At the start of this season I felt that this was going to be one of our trickiest seasons in the Premier League, at least since we first came up, and certainly since Roy has been in charge.
Nothing in the first nineteen matches of the season has done anything to change my mind. The good news is that at the midpoint we have 23 points, which if we can maintain that points per match ratio should see us comfortably safe, the bad news is virtually everything else is up in the air.
First the good news and in amongst everything else, the good news is the most important. Despite some efforts to make us a more attacking outfit (more on this later), we are, so far, picking up the points we need to keep us in the division next season.
As Palace supporters of any vintage know, nothing is safe until it is safe, but we are grinding out the wins and draws where we can, in a Roy like way and that is what we need, even if a lot of our supporters are not really enjoying it.
It is hard to believe this is already Roy’s fourth season in charge and given the challenges he has faced in terms of the strength and depth of the squad available to him, I continue to maintain he has done a remarkable job. The mainstays of the current squad include PVA (until very recently), Joel Ward, Scott Dann, James Tomkins, James MacArthur, Luka, Jeffery Schlupp (unless he is injured), Andros Townsend, Wilf and Christian Benteke. All ten of those players were mainstays of the squad when Roy joined in 2017. If you compare that with West Ham, our recent opponents and another London club which we would view as a rival mid-table side, they have at most five players which were mainstays in 2017 and 2020 – Ogbonna, Rice, Lanzini, Antonio and Noble. Even of those five, it would be a push to say that Rice was a mainstay in 2017 and that Noble is a mainstay now.
I can almost guarantee there is no other club in the Premier League that would have so many players still playing regularly for them after four years. The fact we have managed during this period to maintain our Premier League status relatively comfortably (with fingers crossed for this season) is a continuing testament to the hard work and talent of Roy, Ray and the squad. Although staying in the Premier League comfortably is vital and is a fantastic achievement, things become more challenging when you look beyond this.
I have already touched on two of the challenges we face. The age of the squad and the playing style. The end of last season threw into sharp relief the problem with allowing a squad to age and not be refreshed. With matches coming twice a week and our survival assured and no crowds to push the team, we fell apart. The injuries piled up and even with a couple of good, but still losing performances, it was clear the playing squad could not cope and unusually, Roy seemed to have no answers.
The recruitment of Eberechi Eze, Nathan Ferguson and the development of Tyrick Mitchell have started to address these issues but there is still a long way to go. When the number of players out of contract in the summer is factored in, it is going to be tricky to strike a balance between the continued refreshment of the squad and a nearly complete turnover in the space of a transfer window.
Another difficulty is the playing style. Although we have played some exciting football under Roy’s reign, it seems that as the squad has aged the football has become more and more dour. The four narrow clean sheet victories either side of the March 2020 lockdown were probably the peak example of this ultimately successful but boring football. My impression is that by shifting to a 4-4-2 formation this season Roy has attempted to address this dour playing style but with very mixed results. Yes, the drubbings of West Brom and Leeds were great fun, but I am not sure if they were worth the thrashings we have endured from Chelsea, Liverpool, Aston Villa and now Manchester City. I am sure the horrendous goal difference we now have will horrify Roy and I would not be surprised if we go back to Roy Hodgson basics for the rest of the season, unless and until we are safe this season.
The other area of uncertainty is the status of Roy himself. I have no idea what Roy’s thoughts are on the subject, but he must have some degree of frustration that all that he has achieved for Palace has not been recognised and praised more, particularly over the past couple of seasons. Given the challenges he has faced and dealt with it must be galling to have every point grudgingly accepted by many Palace supporters and every defeat resulting in calls for Roy’s head. Unfortunately, Roy’s age and the fact that his contract only runs to the end of the season means that there is going to be speculation about his status until such time as it is settled. When combined with the changes likely to be forced on the playing squad in the coming few months there is an air of uncertainty around nearly every aspect of Palace’s first team future. And that is without even touching on the future of Wilfried Zaha or our three owners, in particular our quiet Americans.
It would be wrong if I did not at least touch on the other positives surrounding the club, in particular the new Academy development and the successes of our Development and Academy teams in their first year as a Category One Academy.
In addition, there are clearly signs that the club’s management does recognise the need to bring younger players in including most recently Jean-Phillppe Mateta. The question is whether the Palace hierarchy can manage to keep the Premier League plate spinning whilst at the same time manage all of the changes that need to be managed at once. Steve Parish & Co have managed to plot a very successful course since 2010 and I am optimistic they will do it again.
The difficulties, however, should not be underestimated.