The Season So Far
Let’s just say Crystal Palace’s season hasn’t gone as planned. The spectacularly unsuited totaalvoetbalmeister Frank De Boer was hired to take charge of Palace’s rag-tag bunch of journeymen and then fired after four dismal games in charge. 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 only left the backline less able to settle. The overriding feeling was that their season was close to being over before it ever had a chance to begin. Goalless, let alone winless, after seven games of the season, this was apparently curtains for the Eagles.
Not so - the majority of the season since has seen the Eagles soar, performing to their potential, achieving excellent results and just about pulling clear of danger. A recent raft of injuries, however, has meant a crashing return to Earth and the bottom three. With so many players out injured and with so many difficult games ahead, survival is back in the balance and despite already having achieved one great escape this season, another is now needed.
The Season Ahead
The good news for Palace fans is that their side seems to have goals in it no matter who’s out injured. Christian Benteke is apparently in the most wretched form of his life and yet still seems to score or assist on a regular basis (we’ll leave the missed sitters and penalties to one side). James McArthur has developed a happy knack of arriving late in the box to finish, while left-back Patrick Van Aanholt always has a screamer in him and Andros Townsend may be an Expected Goals nightmare but he still manages to find the back of the net every so often, and his talent and drive with the ball is undeniably a useful asset. Even their holding midfielder, Luka Milovojević, has a decent shot on him and is nerveless from the penalty spot.
Furthermore, it’s obvious that Roy Hodgson is the right man for this job: his well-known, pragmatic and relatively unambitious methods are certainly more suited to Palace’s limited players and simple aim of Premier League survival than Frank De Boer’s free-jazz Ajax-school ideas.
The bad news is they’re running out of steam and running out of players at the same time that their relegation rivals are coming into form and surging up the table. Their entire first choice back four is injured, their two first-team goalkeepers are injured, their club captain is injured, their best midfielder is injured, and their best winger is injured. Their hopes of survival rest entirely on putting a run together in April.
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 or fragile confidence 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. Hodgson moved on to Plan B, which was a more familiar, boxier 4-4-2/4-2-4 with not just one false nine but two: the pacy and creative Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend were both given roaming attacking briefs, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jeffrey Schlupp driving forward to support.
Now that Benteke is back, his confidence seems low and Palace seemed intent on using Zaha’s verve and creativity as a second striker to conjure something out of nothing and for a time it worked. Now that injury has done for Zaha (as well as Sako, Loftus-Cheek and Cabaye), Hodgson has gone back to a very boxy 4-4-2 with Benteke and fellow target-man Alexander Sørloth as conventional number nines with Andros Townsend on the right and fit again Jeff Schlupp on the left.
One yearns to see what type of side Hodgson would put out given a full strength squad to choose from, and what kind of system he’d play given the talent at his disposal. We’ll probably have to wait until next season to find out, and if Palace go down it’s obvious that the subsequent drain of talent from Selhurst Park would knock that dream squarely on the head.
The good news is Palace certainly aren’t as dreadful as results or their season as a whole suggest. Their attacking output has been solid, with 12.8 shots per game the Premier League’s seventh highest figure, while they’ve gotten better and better at balancing things and shutting the opposition out: 12.1 shots against per game is the division’s ninth lowest record and only marginally worse than Manchester United’s figure.
Only the top six rank higher for Expected Goals this season and if we look at Understat.com’s Expected Points tool, only Leicester better Crystal Palace as the best of the rest in the Premier League. These are far from the figures of a soon-to-be-relegated team and if Palace go down it won’t be because they didn’t put up a fight or because they couldn’t score goals.
While they’re position is unenviable and their survival hopes depend on their ability to take points off of their fellow strugglers in April and May, there’s no reason not to back Palace as favourites in almost all of those games. They’re so obviously good enough to hit the back of the net and put that required run of wins together.
While it’s certainly true that their raw output is good, they’re certainly suffering for errors in both boxes: 3.8 shots on target per game is way below what they’re capable of – Bournemouth and Newcastle have had more efforts on target this season – and only three sides have allowed their opponents more shots on target. Such sloppiness at both ends of the pitch is the most obvious reason why Palace remain where they are.
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 four games in five against the Premier League’s superclubs. If they stay up, Palace will have several individuals worth tying down to longer contracts, but also lots of deadwood that needs shifting.
With such a colossal injury list at the moment it’s less a case of who Hodgson decides to pick and more who is available to pick.
Antonio Conte will surely go back to the 3-4-2-1 in a game Chelsea simply have to win (and enjoy winning as well).
Anything other than a thumping Chelsea win here will be a surprise.