With games coming thick and fast over the last couple of weeks, we felt it best for our own sanity at least, to leave our five things articles until we were out the other side. So here we are, the festive games are in the books, so what did we learn?
1. Not that we didn’t know this already, but Palace need some new players. The festive period can stretch a squad at the best of times, but perhaps never more so than it has Palace’s patched-up team over the past fortnight. To have the same group of between 11 and 13 individuals start four games in the space of 11 days is far from ideal, and even less so when several of those players are not fully fit being forced to play out of position. With that in mind, Palace deserve credit for losing just one of their last eight games and grinding out results in difficult circumstances. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s difficult to overstate just how much the absence of the full backs effect Palace’s style of play, and the mental challenge those that did feature will have had to overcome to prepare for games just days after finishing their last, while other teams had the luxury of rotation. Even games such as those against Watford, Brighton and Norwich are the kind that Palace might have either wilted or failed to find an equaliser in last season. While this squad has done well to maintain its position in the top half of the table going into 2020, it must now be helped. Palace could ill-afford an injury crisis this season either at full back or in the wide areas; the fact that fear has been realised should be enough to spark the board into action in January.
2. A consequence of Palace’s injury crisis has been a run in the team for Max Meyer, but the German’s three starts against West Ham, Southampton and Norwich threw up more questions than answers. With Andros Townsend and Christian Benteke out injured, Meyer was once again used in the wide areas by Roy Hodgson, from where he struggled to have any real influence on the game. Indeed, it was perhaps telling that the 24-year-old was substituted in all three games with Palace either chasing the game or clinging on for a draw – his cause won’t have been helped by the fact that Connor Wickham, Meyer’s replacement against Norwich, ended up grabbing the equalising goal. There is a growing sense that there might be a gulf between the player Palace fans think or want Meyer to be and the player he actually is. He has undoubtedly shown most promise when used centrally as an impact substitute from the bench, but there can be no glossing over the fact that he has failed to grasp his opportunities when starting, sometimes being shrugged off the ball too easily and not linking the play in the way one would hope. This is not intended as a dig at Meyer, and rustiness is understandable given how little he had been used this season before the festive fixture period, but there is a nagging feeling that Palace and Meyer – or perhaps Hodgson and Meyer – simply might not be the right fit.
3. The kids have a part to play. Given Palace’s lack of depth at full back, everyone thought it would be Tyrick Mitchell who would be the first academy player to be given his debut this season. As it turned out, however, it was Brandon Pierrick who made his first team bow against Norwich, coming on with just over ten minutes to play and having an almost immediate impact on the game. Pierrick carries a weighty reputation from his time with the Under-23s, where his eye-catching goals and mazy runs had already seen fans on social media call for his inclusion in the past. The 18-year-old wasted no time vindicating Hodgson’s decision to throw him on against Norwich, showing great composure to take the ball down before bursting away from his defender and passing the ball on for Zaha to tee up Wickham’s equaliser. It was, of course, only a brief cameo, and it’s always important to urge caution with young players, but Pierrick demonstrated that Palace’s teenagers can have an impact if given the opportunity. The hope now is that at the very least he is given a start against Derby County in the FA Cup and is in more matchday squads as the season progresses.
4. There have been some notable performances over the festive period – James McArthur, Vicente Guaita, Jordan Ayew and Wilfried Zaha are all worthy of individual praise given how much they played – but arguably none more so than James Tomkins. Given the number of centre backs Palace accumulated over the summer, it felt as if the 30-year-old was the man who might miss out, especially because he was absent at the start of the season due to injury and Martin Kelly emerged as a more than capable partner for Gary Cahill. However, Tomkins has taken advantage of others’ misfortune to nail down his place and make us all wonder why we ever doubted him in the first place. The former West Ham man has had to cope with the back four constantly changing around him, but has been a genuine colossus at the heart of the defence. His positional play has been outstanding, and with Benteke injured, he remains Palace’s biggest threat from set pieces, as he showed against Southampton. Tomkins has been the glue that has held the Eagles’ back line together when it could easily have become unstuck, and the biggest compliment you can pay him is that it now feels both Cahill and Sakho will be competing to play alongside him when fit.
5. Palace should be aiming for a top half finish. If the past few games have taught us anything, it’s that the quality in the Premier League isn’t that good. The Eagles have suffered what Hodgson has labelled the worst injury crisis during his time at the club, and Palace’s ability to emerge from that relatively unscathed in terms of results is testament to the players, but also an indictment of the opposition they have come up against. It suggests that when this squad is mostly fit and playing to its full potential, it is more than capable of at least retaining its current position in the league. Having said that, the table is becoming awfully tight with the bottom sides now picking up points, and much will also depend on the upcoming transfer window and Palace’s ability to convert some of the draws they are recording into wins. However, currently perched in one of their best ever Premier League positions at this stage of the season, Palace should be disappointed if they can’t capitalise on the hard work from the first half of the campaign