As the international break comes to a close, we can all take a breath after a typical Palace rollercoaster of a start and consider what might happen next.
Regardless of the outcome of the match against Liverpool (you never know), the next seven fixtures after that will be key to our season. I am really hoping the choice is between having an excellent season or another season of mid-table mediocrity rather than anything worse. The real questions will be what happens after that? Will we have Roy Hodgson and Wilfried Zaha next season? If not, who will we have?
First things first, before getting carried away thinking about potentially our eighth consecutive season in the Premier League, we still have a very long way to go this season. The fact is, we have made our second best start to the season since coming up in 2013, even after our recent run of very difficult fixtures. There is no getting away from the fact that the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has helped us more than it has hurt us, by some way, but that does not take away from the fact we have put in some good (but not great) performances to rack up 15 points.
Roy and his cautious tactics still come in for some criticism but my feeling is that increasingly Palace supporters are appreciating the great job he is doing and are slower to blame him when we lose matches. After our run of one point from the twelve available in the last four matches, clearly there is some unhappiness but there is also recognition that our squad is not a top six squad so some realism is needed too.
After our tough run of fixtures ends after Liverpool, we then have seven “winnable” fixtures up to the New Year. The optimist in me thinks we can win all seven of these matches. The realist in me knows that is simply not going to happen. The startling fact (at least for me) is that if we only win two of the next seven matches, that will still leave us on course for roughly forty points and safety by the end of the season. If we continue with our frequent pattern of win, lose, draw (not necessarily in that order of course) we will have twenty three points by the mid-point of the season which will put us on a path to forty-six points by the end of the season. Of course, I am hoping for more than two wins in the next seven matches as will all Palace supporters, but it does show what a good position we are actually in.
There are further grounds for optimism when you think about Roy’s methods and tactics. Although we had a much better start to the 2015/16 season under Alan Pardew it was, with hindsight, a castle made of sand. As we all remember, our form disappeared dramatically in the second half of the season. Pardew appeared to have no clue how to arrest the slump which leads me to believe that he had no clue why the team had been so successful before that. Love him or moderately dislike him (no one loathes Roy), he cannot be accused of not knowing what his doing. Not everyone agrees with his methods but there is always a plan and history has shown at clubs at our level – Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and us – it just works. When you add that to the hope that we are going to strengthen the squad in January and we generally are a second half of the season club, we could be pushing for a top eight (or higher!?) finish.
Needless to say there are also dangers lurking. Assuming we get nothing from the Liverpool match, we will have had a long win-less run and there is always a danger that morale and confidence will drop, meaning we go into a downward spiral, especially if we do not pick up points in our matches against Burnley and Watford.
It is here that I think Roy’s methods come into their own. Every player still knows what they are supposed to do and Roy and Ray are not going to let them forget it. That structure gives the players the ability to perform without thinking too hard about what they have to do or striving too hard to create that moment of magic to score a goal. If they stick to their roles and patterns of play the moments of magic will come. My bigger worry is squad depth and injuries. The full-back and striker issues are very well known so we just have to cross all our fingers that Joel Ward is not the start of a bad run of injuries and we have to hope he recovers soon.
Despite the acknowledged patchy recruitment in the summer, lack of goals and the poor run of recent results, we are actually in decent shape with a lot to be optimistic about for the rest of the season.
One should never underestimate our ability to seek out disaster in any circumstance but there are definitely reasons to be cheerful at the moment. As for what happens after this season, there should be plenty of time to worry about that later!