There are a number of words that could be used to describe the first away performance of the season, most of them would not pass the editing stage here at TEB.
Let’s just say that the loss fanned the flames of the social media meltdown that has seemingly continued throughout the long summer and is likely to continue for some time after this disappointing result.
Here are the five things we learnt from the turgid display; above all else, that was deeply concerning.
1. Palace should have known exactly what they were going to get from Sheffield United: chaos, hunger and a little bit of quality – but not enough to make the away side freeze in the manner that they did. Rather than being prepared for what was to come, the Eagles seemed entirely overwhelmed by it. As the home side hunted and snapped their way around the pitch, dispossessing anything in their way, Palace fans were left wondering exactly what the plan was. The defence was disjointed from the midfield, which in turn was disjointed from the attack. Palace neither moved the ball quickly nor countered with the menace that had terrorised so many defences towards the end of last season. Perhaps most alarming of all, though, was that it was the visitors who looked more like a newly-promoted team, and that sets a worrying precedent going forward.
2. The incoherence on the pitch, however, was arguably a reflection of what has been happening off it. The summer just gone has seen people at the club pulling in various different directions, whether it was Wilfried Zaha trying to force a move, the American owners reportedly looking to sell, or fans falling out with each other over the lack of transfer activity. Regardless of the different situations, it has hardly been the perfect storm for hitting the ground running. The man left to pick up the pieces, of course, is Roy Hodgson, and against that aforementioned backdrop, it should hardly be surprising that the 72-year-old’s side have been unable to settle into any kind of rhythm right away.
3. What Hodgson must do, though, is figure out how to get the best out of more attackers than just Zaha. Palace’s approach in recent years has been so geared towards getting the Ivorian the ball that they have neglected any form of alternative. Teams will only continue to savvy up to it, and Zaha cut an increasingly exasperated figure as Sunday’s game wore on and the number of players circling around his every move increased. If anything is clear, it is that Palace’s talisman is unlikely to be here much longer, but if he is to enjoy an Indian summer at Selhurst Park then his manager will need to find a way of relieving some of the creative and attacking burden on his shoulders. In Max Meyer and Victor Camarasa, the former England manager has two players who can go some way to doing that if used in their best positions. Whether Hodgson is willing to adapt his typically rigid system will dictate if they are allowed to do so.
4. Any side is going to look weaker without a £50million right back in it, but Patrick van Aanholt – whose own form continues to tumble – is currently the only surviving member of last season’s often reliable back four. Sheffield United did not play particularly well, but they grew in confidence because of the mistakes the visitors were making, many of which stemmed from a simple lack of communication. Scott Dann and Martin Kelly are both decent centre backs, and both played a part in the opening day clean sheet against Everton, but neither seem capable of organising a defensive line in the absence of Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins. With neither showing signs of returning anytime soon, it would not be a surprise to see Gary Cahill called upon for Old Trafford.
5. Slow starts to the season have been a trait of Palace’s stay in the Premier League, but it does not stop you from hoping that the next time might somehow be different. However, the Eagles are once again paying the price for sitting on their hands over the summer and waiting for things to happen, rather than being proactive and improving areas of the squad that needed addressing long before the summer transfer window started. As the likes of Stoke City and West Brom have learned in the past, the Premier League is not a division you can afford to stand still in. Palace now find themselves in an awkward position where the teams traditionally around them have strengthened, while the Eagles are relying on the same core group of players to keep them away from danger, including one in particular who seems slightly disillusioned after failing to secure a move away. Palace have recovered from worse starts in the past, but the early signs – ahead of a daunting trip to Manchester United – are not good.