It may have taken a bit longer than expected, but the Allardyce effect is starting to take hold at Palace.
When all hope was seemingly lost following the rout at the hands of Sunderland, two wins, and two clean sheets ahead of another small break has put our favourite strugglers in with a fighting chance of survival.
It has been refreshing to see such bite and aggression pumped back into the side that so often looked spineless in early parts of the season. While immediate plaudits have gone to new additions Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic for their early performances, Allardyce’s work is starting to pay dividends.
Perhaps Big Sam’s biggest success has been one of his more difficult decisions, in dropping Scott Dann in favour of the on-loan Liverpool starlet, who has been at the core of Palace’s new found defensive solidity.
While Scott Dann remains the official club captain and a fan favourite, it is hard to argue that his performances haven’t suffered since the armband was given to him at the beginning of the season.
It seems a burden for him to carry. While he put in some outstanding performances in the last number of seasons, he is hardly noted for his big on the field presence, and as the games wore on his confidence seemed to wain in tandem.
Tellingly, there was a game earlier this season at Selhurst against Chelsea that demonstrated why Scott Dann was not a suitable recipient of the armband. As Palace’s form was in the middle of deterioration, Wilfried Zaha exploded with frustration following the concession of a free kick. The subject of his ire was not just the referee, but also other teammates.
Joel Ward, the nearest to him at the time, unsuccessfully tried to calm our star asset down. It wasn’t going unnoticed and a warning from the referee did little to diffuse the situation. Palace, in the middle of preparing to defend a free-kick down the left-hand side, were being thrown into disarray. Scott Dann, the captain, entered the fold to try and bring Zaha to his senses.
Alarmingly, instruction from the Palace captain did little to bring Zaha around. The Ivory Coast international was losing it, and his head was as far away from defending a free kick as it would ever be. It took James McArthur’s intervention to knock sense into Zaha, some stern words and direct instruction to form a wall and focus on the task in hand bringing Zaha back down to earth eventually.
One might argue that it may be difficult to handle Wilf, who at the time was standing head and shoulders above his teammates in terms of performances on the pitch this season. Perhaps he was frustrated that his colleagues were simply not matching his own efforts in the fight against the drop. But what captain, in all honesty, is unable to take control of a situation involving one of his younger teammates?
Sections of the support hammered Alan Pardew when Mile Jedinak was stripped of the captaincy before being forced out of the club at the beginning of the season. And rightly so. Jedinak embodied leadership, and players lined up behind him to fight during games. While his playing ability did dwindle over time, he was a driving force in so many of our hard-fought wins in the last couple of seasons.
While Allardyce hasn’t stripped Dann of the captaincy, you wouldn’t be met with the same sort of arguments if he did. Since taking the armband, Jason Puncheon has grown again in stature, partly afforded to him by the arrival of Luka, but partly because he embraces the leadership mantle thrust upon him. Speak to Palace players about leaders in the dressing room and on the pitch, and Puncheon’s name gets mentioned. Indeed, it was Alan Pardew who singled out Puncheon as a candidate to pursue a coaching or management career after his playing days.
Don’t confuse this as a snipe at Scott Dann. It absolutely is not. But it would be interesting to see how Dann’s performances would differ were the weight of captaincy not dragging him down. Would Dann manage to find the form that put him in England contention for so long since signing for the club? I believe it would, but his confidence appears to have taken a severe knock in the abysmal run of form Palace have endured this season.
It doesn’t have to be seen as a sign of weakness to admit as much. In rugby, Sam Warburton stepped down as Wales captain as he felt he could perform better without it. Whether that is the case or not, only time will tell, but having the strength to be honest with yourself regarding a matter like that is admirable.
Puncheon and McArthur strike fans as the obvious candidates, and it seems Allardyce agrees. How this plays out is anyone’s guess, but do we really care who wears the armband if we keep winning? Probably not. But if it ain’t currently broke, don’t fix it.