Batsman To The Rescue But Palace’s Short-Term Fixes Are Sign Of Things To Come
In the end it wasn’t so bad at all. As the clock approached half past midnight on the first day of February, Palace had added a promising young goalkeeper in Lucas Perri, brought back Bakary Sako from West Brom and – in Stevie P time – signed the striker fans had been craving.
Waking up on Friday morning, however, it was difficult not to wonder what the reaction might have been had Michy Batshuayi’s signature not been secured. After all, it was only some twelve hours earlier that Palace fans were lamenting reports that Roy Hodgson was happy with his squad and that Steve Parish would subsequently be closing his cheque book for at least another five months.
The fact of the matter is that signing a player of Batshuayi’s calibre instantly transformed what looked like being an underwhelming transfer window into a positive one. Like the five thousand gathered around Jesus waiting to be fed, we had spent the previous 31 days in January clinging to any semblance of news Michael Bridge would throw our way, while simultaneously pining for a report in The Mirror to somehow morph into a tacky announcement video. More often than not though, all those rumours did was make people angry as they failed to come to fruition.
First came the link with Dominic Solanke, who Parish not-so-cryptically revealed to BeIN Sports would likely be joining the club on loan not long after the window opened. Less than a week later, the Liverpool man joined Bournemouth for £19million. Then came the annual stories linking the club with Oumar Niasse, Cenk Tosun and James McCarthy, followed on deadline day by the even more bizarre suggestion that Palace might move for Saido Berahino. By that point, perhaps, anyone would do.
The problem with holding high expectations is that more often than not you end up disappointed. The January transfer window in particular is becoming increasingly turgid, making it unrealistic to expect teams like Palace to make the kind of transformative signings usually reserved for the summer.
Before the announcement of Batshuayi, Palace’s transfer window was in danger of being labelled everything from disastrous to shambolic, but it would be wrong to think that the Eagles are the only ones that have started to tighten the purse strings in January. This window saw Premier League clubs spend less than half of last year’s total for the same month, and only 15 signings were made between the current bottom seven – with many of those being loan deals and a number unlikely to feature in the first team before the end of the season.
Sky Sports and its hyperbolic coverage might try to convince us otherwise, but January has become a gap-plugging window where clubs are either unwilling to sell or reluctant to gamble. Most teams will choose stick over twist unless something significant like relegation is at stake. The last time Palace felt truly threatened by that prospect, back at the start of 2017, they spent upwards of a combined £20million on Jeffrey Schlupp and Patrick van Aanholt, £14million on Luka Milivojevic and brought in Mamadou Sakho on loan.
On this occasion, Palace’s move for Batshuayi wasn’t overly shrewd, nor was it an act of last-minute panic. The Eagles simply profited from an opportune moment. Chelsea had spent much of the window trying to offload the Belgian, while Palace were known to be in need of a goalscorer. Once the Blues had priced Tottenham – one of their rivals for the top four – out of a move for Batshuayi, there were likely few other places he could go. In the end, it was a marriage of convenience for all parties.
Now, in Batshuayi, Palace have secured arguably the best goalscorer that was available in January. The 25-year-old arrives in South London on the back of a difficult spell with Valencia, but has netted one goal in just under every three games during his time as a professional footballer. The only question mark will be whether he can reproduce those statistics for a bottom half team having spent much of his career with more dominant sides who naturally create more chances for him – although that didn’t appear to be a problem during his cameo against Fulham.
Most importantly, Palace have given themselves options in attack. Hodgson has spent too long this season relying on a core of 13 or 14 players, but the returns of Connor Wickham and Christian Benteke combined with the arrivals of Batshuayi and Sako mean he should no longer have to.
More intriguing, perhaps, is that Palace’s January window has provided us with a glimpse into what the future might hold. Hodgson wasn’t handed much money to spend, and all three incomings were preceded by a number of fringe players – and their substantial wages – finally being moved out of the club. Both Batshuayi and Sako are on deals until the end of the season, with neither yet nailed down as long-term solutions in a couple of problem positions for the squad.
In other words, Palace have made short-term fixes that will see them through to the end of the season because there is uncertainty over what might happen in the summer. Hodgson has just one year left to run on his contract as manager, while there is a growing sense that this year might be the one when the Eagles allow Wilfried Zaha the opportunity to go and spread his wings elsewhere. With the wage bill being cleared and gaps in the squad set to open up once players are sold and loanees sent back, there is reason to believe that this summer could well be one of upheaval.
With all that in mind, Palace did all we could really ask for in January; they added depth to the squad, brought in a high-quality striker and kept hold of their prize assets. It felt, however, like a calm before the storm. Palace have plugged the aforementioned gaps for now, but summer seems likely to bring with it a much more significant overhaul.