The Season So Far
The most that Crystal Palace could have hoped for before the season started was that they wouldn’t be in relegation danger going into the winter, and in that regard Roy Hodgson’s Eagles are flying high. They come to Stamford Bridge ninth in the table, seven points clear of the drop zone and having won at Old Trafford and rescued a 2-2 draw at the Emirates. Palace fans must be wondering if their momentum could possibly carry them towards an unexpected push for European football.
This was not in the script. Having made minimal visible improvements to the squad over the summer — signing Gary Cahill on a free, James McCarthy for peanuts and making Jordan Ayew’s loan from Swansea permanent — as well as losing Aaron Wan-Bissaka and coming within a whisker of losing Wilfried Zaha, Palace were seen as potential relegation candidates and Hodgson was seen as a man inviting pressure on himself.
Admittedly, it hasn’t been a walk in the park. Palace have been given reality checks by defeats against Sheffield United, Manchester City and Leicester, and getting thumped by a Tottenham side seemingly incapable of playing well reminded everyone at Selhurst Park how low their standards can be when they’re allowed to slip.
On the whole, however, this has been a low-key triumph thus far. Gary Cahill is enjoying a veritable Indian summer marshalling the defence, while Jordan Ayew looks every bit the part as a fox-in-the-box foil for Zaha, who himself has been as effective as ever at unpicking opposition defences and keeping Palace in the opposition half.
The Season Ahead
Going forward, the aim has to be keeping this good run going for as long as possible. A good run in the FA Cup may offer Zaha the shot at glory he craves, but the principal focus will be on securing a top half finish and getting as close as possible to the Europa League places — this may have sounded fanciful just a few short weeks ago, but there’s reason to believe the Eagles can soar that high at the moment.
After this weekend comes the international break and their next game back is at home to Liverpool. Out of consecutive fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool, we’d usually expect Palace to maybe draw one of those games — but, having beaten Manchester United and drawn against Arsenal, the prospect of further upsets is foremost in Hodgson’s mind. Once those games are out of the way, Crystal Palace have a clear run of winnable games well into January 2020. The potential is there for a Europa League push.
As one of the Premier League’s have-nots, Palace are almost obliged to play relatively unadventurous, counter-attacking football. Only three teams average less possession and only two teams have had fewer shots, and only Jordan Ayew averages two shots per game or more.
Since his second month in charge, Hodgson has employed a kind of asymmetrical 4-4-2/4-3-3 setup, with Ayew acting as a fixed focal point in the centre of the final third, giving Zaha and Townsend passing and crossing options where before all they could do was go it alone. Ayew is far from the most reliable finisher around, but under Hodgson’s tutelage he has grown into his role and, since changing to this system, Palace have enjoyed an unlikely and smooth journey into happy midtable comfort.
Wilfried Zaha is the obvious danger man, leading Palace’s counter-attacks down the flanks. He starts on the left but will drift across to the right if he finds that he’s having little joy against the opposition right-back. Behind Zaha, former Blue Patrick Van Aanholt is a wonderful overlapper on the left and there’s even an argument for saying he’s Palace’s best one-on-one finisher, while Jeff Schlupp and James McArthur do excellent work balancing the midfield and covering against counter-attacks.
As ever with Roy Hodgson’s teams, Palace are well organised, perfectly balanced and hard to break down. Every player knows his responsibilities both individually and collectively and thus the team is greater than the sum of its parts. With talents as diverse and unpredictable as Zaha, Van Aanholt and Ayew, it would have been easy for Palace to become a chaotic, “you score four, we’ll score five” kind of side, but Hodgson has moulded them into a humble, hard-working and dependable midtable side.
In terms of attack, their biggest weapon is the guile and creativity of Zaha. While his endless, physics-defying dribbles attract defenders and destabilise opponents’ structure, he’s added the capacity to play subtle, damaging passes and he can now see three or four steps ahead in the way that all genuinely world-class players can. Palace could keep hold of him last summer, but surely come June another transfer request will be coming in.
Zaha’s genius in and around the box has led to what Chelsea fans will recognise as ‘the Eden Hazard Treatment’ — only Jack Grealish has been fouled more than Zaha this season, but this has its upsides: they get an absolute tonne of penalties. Luka Milivojevic has scored 21 Premier League penalties for Palace and he’s only on 98 appearances for the club.
Most good counter-attacking teams specialise in sucking up pressure before landing a knockout blow. Burnley are a specialist ‘smash and grab’ side and we have come to expect the Clarets to overperform versus most statistical measures over the course of a season. However, most regress to the mean and we should expect Palace to slide down the table before long. Understat’s Expected Points feature puts Palace in 17th place based on Expected Goals in each of their games so far. Their overperformance in terms of individual results is small but significant, as the drop from 9th to 17th shows.
They’re simply too defensive and not prolific enough in terms of chance creation. Take away penalties and Palace’s goal threat is surprisingly minimal. None of their midfielders is especially threatening from range and Ayew’s finishing, while much improved, could quickly go back to absolutely untrustworthy before long. There’s also injuries to be factored in, and Palace’s squad is too thin to cope with more injuries than they’ve endured up to now, with Mamadou Sakho and Andros Townsend out.
Jorginho is suspended but N’Golo Kanté is back to take his place. Mason Mount will undergo a late fitness test but he could be due a rest anyway, with Callum Hudson-Odoi, Pedro and Willian vying for Premier League minutes.
As for Palace, Gary Cahill, Cheikhou Kouyaté and James McArthur all face battles against knocks and none is certain to be available.
A lot depends on who Palace are able to put on the pitch. If Cahill is fit the Chelsea legend could frustrate the Blues. If not, Palace will surely be writing this one off before it’s begun.