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The Overachievers: Crystal Palace

It’s a strange situation Crystal Palace fans find themselves in nowadays. In January it will be five years since the club were placed in administration after the ineptitude of Simon Jordan’s stewardship. Since then, the club has survived and thrived by the slimmest of margins; first, a 2-2 draw in a relegation showdown with Sheffield Wednesday to survive the drop in the Championship. Second, a near-literal last minute buyout by the club’s current owners CPFC2010, saving their club from liquidation. And then lastly, after the turbulence of the George Burley era and the revival of club icon Dougie Freedman’s tenure, a playoff run ending in the tensest of fashions, with an Ian Holloway-led Palace edging out Watford thanks to a Kevin Phillips penalty and a last minute Joel Ward clearance off the line.


Now, three years on from that promotion, Palace currently sit in seventh place in the Premier League at the halfway point. It’s scarcely believable to Palace fans like me, who sat there helpless outside Selhurst Park hoping against all hope that a buyer could be arranged as the clock slowly ticked towards doom five years ago. It’s no fluke, though; Palace have played an intelligent and exciting brand of football to put themselves in this position. Alan Pardew has been beloved at Selhurst Park ever since he scored that famous goal against Liverpool to send the club to the FA Cup final, but the real thing to endear him to this generation of Palace fans has been his clever management of the club and the progressive way he insists on his team to play football.

How they got here

Crystal Palace’s season began with an away win over Norwich City, Wilf Zaha turning in a starring role to send a warning of what was to come for the rest of the season. A close loss at home to Arsenal followed, before a dispatching of Aston Villa and a win at Chelsea that has somewhat lost its lustre as it turned out that Chelsea were in fact rather rubbish this year. It was really after the close 1-0 away defeat at Leicester City in late October that Palace began to shine, though; in the next nine games, the side would lose only once – a bad day at the office at home against Sunderland – and won against the likes of Liverpool, Southampton and Stoke.

An Evolution of Personnel

For the last couple of years, Palace have been a side focused on defence and quick transitions forward on the counter, mainly channelled down the flanks. The pace, trickery and South London street footballing style of vaunted wing duo Yannick Bolasie and Wilf Zaha was an ever-present threat to the opposition, and the team made use of that as much as they could. Sitting deep and narrow and forcing the opposition to either go through a congested centre with tough tacklers like Mile Jedinak and Joe Ledley or stay wide and cross in to box filled with tall, strong players worked a treat, and as soon as Palace had the ball they would break through their wingers and the hold up play of Glenn Murray. With that said, it did make the team a little one-dimensional, and Palace often struggled when they came up against sides that recognised their counterattacking threat and didn’t afford them the space required to pull off their direct transitions.

The off-season addition of Yohan Cabaye this summer changed all that. Cabaye’s presence means that the team can continue to field two hard working tacklers in midfield – last year’s winter transfer James McArthur being the one to nail down a spot beside the Frenchman – but also gives the team another point of creativity to break teams down from deep. Cabaye’s impact as a player has been good, but it’s his effect on the structure and smoothness of play that has been the most important addition to make this a more well-rounded team.

Elsewhere, beloved veteran Julian Speroni started the season with a broken finger, so first Alex McCarthy and later giant Welshman Wayne Hennessey staked their claims for starting roles. Hennessey’s height, presence and reflexes have seen him grab the spot behind a settled defence. Out on the left, Pape Souare has overcome a shaky start to his Palace career to become one of the most reliable players on the team in both attack and defence, whilst on the opposite flank Joel Ward continues to be a steady and effective full-back. In the centre, the evergreen Damien Delaney partners Scott Dann, who has been one of the best centre-backs in the league ever since he arrived in South London from Blackburn in 2014. Ahead of them are the tight duo of Cabaye and McArthur, who are supplemented by the presence of Jason Puncheon as an attacking midfielder. Puncheon, who is better known as a winger, was brought inside in the wake of Marouane Chamakh’s injury and excelled behind the striker as a hard-working and creative player who formed the link between defence and attack. Despite his poor form this season he retains his spot, though with the return of Chamakh and emergence of other threats he may find it hard to hold on to his spot, especially with a little tactical wrinkle Pardew has been developing: we’ll talk about that in a sec.

