Now that we have reached our spiritual home of being thirteenth in the table, let’s take stock of how it’s going so far. Should we be looking up or down from here?
The good news is that the team seem to be playing to a more identifiable system this season. To my untrained eye, it’s based on selecting a team that can: defend solidly in depth; wear teams out whilst keeping them away from goal; break swiftly and either score on a counter attack or a set piece.
This is the Roy Hodgson plan, and it relies upon: a goal-stopping keeper (not someone who fancies himself as a sweeper); defenders who can tackle and offload the ball quickly; and at least two nuisance players who can make unpredictable forays up front. Everyone else is the supporting cast, and they need to do their jobs effectively, but not take too many risks.
They need to be marshalled on the pitch by at least two ‘shouters and organisers’.Palace have all these types of players: Guaita (and now Butland) are unflashy keepers; Ward is always solid in defence and there are other good options when everyone is fit. Wilf has the potential to dazzle as he has proved, and Eze has the ability to confuse as he runs in unexpected directions (although sometimes he may be confusing himself too, a bit like Yanick Bolassie used to) and Townsend keeps encroaching from the wing. All very promising. Also Milivojevic is a great enforcer and shouter, and Cahill always marches towards the sound of gunfire (sometimes undone by Sakho and others throwing grenades in their own trench).
Wilf is also a shouter, but mainly about how everything is against him. This is understandable, as he is the most kicked player in the Premier league, but even so he often uses up his own and the emotional energy of his team mates as they seek to protect or placate him.
The bad news is that this system is both fragile and exhausting. It’s fragile because it requires enormous concentration and fitness, and Palace have a really old team. This problem is exacerbated by the absence of fans in the stadium giving them the necessary adrenalin hits. If key servants to this system are injured, it obviously doesn’t function as well. It’s also exhausting to watch.
I know we’ve all got used to feeling that the team doing well is the first step towards impending disaster, but nonetheless if your mode of playing is based on ambush, run back and defend, it’s like watching the Hunger Games on continuous loop and waiting for the arrow to finally finish you off (I’ve watched a lot of Netflix during lockdown).
Lots of teams will beat Manchester United this season. Palace will be the only ones to do so with less than 25% possession of the ball. In the match against Brighton when you would have expected passion even without a crowd, we conceded two thirds possession. To Brighton. In this match Palace were also the first team in Premier League history to have just one shot on goal. And that was a penalty. It’s not like watching Brazil.
Roy’s system will probably work against teams that like to pass around a lot and don’t shoot on sight of goal. It could also work against teams who like to play a fashionably ‘high line’ as long as Wilf doesn’t get kicked to death when he gets it from the back. However, I don’t think we should be getting carried away that we will be competing for a European spot just yet.
Over the season, I doubt that Palace have the depth of resources or physical stamina to get above mid-table again.