance drives end up in the stands.
In recent weeks, Hodgson has moved to a kind of hybrid asymmetrical 4-4-2/4-3-3 setup, with Jordan Ayew acting as a more orthodox focal point in the centre of the final third, giving Zaha and Townsend options besides going it alone all the time because there’s no-one in the middle to pass to. While Ayew is far from the most reliable finisher around, the change of shape’s impact on Palace’s attack last week was notable and we should expect Hodgson to keep the same shape this week.
While results have been categorically bad and their league position is only going to get worse for the next month or so, there’s really no reason to see Crystal Palace as one of the Premier League’s three worst sides. Their defensive numbers are actually pretty good: mid-table across the board, and actually second in the table for tackles made. They don’t allow a huge number of shots on their goal, their keeper isn’t forced into action any more often than the average team, and Expected Goals (xG), Expected Goals Against (xGA) and Expected Points (xPTS) place them firmly in mid-table. As we’d expect from any side that’s been managed by Hodgson for more than a year, this is a decent defensive outfit.
In attack, there’s plenty to get excited by, at least for the flair-loving neutral. Only Manchester City have attempted more dribbles and made more successful dribbles this season. The obvious reason for that is Wilfried Zaha, who sits third behind Eden Hazard and Nathan Redmond for dribbles made this season. Townsend and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have also caught the eye. It will be a far from pleasant afternoon for César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso.
Palace’s Achilles heel is their low attacking output. Only three Premier League teams have scored fewer goals so far this season and it’s obvious why: they neither shoot often enough nor well enough. Only six teams have taken fewer shots or had fewer on target than Palace this season, and only catastrophically bad shooters Southampton have underperformed by a wider margin against Expected Goals — Palace have scored seven goals vs 11.72 xG.
Of course, it would be easier to improve things if their attack wasn’t so predictable: with almost everything going through Zaha or an overlap on the left flank, and with no clinical striker to worry about in the middle, Palace are very easy to set up against. Their Plan B is uninspiring at best so they just keep going with Plan A, and as such they go nowhere, attacks petering out before getting anywhere near the opposition goal: only two teams have made more unsuccessful dribbles, no team has been dispossessed in possession more often, and only three teams have turned the ball over with bad touches more times than Palace this season.
Unless Jordan Ayew somehow explodes into form (don’t bet on it), or Christian Benteke comes back from injury absolutely rejuvenated, having put the numerous horrors of the last few years behind him, the Eagles are going to have to find a new number nine in January.
No surprises on either side.
If Eden Hazard plays, this should be a stroll in the park. If Eden Hazard doesn’t play, it should be a slightly less enjoyable stroll in the park.