Pace, Skills and Structure

On the right wing, Wilfried Zaha is back where he belongs and is building his reputation steadily. A number of starring roles earlier in the season – notably against Norwich, Manchester City, Liverpool and especially West Bromwich Albion against a hapless Chris Brunt – have illustrated his growth from a flaky, frustrating winger into a true weapon for his side. Up front, the departure of Glenn Murray has left Palace bereft of a goalscorer, with Chamakh injured and the likes of Fraizer Campbell, Dwight Gayle and Patrick Bamford all not up to scratch. The purchase of Connor Wickham from Sunderland alleviated things to a degree, bringing back some of the hold up play and tireless running that Glenn Murray offered, but so far without the goals.

vs West Brom1

Average Position diagram for Crystal Palace’s 2-0 home win over West Brom.

This diagram showcases Palace’s nominal 4-2-3-1 formation near the start of this season. The back four – albeit here with Adrian Mariappa (34) filling in for the unavailable Joel Ward – are regularly positioned, with James McArthur (18) and Yohan Cabaye (7) working as a pair in midfield ahead of them. Up front, things are a lot more fluid; Wilf Zaha (11) is very far advanced due to how well he was performing against Chris Brunt in this game, and Jason Puncheon (42) is being drawn into the space he’s creating with his charges forward. Striker Dwight Gayle (16) and left winger Yannick Bolasie (highlighted, 10) are in the positions you would expect.

Out on the left, things have been a little less clear. Yannick Bolasie is nominally a left winger, but with Puncheon’s poor form Alan Pardew has been scheming and tweaking to try and improve his side. Towards the end of last year, he experimented with playing the usually profligate Bolasie as a striker. There were times when it worked, including a spectacular hat trick display against Sunderland, but it didn’t quite click on the whole. Now, with an off-season of planning and practice behind them, Pardew and Bolasie have begun to put their practice into action on a much more permanent basis. Palace’s 4-2-3-1 has morphed into something of a 4-4-2ish kind of shape, with Connor Wickham playing the big focal point up front and Bolasie buzzing around just off him, flitting around and switching positions with Zaha and the left winger (generally one of Puncheon or new signings Lee Chung-Yong and Bakary Sako). This is the shape we saw in Palace’s 5-1 demolition of Newcastle, with Zaha sticking mostly to his favoured left wing and isolating Paul Dummett as Puncheon played a slightly more reserved, tucked in role on the left to counter the charges of Daryl Janmaat. Bolasie, meanwhile, popped up everywhere, sometimes doubling up on the beleaguered Dummett, sometimes darting in the space left behind by Janmaat, and often finding gaps between Vurnon Anita and his back four with lateral movement. It’s this movement, fluidity and the fitting in of three versatile forwards in behind Wickham that have made Palace quite exciting to watch.

vs Southampton1

Average Position diagram for Crystal Palace’s 1-0 home win over Southampton.

By the time of their match against Southampton over two months after the West Brom game, Palace’s shape has changed dramatically. The back four are again in a regular shape, although Scott Dann (6) and Damien Delaney (27) prefer to play a bit more of a split role duo than when Dann accompanies Brede Hangeland. In this 4-4-2ish shape, McArthur (18) and Cabaye (7) are still working as a tight duo in the centre and Zaha (11) is still trying to isolate his full back on the right – which he did to devastating effect, as the duo of Ryan Bertrand and Maya Yoshida proved utterly unable to contain him – but the rest of the attackers have changed drastically. Jason Puncheon (42) drifts inside from the left to leave Pape Souare (23) plenty of space to run into, and Connor Wickham (21) provides a focal point at the centre front of the team. Yannick Bolasie (10, highlighted) goes where he pleases, drifting left, right, deep or in this case ahead of Wickham, who intelligently drops deeper than usual to help his midfield win aerial duels against the big duo of Victor Wanyama and Oriol Romeu and leaves Bolasie to test the Southampton defence’s pace.

