Tough night at Selhurst against our rivals on Monday evening but the fight shown in adversity to take a point was impressive. Here’s what we learnt.
1. For 70 minutes that was a carbon copy of last season’s Palace performances against Brighton – if not worse. The Eagles once again failed to rise to the intensity of the game and soon allowed their visitors to settle into a rhythm, with Brighton dictating the pace of play and often finding gaps in Palace’s midfield to meander through unchallenged. In fairness, Palace were fielding a team that had very much been thrown together, but they looked exactly that. Brighton, to Graham Potter’s credit, looked a team transformed from the functional, limited side that have turned up to Selhurst Park in recent seasons, but still lacked the cutting edge that should have seen them out of sight before Palace decided to take the game to their rivals. Given all the possession and territory Brighton enjoyed for the majority of the game, they will genuinely be kicking themselves that they have failed to lay down a marker – and may not get a better chance against a weaker Palace side playing that poorly. The Eagles, meanwhile, would have been forgiven for making an early Christmas church visit on Tuesday to thank a higher power that they were able to retrieve a point from what for much of the game looked an irretrievable situation.
2. As is so often the case in this fixture, the difference was Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha. With just over 20 minutes remaining in the game something in the Ivorian switched, almost as if he had decided that Palace weren’t going to lose the game. As has happened on too many occasions this season, Palace’s primary attacking outlet spent far too much of the first half running towards his own penalty area, which meant whenever he received the ball it was in his own half and with his back to goal. This made it much easier for Martin Montoya to get tight and prevent him from having any meaningful impact on the game. In the second half, however, as Palace started to chase the game, Zaha was liberated of those defensive duties and able to receive the ball in Brighton’s half and with room to run. Getting Zaha the ball higher up the pitch is absolutely critical, because even with two or three players around him, he has the ability of wriggling free and darting into the box. As I have said on numerous occasions, where there is Wilf, there is hope, and his goal on Monday – plus the other five he has scored against Brighton – was perhaps worth more to Palace fans than any transfer fee he might command in the future.
3. If anything, Monday night showed just how important Palace’s full backs – or any natural full back for that matter – are to the way they play. Both Patrick van Aanholt and Joel Ward have had their critics over the years, but both have always showed a willingness to get forward and overlap, which not only draws defenders away from the wingers playing in front of them, but also gives those players a passing option. Against Brighton, both Jordan Ayew and Zaha were having to defend deep in their own halves to lend a hand to the targeted pair of Martin Kelly and Jairo Riedewald, neither of whom have the pace to get up the pitch and support attacks. This meant that whenever Ayew or Zaha received possession they were tired from chasing back, easily crowded out by Brighton’s defenders and the ball simply kept coming back. As mentioned above, it was noticeable in the second half as the Eagles became more desperate that Ayew and Zaha were given license to roam, but to avoid another performance like the first half Roy Hodgson will have to put faith in the likes of young Tyrick Mitchell until either Van Aanholt or Ward return – or until he is allowed to sign backup in January.
4. With players dropping like flies around them in recent weeks, the trio of Vicente Guaita, James Tomkins and Martin Kelly have been constants in the Palace defence, and played a big role in allowing the Eagles to get back into the game. With what was a makeshift back four, the home side had a clear plan to force Brighton wide and restrict them to long shots. It fell to Tomkins and Scott Dann to get their heads to anything pumped into the penalty area, while Guaita – although rarely forced into any remarkable saves – was trusted to handle the efforts that Palace did allow through. Guaita was particularly good in commanding his box, which not only had a calming effect on the centre back pairing in front of him but also gave Palace the platform to go in search of an equaliser later on. As much as we often deride Hodgson’s defensive approach, the discipline he has instilled means that the Eagles are rarely completely out of games regardless of how they play.
5. There can be no hiding the fact that Palace got away with one on Monday, but the performance was very much a product of the club’s shortcomings in the transfer window. It’s difficult to account for all three players capable of playing left back getting injured within two weeks of each other, but the fact that Palace have no natural back up in either full back position is poor. Further forward, Christian Benteke provided hope that he might still have something to offer, and will likely get more opportunities to prove it with Andros Townsend out for an extended period. Palace, though, are now relying on the fitness of a very small pool of players going into the busy festive period, which should be enough to remind the owners that the squad depth cannot go unaddressed again in January.