It was hard to watch at times but it was no disgrace to lose to City, but what did we learn from the game? Here are our thoughts off the back of the first Premier League home defeat of the season for the Eagles.
1. Watching Palace – or any mid to lower-table team, for that matter – play against Manchester City has become quite a strange experience. Usually you would turn up to a game against one of the Premier League’s top sides in hope more than expectation, but against this City side, under that manager, it feels more like being there out of habit and obligation. At no point on Saturday did it feel like the game was going to end in anything but a win for the champions. The match quickly settled into its natural order, with City dominating possession and Palace desperately trying to defend their penalty area. Slowly but surely, the visitors suffocated their hosts. Every time Gary Cahill or James Tomkins looked up, all that was ahead of them was a sea of fruit salad away shirts. Whenever Palace got on the ball, City had wrestled it back from them within seconds. In fact, so worn down were Palace from chasing the ball that whenever they did get hold of it their touch was off or they simply didn’t have the players ahead of them to do something meaningful with it next. With two quickfire City goals before half-time there was almost a universal acceptance around the ground that the game was over. But there was no real shame in that; sometimes you have to accept that the other team is simply far superior.
2. With all that being said, there was still a nagging feeling at the end of it all that Palace could have made it more difficult for their opponents. The home side dropped so deep from the first minute that it almost looked as if their only plan was to delay the inevitable. Pep Guardiola had put two midfielders at the heart of his defence, but Fernandinho and Rodri were playing at centre back in name only. Guardiola had likely anticipated that Roy Hodgson would instruct his side to stand off and allow City to have possession, which meant that Fernandinho in particular was able to push up into midfield at any one time and get on the ball in the same areas he would playing in his natural position. Patrick van Aanholt tweeted after the game that Palace had made it tough for their visitors, but in truth City were never made to get out of first gear.
3. One way Palace might have given City more to think about was by making earlier use of Christian Benteke. The Eagles simply couldn’t keep hold of the ball in the first half, and every time it was cleared back up the pitch it ended up coming straight back. Jordan Ayew has undoubtedly earned the right to be Palace’s starting centre forward this season, but he was not the man for that kind of situation. As soon as City scored their second goal Hodgson should have been readying Benteke to come on for the start of the second half. Palace had been crying out for someone who was going to win headers, the odd free kick, and generally give the back four a chance to catch its breath. One would also wager that Benteke might have made life a little more uncomfortable for City’s makeshift centre back pairing. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Palace’s best spell came briefly after the Belgian’s introduction, and he was desperately unlucky to see Ederson produce what might be his best save of the season to stop him from scoring with his first touch. If there was a moment that could sum up Benteke’s luck during his Palace career, that was probably it.
4. Some of the criticism of Wayne Hennessey in the wake of the game has been strange. City’s first goal was a free header from point blank range; their second a flowing, merciless counter attack that drew ripples of applause even in the home end. Hennessey could do little about either, and made a string of good stops in the second half to keep the scoreline on the respectable side. We are all aware that Vicente Guaita is the better of Palace’s two available goalkeepers, but to single out Hennessey after a game in which he was one of the Eagles’ better players is poor form and reeks of a predisposed agenda against him. Given the way the game unfolded in front of Hennessey, the likelihood is Palace would have lost that game irrespective of who started in net.
5. Sometimes criticised and often underappreciated, it was nice to see Joel Ward get some much-deserved recognition on Saturday. Alongside Wilfried Zaha, Ward is the only other man still standing from the Palace squad that won promotion in 2012, and the way he has adapted to the Premier League – and perhaps punched above his weight in the top flight – has mirrored the way the club has managed to establish itself in the top division. Even when down the pecking order, Ward has never been a disruptive influence, nor has he let Palace down in any position he has been asked to play when called upon. The fact that he is always last to leave the pitch is demonstrative of the affection he has for the club and its supporters. On the back of his 200th league appearance, it was right that he was shown the same admiration in return.