There are not many clubs in world football who could lose their first four games without scoring, subsequently sack the manager that was only appointed just a few months before, then proceed in replacing him with what many perceive to be an underwhelming choice.
The new boss then goes on to lose the next three without scoring before beating the reigning champions, lose two of the next three but then go a club-record seven games unbeaten.
Palace’s opening eighteen games this season have symbolised the continuous cycle that the club has followed since promotion in 2013. Positivity can often be turned negatively very quickly, before an even more sudden and perhaps unforeseen turn of fortune.
Frank de Boer’s appointment sparked optimism after Sam Allardyce had steadied a ship that Alan Pardew had done his best to capsize. A disciple of Johan Cruyff who promised progressive football. But the Dutchman’s brief spell was troubled, losing those first four games and the confidence in his ability to reverse the predicament swiftly decreased. His sacking at the time seemed harsh but, in hindsight, it was the correct decision.
The club now seems to be in a settled state following the shambles under de Boer. A big reason for that is the previously mentioned underwhelming appointment, Roy Hodgson, has been a big success.
The former England boss has steered the Eagles out of the relegation zone and has overseen all seventeen points earned this season. His impact draws many comparisons with that of Allardyce a year ago, and not just because both tenures have followed stints with the Three Lions and both have had points to prove following those spells. Allardyce proved his point; he needed a fresh start following the unfortunate nature of his England exit and a Palace side in trouble following Pardew’s sacking was an excellent opportunity to do exactly that. Hodgson is beginning to do the same.
The most striking comparison between Hodgson and Allardyce is their simplified methods both provide success. Allardyce’s Palace side were very structured, often wrongly perceived as boring, and it worked as the former Sunderland boss guided Palace to fourteenth having taken over when the South Londoners presided in the relegation zone. Allardyce has his own blueprint for survival and implemented it superbly at Palace. The Eagles were strong defensively, attacked well and scored plenty of goals. It certainly wasn’t the long-ball Allardyce stereotype that many outsiders seemed to want to spin.
Palace’s 3-0 victory against Leicester City on Saturday was a masterclass in simplified football. It was a stark contrast to the complicated approach under de Boer, where many players seemed both unhappy and completely confused. Hodgson nullified the threat of Jamie Vardy at the King Power Stadium by moving the back four higher up the pitch and having a smaller gap between the defence and midfield. Leicester’s players were closed down quickly to decrease the number of direct passes and Jeffrey Schlupp pushed former team-mate Riyad Mahrez back towards his own goal.
Preventing the Foxes was a defining factor in winning the game and Wilfried Zaha’s performance was equally as important. Hodgson, like Allardyce did last season, has given the Ivorian more freedom, allowing him to roam around Christian Benteke in an unfamiliar centre forward role. Claude Puel’s side were unable to cope with Zaha’s movement and trickery, exemplified by his blind-side run and step-over for his goal.
Hodgson deserves credit for persevering with the strike partnership of Zaha and Benteke. In its early stages it seemed forced and unable to work. Against Brighton, neither seemed able to play to their partner’s strengths like they did last season when Zaha played out wide, but there are now obvious signs of a partnership thriving. Against Leicester they both seemed to complement each other perfectly. Zaha moved around Benteke with more fluidity and purpose, while every flick-on and pass from the Belgian seemed to find his partner.
Palace’s second goal proved the partnership can work long-term. Zaha created space for Benteke to carry the ball into, the latter drew Leicester defenders towards the ball and rolled the ball to Zaha, whose step-over fooled Ben Chilwell and he fired low to Kasper Schmeichel’s right. Three weeks ago, Zaha may not have created the space, Benteke may not have had the confidence to run at Leicester’s defence and neither may have trusted the other to create the goal. But Hodgson has trusted the pair and clearly coached the relationship extremely well.
Hodgson has been a symbol of patience and calmness since his arrival. He held back in interviews when interrogated on the penalty that Benteke missed against Bournemouth when he could have publicly rinsed the striker. He didn’t, and Benteke has produced two good performances since and scored his first goal of the season against Leicester. Hodgson’s man-management skills are a product of his 41 years in management. He has coached some of the very best and very worst footballers among various footballing cultures, dealing with a variety of people who have different needs.
The 70-year-old has overseen the vast improvement of several players. Yohan Cabaye, Joel Ward and Andros Townsend have each been excellent under Hodgson’s stewardship following poor starts to the season. He also made the bold but correct decision to drop club captain and fans’ favourite Jason Puncheon. It is clear that players enjoy playing for him and that cannot be said of previous managers at Selhurst Park.
There is also a sense that Hodgson ‘gets’ Palace. The ‘journey’ narrative and fans reminding others ‘look how far we’ve come’ is often tedious but Hodgson understands where the club has come from having supported the club since a young age; his stories of standing on the Holmesdale Road terraces relate to many supporters. It’s a similar situation that Pardew entered at Palace – fans bought his genuine affection for the club and it meant the relationship between Pardew and Palace supporters was good until they lost faith twelve months ago.
Hodgson’s appointment was originally viewed as another short-term fix but he could be in charge much longer. Palace need a period of stability having been through seven different managers since promotion and Hodgson can provide it.
There is still over half a season to play, but having attempted to be more progressive with the appointment of de Boer it is clear that a manager of Hodgson’s calibre is better suited to the current Palace side. A victory against Swansea City on Saturday would take Palace to twenty points and on target to reach the ‘magic’ forty – a remarkable feat given the record-breaking poor start to the season, and much of it is down to Hodgson.