Seven points from the opening four games were perhaps not accrued in the way anyone expected, but it is a healthy total to build on. Here’s what we learnt from the first win of the season at Selhurst Park.
1. Just what, exactly, has happened to Jordan Ayew? The return of the Ghanaian in the summer was met with neither apathy nor adulation given that his loan spell with the club last season had been mostly uneventful. Now, though, at £2.5million, Ayew is starting to look like a steal. It wasn’t just the goal, which he took with a composure that the rest of the team has been lacking in the final third, but also his constant endeavour and harrying of Villa’s back four that was impressive. Ayew won the ball back in Villa’s half on several occasions before leading counter attacks, while his all round hold up play was excellent throughout. At a time when Palace have been crying out for a striker, Ayew is showing that he is prepared to step into the void. He is not someone who will bring 15 to 20 goals a season, but so far he has grasped his opportunities better than Christian Benteke, and has rightly moved ahead of his teammate in Roy Hodgson’s pecking order.
2. There was a moment in the first half when Wilfried Zaha furiously berated Luka Milivojevic for not playing a first-time pass to him in his own half. Palace had started the game quite slowly and their Ivorian winger had barely had a touch of the ball. Zaha was perhaps right to feel aggrieved, as Milivojevic subsequently lost possession and gave away a free kick. However, it was emblematic of a wider trend, of Palace trying to find alternative ways to move the ball forward without relying entirely on Zaha. That naturally changed as Villa had a man sent off, the game became more stretched and Zaha consequently saw more of the ball on the right, but chances also seemed to be coming from down the left and through the middle. In other words, the first thought was not always to get the ball to Wilf. Palace know that Zaha will be leaving sooner rather than later, and there were signs on Saturday that the team is already being trained for that eventuality.
3. That being said, Palace were almost made to pay for their wastefulness in front of goal when Villa appeared to have stolen a point at the end. I use the word ‘stolen’ on purpose, because it already felt somewhat of a robbery that Villa were going to leave SE25 with just a one-goal dent to their goal difference. Palace were once again guilty of squandering a number of opportunities at home, with several crosses going untouched as they flashed across the six-yard box and a general lack of conviction in the opposition penalty area almost costing the Eagles their first win of the season at Selhurst Park. That being said, Palace fans would have felt equally aggrieved had they been on the receiving end of Kevin Friend’s decision to strip Villa of an equaliser in the 95th minute. I’m not going to go into why the goal was disallowed because that has been explained in plenty of places elsewhere, but it was at least nice to be on the right end of a bad decision for a change.
4. James Tomkins might have a fight on his hands to win his place back. Breaking up his centre back partnership with Mamadou Sakho would have been unthinkable last season, but Gary Cahill has started his Palace career like a man who has no intention of watching from the bench. Scott Dann and Martin Kelly have been more than competent deputies, but the former England and Chelsea man is more of a commanding presence. His experience and professionalism shone through at Old Trafford last week, and on Saturday he comfortably dealt with the aerial threat of Wesley while also showing his qualities on the ball. The last ten minutes gave us a glimpse of what Palace fans might be treated to – two ball-playing centre backs that are equally intelligent defenders – for the rest of the season, but Tomkins, who is apparently nearing a return, could be the one to miss out.
5. For all the talk of Palace’s lack of summer signings, the Eagles’ bench on Saturday looked remarkably strong. Roy Hodgson could be accused of opting for a conservative team in what was a home game against a newly promoted side, but he at least had the luxury of calling upon the likes of Andros Townsend, Christian Benteke, Max Meyer and Victor Camarasa if Palace found themselves in need of a goal. There are, of course, still concerns over the lack of cover in both full back positions and the failure to sign another striker, but Palace fans should not be lulled into thinking that this is a weak squad. That’s now seven points from the opening four games; perhaps – without wanting to tempt fate – this won’t be quite the disaster we feared after all.