Despite laboured defeats against Leicester and Burnley over the last week, Roy Hodgson has his Crystal Palace side overachieving in the Premier League this season. With an average sized budget and wage bill compared to other sides around them in the standings, the former England manager has made his South London side difficult to break down and beat this term.
With Europa League qualification unlikely but only five points away, this season has been a success for Palace despite many pundits tipping them to largely struggle prior to the start of the 2019-20 domestic campaign. However, with one of the oldest squads in England’s top flight and a lack of minutes given to the club’s academy products again this year, the Eagles must start investing in youth in order to push on.
Five matches remain, and Crystal Palace currently sit 13th in the Premier League, wedged between a resurgent Newcastle side and a Danny Ings-inspired Southampton. Having only conceded 40 goals in 33 matches in the league, Hodgson has relied on his experienced defensive rear-guard as a foundation for the Eagles’s push towards European qualification, but with his side only finding the net 28 times, Palace have scored the second fewest in the Prem this term to date.
With seemingly little in the way of transfer funds in recent seasons despite the £50 million sale of full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United last summer, is Hodgson doing the best he can given the current situation at Selhurst Park?
Photo: Newcastle United via Getty
In line with recent Premier League finishes, Crystal Palace are again looking to finish in the lower mid-table region of the standings. With finishing positions varying between 10th and 15th over the past six seasons since their play-off promotion from the Championship in 2013, 72-year-old Hodgson has continued to stabilise a Palace side that at the start of the season looked likely to be nervously looking over their shoulder come May time.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, it’s instead August rather than May but even so, the Eagles up until this week were Europa League qualification chasers as opposed to relegation battlers.
Adding the experienced Gary Cahill on a free, Everton’s James McCarthy and Swansea’s Jordan Ayew, amongst others, in the summer of 2019, Hodgson and Palace had another underwhelming transfer window.
With the club record sale of Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United, many Palace fans were expecting a late flurry of signings but it never materialised. Despite a lack of goals in the side, 23-year-old Alexander Sörloth was again allowed to leave on loan, this time to Turkish side Trabzonspor, where 28 goals and 9 assists later he’s become a surprise target for Real Madrid, although that interest has now cooled.
From back to front, there’s a clear trend at Palace under Hodgson: it’s experience over youth in every department. According to Transfermarkt, Hodgson’s first team squad have an average age of 29.15, making the Eagles the oldest side in the Premier League this term.
Experience in a side is very much needed in the modern era of the Premier League, but a blend of youth is vital. The pace and skill of younger players with a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude is evident in every other Premier League outfit except Palace this season.
This 2019-2020 campaign has confirmed that at the back at least, Palace are very strong. The addition of Cahill on a free transfer from Chelsea has proven to be a masterstroke, as the central defender has looked consistently solid over his 24 league appearances so far this season. The former England international has forged a strong partnerships with James Tomkins and the injury-prone Mamadou Sakho at the back, which has seen Palace only concede 40 times in 33 Premier League matches.
At left back, Patrick van Aanholt has featured in 26 league matches and despite struggling at times, has again largely impressed when called upon, adding three goals to his personal tally, whilst at right back, Joel Ward has done well to cover the gap left behind by Wan-Bissaka’s departure. 23-year-old Ajax product Jaïro Riedewald has enjoyed 13 league appearances, including a solid outing at Leicester this weekend, but his lack of overall appearances for the club has angered Palace fans who see the Dutchman as a key piece of the club’s future.
In midfield, Palace again look strong but a lack of creativity is a real concern in the centre of the park. Adopting a three-man midfield, Hodgson’s preferred line up this term has consisted of captain Luka Milivojević, James McArthur and Cheikhou Kouyaté, but has also featured James McCarthy and Max Meyer.
