Following a season where Crystal Palace finished comfortably in 14th position, nine points clear of 18th place Bournemouth, the Eagles will be looking forward to an 8th successive season in the Premier League. This is by far the longest spell spent in the top flight of English football in the club’s history.
It’s a fantastic achievement for a club who’s previous longest tenure in the top division was the four year period from 1989 to 1993, when they found themselves relegated at the end of the first ever Premier League season. After that relegation Palace became a yo-yo club, with three promotions to the Premier League achieved in the following ten years, which were followed by immediate relegation back to the second tier.
Palace had failed to establish themselves as a Premier League club until this spell but seven years in, they are now part of the furniture in the top flight and will want to maintain that.
Despite the comfortable league position attained in the 19/20 season, there were two alarming issues that Palace will need to address ahead of the new season.
First and foremost, Palace finished the season taking just one point from their last eight games, and only four points after Project Restart. With only 17 points taken from the second half – 19 games, of the season, Palace need to shake that sort of relegation form ahead of the new season. The 14th place finish was, in truth, slightly disappointing given that after their first 19 games, they sat in 9th position.
The other alarming issue is the lack of goals Palace scored last season. The South London club found the net only 31 times, 2 of which were own goals. They scored only nine goals in their last 19 games, and failed to score more than two goals in a single game last season. They also failed to register a single goal in either cup competition.
In the history of the Premier League only 23 teams, not counting Palace, scored so few goals across a league campaign. Of those 23 only six avoided relegation. Of those six, three were relegated the following season and another was relegated two seasons later. Only Leeds United in 96/97 and Manchester City in 2006/07 managed to maintain Premier League status beyond that point.
There’s clearly a link between the lack of goals and collapse in form, and the hope will be that if they can add goals to the team, then their form should rebound.
Palace have made their first move to that end, announcing the signing of Eberechi Eze, the immensely talented attacking midfielder from QPR. That fee has been reported as anything from £16mil to £19.5mil, which represents a big investment for Palace, especially when considering their transfer business over the past two years. In the 18/19 season, Palace spent only £9.5mil, and in 19/20 they spent even less.
It’s not really a surprise that their league position has dipped from 11th to 12th to 14th over the past three seasons when you look at the lack of spending over the past two years but Palace’s owners have probably been a little hesitant to invest under Roy Hodgson given they splashed out heavily to support Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce and Frank De Boer.
In Pardew’s time in charge, Palace spent over £100mil on new additions, followed by a further £30mil in the one transfer window overseen by Allardyce. They backed DeBoer to the tune of £40mil, before firing him after five games in charge. For Palace to spend £170mil in such a short space of time was a big outlay. The only notable sales in that time were Yannick Bolasie and Dwight Gayle, who brought around £40mil back into the club.
That type of net spend isn’t sustainable for Palace and perhaps explains the past couple of seasons, and the decision not to reinvest the money from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s sale into the team.
But Palace need to spend more money this summer. They simply have to. They have an ageing squad and a lack of goals. A failure to invest could lead to relegation, which could prove disastrous for the long term health of the club.
A look through their squad shows a need for fresh blood throughout. Palace’s most regular starting 11 – Guaita, Ward-Tomkins-Cahill-Van Aanholt, Townsend-Kouyate-Milivojevic-McArthur-Zaha, Ayew – last season had an average age of 30.2 years of age. Palace need to get younger, they need to get more dynamic and the need to get better in attack. They don’t need an immediate overhaul, but they need to improve in a number of areas.
Palace have a good starting keeper in Vicente Guaita, and a solid back-up in Wayne Hennessy, but both of them, and the third choice keeper Stephen Henderson, are well past their 30th birthdays. Palace should be looking for a long term option that can be developed into the starting spot. It could be worth placing a call to Stoke regarding Josef Bursik to see if they’d be willing to part with their gifted young shot-stopper.
