Half Term Report: Real Progress But Hard Work Yet To Come
With the Premier League well over half way through its fixture list and focus turning to the FA Cup this weekend, it is time to take stock and assess exactly where Palace find themselves after more than twenty games.
Just as is the usual Palace way, the 2017/18 season has not been plain sailing. In fact, it has been a very rough ride since opening day of the new season. It had all the hopes and dreams of what a consecutive season in the top division may bring, the only difference was that a new man was at the helm with plenty of promise, looking to write a new chapter and future for the club.
Little did we know how those first few months of the season would pan out.
August – Not Kind To De Boer
The final friendly of pre-season, Palace took on German outfit Schalke at Selhurst Park which for many was the first look of this new regime that had been brought in to replace Sam Allardyce. The game ended in a draw and the 3-4-3 formation that de Boer was installing throughout the club was put into practice far better by the Bundesliga side than Palace themselves. It was early days, and time was needed for the players to adapt to the new style.
Opening day and newly promoted Huddersfield were the visitors along with all the hype that follows a new team to the Premier League. The tough tackling Terriers did a real job on the hosts that afternoon and returned to North Yorkshire with all three points in their back pocket after a 3-0 win. The media absolutely revelled in the result as you would expect.
The pressure was immediately on de Boer to get things right and quickly. It was a loss and sometimes such results happen on opening day particularly where newly promoted clubs are concerned. A trip to Anfield beckoned and many fans thought the worst, but Palace performed admirably in a narrow 1-0 loss in a game where the formation worked for the most part. A little faith was restored.
A midweek laboured win over Ipswich Town in the cup followed which got the Dutchman and Palace off the mark but a home defeat to Swansea City straight after meant that Palace had begun the season with three leagues defeats in a row and no goals scored. Questions were already being asked.
September – End of De Boer, Hodgson Appointed
Rumours were rife that De Boer only had one game left to impress. That game was at Turf Moor against a Burnley side who were flying after an excellent start to the season and in front of the visiting US owners, ominously watching on. Palace absolutely battered the home side in their best performance of the season so far, peppering the hosts goal with shots throughout. But the game was lost courtesy of a horrendous back pass by Chung Yong-Lee which was the story of the season so far. There was no evidence to suggest the players were not playing for De Boer but his time was up.
That signalled the end of the Dutchman’s short reign at Palace and the media were highly critical of the decision being made so soon. The fact remains, the run of fixtures that followed were tough and it was likely that instead of four games without a win, it could well end up being eight games without a win which could be a position extremely difficult to recover from.
Former England manager Roy Hodgson was appointed in time to take his place in the dugout to take on Southampton. With little time on the training ground to share his views and ideas, it was an improved performance against the South Coast side but Hodgson could not prevent another defeat for the Eagles.
The first win in the Hodgson era came at Selhurst in the cup against Huddersfield Town which went some way of relieving the pain of opening day but more importantly, wins breed confidence. Any such positivity was shattered in two consecutive trips to Manchester which resulted in hefty defeats leaving Palace with seven losses in seven Premier League games and no goals scored. Hodgson must have wondered at this point why on earth he took the job on.
October – Slow Improvements But Signs Of Progress
In what turned out to be a month of transition began with plenty of joy for Palace fans with a home win over champions Chelsea. A fixture that was seen as a ‘free hit’ by many was deemed as a possible turning point for this Palace side. It was no coincidence that this game signalled the return of the influential Wilfried Zaha from the injury he picked up on opening day.
With a spring in the step and an air of confidence, the Eagles took on Newcastle United at St James’ Park where they succumbed to a late, late goal which handed them an eighth league defeat of the season. There were still positives in defeat but a midweek loss in the cup at Bristol City encouraged fans concerns to get the better of them again.
The final game of the month saw the visit of West Ham United who themselves were struggling early in the season. With their own boss Slaven Bilic under pressure, the Hammers took a healthy two goal lead into the break. While the win against Chelsea may have prematurely suggested the Palace fight back was on, the second half against West Ham was the start of the recovery which ended in the Eagles showing pride and passion to level things up with the last kick of the game.
November – Hodgson Impact Clear For All To See
The performances continued, a terrific showing at Wembley Stadium ended in a narrow defeat with a goal scored very much against the run of play after Zaha had missed a golden opportunity. It was a loss but with plenty of positives which were carried into the home game with Everton which will always be remembered for the game that saw the first Premier League player banned for diving. It was to no advantage of Palace however as the action secured a point for the visitors.