Where next?

A big transfer window is coming up for Palace. They’re a strong side and a well oiled machine who have diversified their angles of attack this year, but there’s plenty of work still to be done. Whilst most of the back seven of the team – goalkeepers through to holding midfielders – are settled and in good form, there’s still a couple of issues left to address there. First and foremost is the state of the central defender alongside Scott Dann. Damien Delaney has belied his advancing age and previous status as football league journeyman to nail down his spot as starting centre-back with a series of assured performances ever since he arrived three years ago, but behind him options are scarce. Brede Hangeland is older still and though he’s been reliable this season, he can’t be relied upon to start regularly. Martin Kelly, the ex-Liverpool jack of all trades, has yet to properly showcase his talent in a central position. As such, Palace fans will be hoping for a young, talented central defender to challenge Delaney for his place and supersede him in the future. Elsewhere, the backup to Pape Souare at left-back is thin on the ground, though not a priority.

Like most of the defence, the midfield is secure and probably the deepest area of the team. McArthur and Cabaye are supplemented by the grittiness and leadership of captain Mile Jedinak and Joe Ledley, with Jordon Mutch and Chung Yong Lee also having played there recently. Palace are also well stocked with wingers, so it is up front where the gaze inevitably falls in a search for improvement. Wickham’s ability and above all constant running has made him popular amongst the Palace fanbase, and the common consensus is the team can do just fine with him. However, the competition behind him has been a wasteland of the reliable but limited (Fraizer Campbell), unfulfilled (Dwight Gayle) and now the recently departed (Patrick Bamford). At times where the team have faced the prospect of Wickham out injured and Marouane Chamakh increasingly looking more suited to a withdrawn role rather than as a main striker, crucial points have been lost as Palace haven’t had anyone to score goals, let alone perform effectively as a main striker.

Lots of rumours have inevitably been whizzing ‘round South London, especially in the wake of a spate of injuries that have left the team bereft of the services of Wickham, Gayle, Sako and Bolasie. Said injuries have contributed to something of a wobble in form, with draws to Bournemouth and Swansea followed up with a three goal defeat to Chelsea. Palace need a new striker fast, and as such the rumour list has thrown up a truly huge list of potential candidates. Amongst the gossip are such names as Charlie Austin, Benik Afobe, Khouma Babacar, Ademola Lookman, Fulham’s Moussa Dembele, Islam Slimani, Loic Remy, Simone Zaza and Michy Batshuayi, although the latter looks to have ended speculation with a new contract at Marseille.

Charlie Austin seems like a perfect fit, as a big, strong striker with a good eye for goal and a reasonable knack for bringing others in to play, but in the summer he turned down a move to Selhurst Park twice and Alan Pardew has ruled the club out of the running for him. A rumoured move for Dortmund’s Adrian Ramos never came to fruition, but with Chelsea still struggling to get out of the doldrums and interim manager Guus Hiddink looking to shake the squad up a bit, the name of Loic Remy has been brought up more than once. Remy is purportedly tired of life on the bench behind an out of form Diego Costa, and a move to an ambitious and high-flying team like Palace would make sense. He’s not the type of bruiser Football League darling forward that Palace fans are used to, with the usual type of striker gracing Selhurst Park’s pitch looking a bit more like Alan Lee or Glenn Murray than a fast, predatory Frenchman, but given Palace’s shifts in style it could be a move that pays off. A more prototypical choice could be the like of Moussa Dembele or Islam Slimani, two big and strong out and out strikers, but options abound for Pardew and Steve Parish.

Does Europe beckon? Only time will tell.

Nick Meredith
Nick Meredith
Journalist and graphic designer. Crystal Palace fan and an all-round football enthusiast.
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