Before the game with Leicester, the team had almost nearly twice the number of points as this time last year, and was in sixth place. So we’re doing fine, aren’t we?
Unfortunately, us Palace fans are wired to look up from the abyss rather than down from the mountain. Success is an imposter. It’s better interpreted as a signal for impending disaster, not another step towards the promised land of a ‘natural’ Premier League club.
‘It can’t last’ is how we tend to view things, never ‘we deserve to be challenging for Europe’. The Leicester result will renew the comfort of our pessimism – we can sink to where we belong – always looking over our shoulder, a few eye catching wins balanced with half-hearted defeats by workmanlike teams. It’s not just me, is it?
Rather than wallow for too long, I’ve instead been thinking about the characteristics of what it takes to have a ‘winning’ team, and why it is that we may be falling short.
Here are my top three questions:
1. Has the team got the right blend of skill and temperament? Very simply, this means have you got the right people in the mix and are they able and willing to do their jobs properly every week?
2. Does the team have a distinctive style and identity? – way of playing that is noticeable and effective? Not that it is always predictable or always works – just that it’s well executed, meaning you get beaten by better teams in real contests, not rolled over inexplicably.
3. Has the club got a culture of winning? This is more a consideration of the underlying climate and attitude of everyone at the club – the chairman, manager, fans as well as, obviously, the team. It’s not necessarily an historical thing. Clues to this are the ways in which people talk about the team – ambition v modesty, expectations v excuses, responsibility v victimhood.
These three areas are obviously interdependent – you can have a highly skilled team that won’t embrace a common identity (e.g. the reason that most Dutch national teams fall short), a team that is skilful and organised but lacks a winning mentality (Arsenal) or a team that lacks all three, but pretends otherwise, (Manchester United)
Here are my thoughts on how Palace are shaping up as we approach the last two-thirds of the season:
Regarding the first question, I think Palace at full strength have what I takes in most areas apart from the most critical one. We have no natural goal scorers. Jordan Ayew looks livelier than he did last season but he seems to be quite easy to neutralise by well-set defences. Christian Benteke now seems to be being used in a specialist ‘late disrupter’ role, a substitute who causes aerial discomfort to at least two defenders in set pieces, but is otherwise ornamental. He creates space for others to score. The problem is the others who aren’t there to do so.
Consequently when Leicester got their first goal, it was over – we didn’t look capable of getting one back. It gets worse – this isn’t a temporary problem as we’re not on a path that solves our skills gaps over the longer term either. The average age of the team is over 29 years old. Our recent signings, with the exception of the ageing Gary Cahill, have been underwhelming squad fillers. Max Meyer, as an example, is busy and industrious, but he doesn’t look like an impact player.
On question two I think Roy Hodgson deserves credit for usually setting up the team well, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. However, he also has to accommodate the limitations of his own team up front, and his default approach seems to be ‘despite all the evidence to the contrary, I hope it’s going to be better this time.’ When it’s not, he doesn’t seem surprised.
His narrative continues to be one of a small team that is getting by so don’t be too hard on us when we lose. This has the obvious risk that the team identity becomes one of ‘doing our best against the odds’, a constant undertone of improvised improvement, rather than ‘being the best we can be’ which requires a more fundamental and strategic direction. Roy doesn’t have this, and never pretends otherwise.
Which brings me to point three. I think that Palace as a club have the same ‘let’s see how it goes’ mentality as the manager. For me one of the biggest demonstrations of this was what Steve Parish said about the Wifried Zaha transfer saga at the start of the season. Not, ‘We’d like him to stay because he’s part of our ambitious future as a club’ but instead ‘We all love Wilf, and so I’d like him to achieve his ambition to play for a bigger club. Part of me would enjoy seeing him successful somewhere else.’
This is an honest expression of the level of ambition he wants us to have – we got lucky with Wilf, but don’t deserve him longer term because he’s outgrown us. Imagine if you’re another member of the Palace team that knows this – that the figurehead and Chairman believes you’ve chosen to spend this part of your short career at a club that is less ambitious than its best players. You’d either resent this because you can’t get a move yourself, or settle for knowing you’re only good enough to fulfil mediocre expectations and put up with it. This must corrode the internal spirit – at very least it can’t be helpful.
I’m grateful that we’re in the Premier League and for the ways in which the club has been ‘rescued’ from its inglorious past. I’d love to see us challenging for the top third of the table, but I don’t think it’s going to happen – the team isn’t good enough yet, particularly up front. I believe any improvements will be marginal for as long as we define success as another season we’ve survived in the top flight.