There was something different about the Palace side that beat Newcastle at the weekend. Here is what we learnt from the victory.
1. Saturday’s game against Newcastle was perhaps the closest Palace have come to a complete performance this season. The Eagles started the game in a manner we have seldom seen in recent times, pressing the visitors into mistakes and regularly winning the ball back high up the pitch. There was also more creativity in possession going forward, which was aided by the fact that the front three were making better runs and the midfield showed more of a willingness to get into the box. Defensively, meanwhile, Palace were rarely troubled, and restricted their opponents to long-range efforts that Vicente Guaita dealt with. It remains to be seen whether Palace will be able to repeat the same tactical plan against opposition not as weak as Newcastle were, but this was the kind of high-energy performance the fans have been craving all season.
2. Is Jordan Ayew the best £2.5million signing in Palace’s history? To say that might be an exaggeration – or it might not – but very few people could have predicted that the Ghanaian would end up having the impact he has this season. As good as Wilfried Zaha is at beating a defender, it’s difficult not to equally admire Ayew’s dribbling ability, and in particular the way he uses his body to sucker in and turn away from opposition players in one movement. There are almost shades in Ayew of Marouane Chamakh, whose close ball control was similarly joyful to watch and who also became the driving force of many Palace attacks during his stint with the club. The only thing missing from Ayew’s performance on Saturday was a goal, but he is increasingly looking like Guaita’s biggest rival for Palace’s player of the season award.
3. What does Roy Hodgson do with Luka Milivojevic? Palace’s midfield looked far more fluid against Newcastle, who admittedly didn’t offer up the sternest challenge but couldn’t wrestle back any semblance of control in the middle of the pitch. But what Saturday did make clear is the importance of Cheikhou Kouyate to this Palace side. He is capable of orchestrating a higher press in a way that no other midfielder in the squad – including Milivojevic – can. James McArthur, meanwhile, has been one of Palace’s best players this season, which would suggest that it should now be a shootout between Milivojevic and James McCarthy. Both are more combative players who prefer to sit deeper, and what has become clear in recent weeks is that Palace don’t tend to benefit when they start together. Kouyate limped off injured towards the end of the Newcastle game which may save Hodgson from having to make a decision, but should the Senegalese midfielder recover in time for Brighton then the manager will have some thinking to do.
4. It feels harsh to make two separate points about Milivojevic’s role in the team, but there might now be a case for Gary Cahill to be made captain on a permanent basis. His performance on Saturday was one of both a model professional and a natural leader, and it is quite clear he demands that his teammates match his high standards. Some players – or personalities – are simply more suited to captaincy than others, and having the weight of responsibility taken off his shoulders might even allow Milivojevic a chance to rediscover his form.
5. Saturday’s three points were a timely boost for everyone at the club. The team’s failure to record a win in 2020 combined with the board’s shortcomings in the transfer window had given the impression that all was not well. Indeed, had Palace lost the game one can only imagine that there would have been real danger of toxicity setting in ahead of what is now likely Palace’s biggest game remaining this season. However, the Eagles now travel to the Amex well clear of the relegation zone on the back of one of their better performances of the campaign. That good work, though, will ultimately count for nothing if Palace don’t do themselves justice at a ground they haven’t won at since that famous play-off night.