Hard To Identify What Style Of Football Palace Are Trying To Play

It has been a while since I shared some post match views on a Palace game and felt it was as good a time as any to bring this article back, particularly in view of the home defeat to West Ham. Here are five things that we can all take from this performance, and it does not make good reading!

1. I’m going to start with a series of apologies. The first is for failing to keep up with this feature throughout this season, second for predominantly writing it in the wake of games we have lost, and third for turning this particular edition into five things that are going wrong for Roy Hodgson’s Palace. Football is currently meant to be our release from all the other horrible things going on in the world, but can you remember the last time that watching a Palace game genuinely felt like an escape? Draws with Arsenal and Leicester City have masked the fact that the Eagles have failed to beat a team outside of the relegation zone since their win over Leeds United at the start of November. Since then Palace have conceded 24 goals in 12 league games and their performances are trending downwards. This might be considered reactive given that Palace remain 11 points clear of the relegation zone, but it’s important to also consider the current dip in form in the context of the end to last season, when they lost seven of their last eight league games. Hodgson rightly deserves credit for the job he has done at Selhurst Park, but things under the former England manager have been getting worse in the last ten months, not better.

2. Can anyone tell me what style of football Palace are trying to play? There was once upon a time that commentators and pundits would refer to Hodgson’s Palace side as being difficult to beat – some even still do. But you would be hard pressed to find a West Ham, Manchester City, Aston Villa or Liverpool player from our recent fixtures against them that would subscribe to that theory. Palace have leaked 36 goals this season, which at the time of writing is the second worst of any team in the Premier League. They have kept three clean sheets, a record matched by Fulham and Newcastle and a figure higher only than West Brom and Sheffield United. Of the nine games the Eagles have lost, six have been by more than a single goal, and that would have been seven had it not been for Michy Batshuayi’s late consolation against West Ham. Being difficult to break down is one of the supposed benefits of having Hodgson as your manager, and there was a period during his tenure when that was true. But when that quality disappears what exactly are we left with? Palace are now without an identity, absent of structure and remain bereft of a plan beyond passing the ball to Wilfried Zaha. The things Hodgson is meant to be best at are no longer working.

3. How many times will Palace need to get overrun in midfield before Hodgson realises that 4-4-2 isn’t going to work? Perhaps it might if the one midfielder suited to that formation wasn’t currently playing at centre back, but the manager’s stubborn refusal to depart from a pairing of Luka Milivojevic and James McArthur – two players who, despite having certain qualities that work in a three, don’t have the legs to play in a midfield two – is leaving the back four woefully exposed. It has been painfully obvious for well over a month that Palace need an extra player in midfield and it was once again painfully obvious against West Ham. The argument is that the current formation gets the best out of Zaha, but Palace’s talisman should be trusted to have an impact on the game irrespective of what system he is played in. One of Frank de Boer’s faults during his short spell at the club was his loyalty to a formation despite all evidence pointing towards the need for a tactical tweak. Hodgson is becoming guilty of the same thing.

4. I wrote earlier in the season that Cheikhou Kouyate had earned his place in the back four on merit, but it’s now clear that Palace need to be playing an actual centre half in that position whenever possible. I’m glad both players emerged unscathed, but the collision between the former West Ham man and Gary Cahill in the second half was a microcosm of a defence that isn’t communicating at the moment. The root of the issue is that Palace haven’t had a settled back four all season, something that now also appears to be affecting Vicente Guaita’s form. Hodgson’s most successful sides have been built on a strong defensive foundation, but unfortunately, in the absence of James Tomkins, Palace don’t currently have one.

5. Palace fans knew what was coming at the start of this campaign. The pandemic has made it difficult to know what the expectation should be for a season when the schedule is so cluttered, but having Hodgson at the helm at least guaranteed stability and a high probability of staying in the league. At some point, though, with the group of players currently available to the manager, the ambition has to extend beyond settling for survival. That isn’t to say that Palace should be in the top ten, but simply showing little signs of progress. Yet for whatever reason things have gone stale under Hodgson. It feels flat, and sometimes that happens. What we now have lingering on the horizon is a massive overhaul. The contracts of the manager and several players are up in the summer and the performances have started to mirror that uncertainty about the future. With every game like the one against West Ham it increasingly feels like Palace are kicking the can down the road when they might be better served bringing forward any succession plans they might have. Hodgson himself does not strike me as much of a gambler, but the time might have come for the club to roll the dice if they want to get the most out of the best Premier League squad they have assembled.


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