A half performance ended up being a thankless task up in Merseyside at the weekend, so here is what we learnt from the defeat.
1. Should we be starting to worry? Up until recently this season looked like it was going to harmlessly pass us by. For the most part Palace were picking up points when they were expected to, and with a tally of 30 points before February appeared to be coasting towards a mid-table finish. Now just six points above the drop, Palace have chosen the worst time to run into their worst patch of form, with the effects of winning only three of the last 19 games starting to visibly drain confidence out of the team and indeed the fans. What was perhaps most concerning about the defeat against Everton wasn’t necessarily the result itself, but rather the manner of it. Palace have accumulated their points this season by being hard to beat, but the Toffees had to do very little to overcome their visitors on Saturday. Palace once again had plenty of possession in and around the opposition penalty area but lacked the guile to make anything of it, while Everton simply had to take advantage of Palace’s defensive errors. Palace were hardly outplayed on Saturday so it would be tempting to say that they were unlucky, but the sign of a side in trouble is one that is losing games irrespective of how they are playing. A slide has set in and Roy Hodgson must find a way to arrest it during the winter break.
2. Saturday’s defeat means that Palace have now kept just one clean sheet in the last 11 games. Compare that with the start of the season, when Palace had one of the better defensive records outside the top teams, and the Eagles appear to have lost some of the defensive solidity that they could rely on to grind out results. This was brutally exposed on Saturday, when Bernard was left criminally unmarked for Everton’s first goal, while it was Palace’s failure to deal with a simple long punt forward which led to the second. Palace have been forced to play countless combinations across the back four this season and that inconsistency may be starting to catch up with them. What is clear is that they need to rediscover the defensive backbone from earlier in the season if they are to avoid getting sucked into the relegation battle.
3. Rarely has a Palace manager been as polarising as Roy Hodgson. Some are grateful for the job he is doing given the lack of backing he has received in the transfer market; others have grown increasingly impatient with both his style of play and failure to rotate the squad. Whatever side of the argument you fall on however, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Hodgson’s midfield three has to change. This isn’t to say that Luka Milivojevic, James McArthur and James McCarthy are bad players, but as a trio they are so one dimensional that it is limiting Palace’s play. Neither McCarthy nor Milivojevic are attack minded players, while McArthur simply doesn’t have the legs anymore to have the same effect going forward as he once did. What this has created is a disconnect between Palace’s forwards and midfielders to the extent that it almost looks as if the front three are playing for one team and the midfield trio for another. Whether it’s Max Meyer, Cheikhou Kouyate or even Jairo Riedewald, Hodgson must find a way of incorporating a different type of player into the midfield, one that the opposition isn’t expecting to come up against every week. Palace have often prided themselves on being adventurous and clinical on the counter attack, but it’s difficult to maintain that identity with a midfield devoid of ambition and creativity.
4. At least Christian Benteke scored. I got some pelters on social media last week for suggesting that Benteke had played well against Sheffield United, so was quietly pleased to see him back that up with an equally good performance against Everton. It would be wrong to ignore that his goal was incredibly fortunate, but the Belgian has been so short on luck that it was going to require something like Jordan Pickford’s mistake for the Belgian to break his duck. No one is suggesting that we are about to see the Benteke of old, but it is worth pointing out that the 29-year-old played a big part in keeping Palace up when Sam Allardyce was in charge. If Palace can find a way to play to Benteke’s strengths – in the same way Allardyce did – then he could still have a significant part to play this season.
5. It was barely a month ago that we were talking about Palace possibly pushing into the top ten, so it is worth considering what has gone wrong in that time. It seems that everyone is suffering from a lack of direction and a lack of a plan – both on and off the pitch. The board’s failure to freshen up the squad has stirred disillusion among the fanbase that has started to seep down onto the pitch. While it might be difficult to reconcile the club’s failures in the transfer market with the team’s dip in form, the two are not unrelated. There is a mood of uncertainty around the club at the moment that has been created by those at the helm and it is impossible for the players not to be affected by it. The hope now is that they can return from two weeks off refreshed for a crucial run of fixtures that will ultimately determine whether they climb back into mid-table or slip into a relegation battle.