A real lack of game time again this term for Meyer has proven to be a continual controversial topic between manager and Palace fans since his arrival from Schalke two years ago. Given the German midfielder’s natural ability and high wages, it seems an unwise decision for Hodgson to have featured him so little this term. The 24-year-old has been given fewer than 750 minutes of football across all competitions this term, and with just a year left on his contract, could very well be on his way out of Selhurst Park this summer.
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Up top, the Eagles revolve around the electric Wilfried Zaha. Now into his fifth season since returning from an unsuccessful spell with Manchester United, Zaha is Palace’s talisman. With only 3 goals and five assists through 33 Premier League appearances this term, perhaps Zaha has underwhelmed slightly, but with his natural ability, pace and trickery he is one of the most exciting players in the league on his day.
The opposite wing spot has been shared this season, both through injury and poor form, by Andros Townsend and Jeffrey Schlupp whilst upfront, Christian Benteke has again struggled for form with only one Premier League goal to his name.
Ayew has enjoyed a solid season up front for the Eagles, joining permanently from Swansea for a fee under £3 million after a loan spell the previous campaign. The Ghanaian has thrived playing alongside Zaha, and with 9 goals in the top flight for Palace, he has become a crowd favourite at Selhurst Park due to his fantastic form especially over the second half of the season.
Normally adopting a 4-5-1 system, Palace have focused on defensive discipline over attacking flair this season under Hodgson. The system has worked to again secure Palace’s Premier League status but for fans, it offers little excitement.
Hodgson, perhaps more famed for poor spells with Liverpool and the English national side than successes elsewhere, continues to prefer defensive sturdiness to scintillating attacking play. Granted, his Palace side do lack options in attack after several poor transfer windows and have five very good central midfield options, but even so, his aged tactics are starting to become a problem for some Palace fans.
The structure of Palace this season has been strong, coordinated, and ever so disciplined. The two full backs don’t spend much time up the pitch when the Eagles are attacking so are not often caught on the counterattack, while the three central midfielders are much more focused on their defensive actions rather than pushing forward and offering options in attack.
With the two wide men tucking in when Palace are out of possession, the five across midfield are nearly always sat in a perfect line, leaving no gaps and becoming very difficult to overcome for opposing sides.
Hodgson’s Favoured Starting XI This Season
One of the main problems of Hodgson’s approach this season has been the gap between the midfield and the lone striker when possession is quickly won back by the South Londoners. With Zaha often teamed up on by opposition players on the left wing, Palace have struggled for outlets and especially when Benteke has played, the Belgian has often been left stranded throughout large portions of matches due to his inferior mobility compared to Ayew’s.
As mentioned previously, with the second fewest goals scored this season, Crystal Palace have been poor going forward. In the majority of their Premier League matches to date, the Eagles have turned up to defend from the front, with the two wingers tucking in to form that solid five across midfield. That’s understandable, but when you have a player like Zaha out wide, without a doubt Palace’s standout man, you need to let him have that freedom to flourish which he doesn’t obtain in Hodgson’s current system.
Out wide in general, Palace have some impressive primary options with Zaha and Townsend, but both players need more freedom in order to create chances. When played, Townsend enjoys staying out on the right wing but Zaha on the opposing wing loves to play as an inside forward and regularly cuts inside to offer the striker support.
How Palace Could Line Up to Be More Attacking
In order to give the two wide players more freedom, Hodgson could look to drop a more defensive-minded central midfielder in favour of Meyer who can help to contribute when Palace attack. With the German on the left, Hodgson could look to play Meyer as a ‘mezzala,’ influencing the left side of the pitch to free up Zaha who can then take up a more advanced role alongside the main striker.
When possession is then surrendered, Meyer and Townsend would still be in position to slot back into the midfield line to protect the backline. This role would depend on Meyer’s discipline and decision making, but could be an option to make Palace more of a threat offensively.
It has to be remembered that ten years ago Crystal Palace were in real trouble. A draw away to Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the 2009-10 Championship season kept them from dropping into League One. With potential liquidation looming for the South London side, Steve Parish became the Eagles chairman and has since kept the club on a steady progressive line.