With the inconsistent Stoke City the next visitors to Selhurst Park, Palace made up for only managing a point against Everton. They had to do it the hard way after going a goal behind early in the second-half. Once again, the Eagles showed plenty of fight to get all three points with captain Mamadou Sakho getting the winner late on.
The month ended with a goalless draw in the much hyped derby game against Brighton which made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. However, that was three games unbeaten ahead of a hectic December and a far cry from the form at the beginning of the season.
December – Unbeaten Run Ended During Hectic Month
A hard earned draw at the Hawthorns against West Bromwich Albion was followed up by another point at home to Bournemouth which could have been so much more had Christian Benteke scored from the penalty spot after controversially taking the ball off Luka Milivojevic.
It was the late, late show again at home to Watford in the midweek game that followed. A goal down early on in the game and destined to become another defeat, Palace rallied after the visitors went down to ten men. Inspired by substitute Bakary Sako, the hosts raised the roof with a two goal salvo to steal all three points.
An out of sorts Benteke put in one of his best performances on the road at Leicester in what turned out to be an impressive win in front of the live television cameras. The only down side was a fifth booking for the Belgian which meant he missed for the trip to Swansea which was a match Palace were well on their way to winning but for a speculative equaliser for the hosts.
The two games to see out the year were ominous but the Eagles faced Arsenal on an unbeaten run that had been stretched to eight games. The Gunners came to South London in the mood for a win and the hosts looked to pay them a little too much respect in the first-half and there were times where Palace had them on the rack but unfortunately it was the class that secured the visitors all three points to end the unbeaten run.
Seeing out the year as hosts to the champions elect had many predicting a hefty loss for Palace, but an extremely spirited performance secured a point to stop City’s winning run. One loss in ten games was a very good record to end the year on a high, as the fight to climb out of the bottom three had been accomplished.
With Palace securing a superb midweek win at Southampton to kick off 2018 in style, making it just one defeat in the Premier League in eleven games, boss Roy Hodgson has successfully steered the club away from the bottom three. A lot of hard work, passion and commitment has got the side to this point and without denying there is plenty more required between now and the end of the season, the plaudits are deserved considering the almighty handicap that Hodgson inherited.
The bold appointment of De Boer was made with all the best intentions. It was a stick or twist situation and while there were signs at Burnley that things could turn around, the just as bold decision to sack the Dutchman was made. What has so far proved to be an inspired choice, former Liverpool and Inter Milan boss was appointed and while it took a few games to get acquainted with both the squad and the situation, it has started to pay dividends.
It has been a quite topsy-turvy start to the season but we have to be thankful that Palace were ever really left rooted at the bottom of the table after what was a poor start to the season. That suggests that there are and will be a number of clubs in and around the bottom three for most of the season.
In terms of players, Zaha has been outstanding and proving that he is critical to this Palace side. The goalkeeping position has been far from ideal but has been better in recent games. James Tomkins has proved that he is the player we hoped he’d be given a run of games while loanees Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have both been a success. Injury to Mamadou Sakho has been unfortunate while fellow Frenchman Yohan Cabaye remains that touch of class but is a concern when not seeing games out, but he is an integral part of this side.
Andros Townsend still goes missing every now and again but you cannot fault his work rate and effort, just like James McArthur who we just know what we get from. Milivojevic has been terrific in the middle of the park, a real warrior in the midfield, not afraid to battle with anyone.
The full-back positions have been more of a problem than we expected having not had a player settled in either slot, Joel Ward and Fosu-Mensah sharing duties on the right while Jeffrey Schlupp pinned down starts on the left over Patrick van Aanholt. The loss of Scott Dann will be difficult but Martin Kelly has stepped up into the centre back role in the absence of Sakho as well. Finally, onto Benteke. Yes, he has struggled particularly not having another striking outlet other than the much improved Sako from the bench, but the work rate is still there as is his place in this team. He needs help, Hodgson will know only too well, and that help is expected to arrive at some point this month.
There is plenty more football still to play and lots of points up for grabs so the hard work that has got Palace to this point has to continue. The pride, passion and belief that the players have shown on the pitch and the faith that Hodgson has shown in this group must continue.
Two or three additions in the transfer window, maybe more with the injury news on Scott Dann and Jason Puncheon, will share the load after what has been a tiring run of games. Hodgson will be pleased to have got the club into such a decent position now that the transfer window is here, far better than he perhaps expected but he will be all to well aware that this is no time to be resting on any laurels.