It was another disappointing afternoon for the Eagles at Selhurst as a goalkeeping error contributed to a second consecutive loss. Here is what we learnt from the defeat.
1. There was a weird inevitability about what happened on Saturday. For the most part – or the first 60 minutes, at least – Palace were in control of the game. They were dominating possession, creating neat passages of play and rarely looked threatened at the back. However, the Eagles are worse than most at taking advantage of periods in the game when they are on top, and once again paid the price for failing to carve out any meaningful chances. The visitors, meanwhile, were almost happy for their hosts to see as much of the ball as they did, and used their rare forays into the Palace half to try and win set pieces in the knowledge that conditions were testing. The longer that went on, the more likely it felt that Sheffield United were going to be the ones to get their noses in front. Which is why it almost came as no surprise to see Oliver Norwood whip a fierce corner directly under Vicente Guaita’s crossbar, one that ultimately proved too difficult for the Spaniard to deal with. It was hard to get annoyed about the performance on Saturday, but Palace’s inability to show a ruthless streak when they have dominant spells in games is becoming a cause for concern.
2. There’s no need to spend too long on this given that it has already been covered by Roy Hodgson and others elsewhere, but Guaita has nothing to apologise for after the mistake for the winning goal. The fact that so little has been made of the incident by Palace fans speaks to how reliable he has been this season and how out of character it was for him to make an error. At this point it’s almost worth comparing what the reaction might have been had it been Wayne Hennessey in goal, but only to highlight the fact that Palace fans can actually be forgiving if a mistake is an anomaly rather than a regular occurrence. The Spaniard has earned Palace far more points than are worth counting this season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make up for the Sheffield United game against Everton.
3. I don’t get some of the criticism directed at Christian Benteke. For balance, yes there should be frustration with his goal-scoring record – the fact that he hasn’t found the net since April last year is not good enough for a £30million striker who is reportedly on more than £100,000 a week – and there are also times when his positioning in the penalty area can be questioned. However, even just hearing comments in the stands, it does seem that Benteke is quicker to attract criticism than others – and to say that he played badly on Saturday would be unfair. It was no surprise that Palace lost their attacking impetus when the 29-year-old was substituted, a change that one can only imagine drew a sigh of relief from Sheffield United’s centre backs. Benteke had won most of his aerial duels and did a good job of drawing attention away from Wilfried Zaha, who had one of his best games of the season with the Belgian on the pitch. Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate a player based on what he is able to get out of those around him rather than his individual contributions, but that is something that Benteke brings. He has rightly been on the receiving end of criticism in the past, but Saturday didn’t feel like one of those times when it was justified.
4. Part of Palace’s goal-scoring conundrum can also be traced back to the midfield. The Eagles’ centre midfielders have found the net just three times between them this season – two penalties from Luka Milivojevic and one from Cheikhou Kouyate – which heaps added pressure on the front three. In the past Palace have been able to rely on the likes of James McArthur chipping in with important goals, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that Palace’s midfield three offer little threat going forward. The issue was laid bare against Sheffield United, when Palace were crying out for some inspiration from a midfield that is more combative than it is creative. It is all well and good starting players to stifle the opposition, but doing so is creating a growing disconnect between the forward players and the midfield, so much so that it is not uncommon to see only one or two players in the opposition penalty area when Palace have an attack. Getting players in the box is an issue that has gone unaddressed all season, and it’s starting to make for some rather ugly stats for some players in the goals column.
5. Palace are in desperate need of a lift from somewhere. The disappointment of failing to sign any new players before the end of the January transfer window was sandwiched in between two deflating results at home, and just three wins in 18 games means the Eagles’ season is in danger of burning out. The general consensus had been that the combination of returning players and a few new additions in January might see Palace push for a place in the top half of the table. Instead, such is the closeness of the league this season, that it’s starting to feel as if there is still work to be done if the Eagles are to avoid being roped into a relegation battle. Up until now there has been reason to have patience with a patched up squad that was finding a way to accumulate points without doing anything too sensational. Now, though, some of those draws need to be converted into wins.