“It is magnificent to see where Crystal Palace are and who knows where the club would have been had we not stayed in the division 10 years ago,” said Palace legend Darren Ambrose in an interview this week with PA news agency.
“Looking back at that team I was in, it was fantastic and one of the best I played in, in terms of characters. We put Palace where they are now and everyone played their part in my opinion. This is probably beyond’s Steve’s wildest dreams when he looks back over the 10 years.”
Runners-up in the FA Cup Final in 2016, Palace fans have a lot to be proud of in terms of recent history and the fact that some fans were so furious on social media after the Burnley loss in particular due to its knock-on effect in terms of Europa qualification highlights just how far the club has come in a short period of time.
The lack of youth in the first team at Selhurst Park is alarming though, and the fact that Hodgson himself spent his own youth career at Palace makes it even more curious that he seems so averse to giving the club’s youngsters more playing time.
18-year-old winger Brandon Pierrick and 20-year-old left back Tyrick Mitchell in particular have impressed recently in the club’s youth system and should have featured more in the Palace first-team squad this term. The latter, who made his debut at Leicester on Saturday, is now a target for London rivals Tottenham and if that transfer is completed, it would be a bitter one to swallow, not only for Palace fans but for the youth academy staff.
There’s other players in the academy who are highly rated but are completely overlooked by Hodgson. With the Eagles looking to upgrade many of their facilities in the near future, their youth set-up in particular, you have to wonder if the former England manager is the right man to push the club forward, both on and off the pitch.
As the club prepares for its eighth consecutive season in the Premier League, Crystal Palace are now well into the process of upgrading their youth academy and trying to gain ‘category one’ academy status. The upgrade plans the club proposed last year were approved in March after being supported by the local Bromley council and if work is completed, Crystal Palace will be in a position to ‘provide first-class playing, training and education facilities to more than 220 young players on a single site opposite the first-team Training Ground, inspiring a new generation of local talent’ in their own words.
Photo: CPFC / KSS
The plans offer Palace and their fans a long-term hope that if the South London club can stay in the Premier League for the foreseeable future, financially the Eagles could really begin to challenge towards the top end of the table by producing, nurturing and then selling talent from the local area.
Obviously, the opening of the upgraded youth academy in Bromley is still, at best, years away, but Palace need to put a structure in place at the management level to be prepared to take full advantage of such a wonderful set-up when the time comes.
In the short term and on the pitch, changes and transfers need to be made. The outbreak of COVID-19 could hit a club like Palace hard as funds will be even more difficult to find. It means that it’s now more unlikely that funds could be raised through player departures as other clubs also feel the pinch.
This could be bad news for Zaha, who has made it clear in recent years that if given the chance, the Ivorian winger would pursue a transfer to a bigger domestic side. However, if clubs weren’t willing to spend the £70 million Palace have previously quoted for his transfer in recent years, pre-pandemic times that is, it’s almost a certainty again that his transfer won’t materialise this summer.
Photo: Alex Livesey / Getty
With an ageing squad, something has to change in the short term though if Palace are to push towards Europa League qualification in the coming years and settle a fanbase who now want to watch more entertaining football.
The most likely transfers in and out of the club over summer are seemingly likely to be at the back. With reported interest from Ligue 1 outfit Lyon, Palace are looking ever-more likely to cash in on Sahko and that could be a good move given his injury concerns and lapses of concentration at the back in recent times.
At the same time, Palace are now favourites to win the signature of 19-year-old West Brom central defender Nathan Ferguson who has had an impressive full debut season at The Hawthorns and could really help give Palace a youthful edge next season. Moves like these need to become more frequent if Palace are going to improve over the coming seasons.
No matter what happens, it’s likely to be another interesting offseason for a Crystal Palace side who are currently overachieving on the pitch under Hodgson, but need to urgently future proof themselves in order to sustain their recent successes.
By: Nathan Evans
Featured Image: @GabFoligno