Joel Ward reclaimed the starting right back position after Wan-Bissaka’s departure and is a good honest professional who gives his all, but he lacks real quality in that position. He’s decent at everything but lacks a stand out skill. He’ll likely become the back-up in that position now, with the signing of Nathan Ferguson from West Bromwich Albion.
Ferguson arrives with some injury issues but to sign a player of his quality and potential on a free transfer is excellent business for Palace. There will be a fee, set by a tribunal, but it will be minimal when considered against how good Ferguson can become. He has the potential to become a lock-down fullback, similar to Wan-Bissaka. He may even become a better defender, as he’s less reliant on athleticism and has better technique.
On the left hand side of the defense, Palace are in good shape. Patrick Van Aanholt is one of the better leftbacks in the league, especially from an attacking standpoint. He is 30, but Tyrick Mitchell offers a youthful back-up with the potential to be the long term starter. Van Aanholt is in the last year of his contract and Palace should move quickly to extend him beyond the summer of 2021. Jeff Schlupp can also fill in at left back but does prefer to play further forward.
There are plenty of options in the central defensive area, but unfortunately for Palace they are all ageing and injury prone. Gary Cahill and Mamadou Sakho are the pick of the bunch, with James Tomkins, Martin Kelly and Scott Dann also dependable players. When fit. The issue is that all of them have had injury problems, with only Cahill managing to start more than half of Palace’s League matches last season, and even he missed 13 games.
Palace should probably look to move on one of Tomkins, Kelly and Dann this summer. Dann is out of contract but still appears to be training at the club. Palace should avoid the urge to retain him and instead bring in a young central defender who can learn from the experienced professionals at the club. In a year, Martin Kelly will be out of contract and Gary Cahill may well retire so a new defender will be needed. Best for Palace if they can preempt those things. Mattie Pollock at Grimsby represents the perfect option.
At just 18 years of age, Pollock is already developing a stellar reputation after a string of impressive performances in League 2. He’s exactly the type of central defender that fits in this Palace team, and could be developed slowly given the presence of the existing group. With Jairo Riedewald also still at the club, though more of a midfielder than a defender these days, there would be minimal pressure on Pollock. Palace could even look to loan him for half the season so he can get game time at a lower level. Pollock has been compared to James Tarkowski and Harry Maguire, and if Palace could land themselves a defender of that calibre it could be massive for the future of the club.
In midfield, Palace are just as well stocked as they are at centre-back, but also just as in need of a bit of youth.
Luka Milivojevic is club captain, and Palace’s most important player. He’s the leader of the team, the engine in midfield and the shielder of the defense. He’s one of the best in the league in his role and a player Palace can rely on to consistently perform at a high level. He’s also a very good penalty taker, which could be very important if Eze signs and starts to terrorize defenders. Riedewald offers a solid back-up presence, and potentially a successor given he’s still only 23.
James McArthur is Palace’s most unappreciated player by those who don’t watch him regularly. He’s the one that knits things together and does all the little things that are only really noticed when he’s not there to do them. Unfortunately for Palace, he will turn 33 in October and has already showed some signs of slowing down. His nominal back-up is his former Hamilton Academicals team-mate, James McCarthy. McCarthy shook off years of injuries and rust in his first season at Palace, but he turns 30 in November and isn’t a long term solution. Max Meyer could potentially have filled this role, but his signing has been nothing short of a disaster and Palace would be well served to try to offload him this summer.
If the money was available, Lewis Cook of Bournemouth would fit this role to a tee, and has the talent and potential to be a better player than McArthur. Assuming the price for him might be too high, Flynn Downes of Ipswich might be a really good option.
The box to box midfield role is occupied by Cheikhou Kouyate, who has proved a solid addition since joining from West Ham. You’d ideally like to get more goals from him but he’s a presence all over the pitch. Like most of his team-mates he’s already past his 30th birthday and he’s another that Palace should begin to look as needing a successor. Joe Aribo of Rangers would be a good fit but he would be expensive. John Swift of Reading could be a smart pick-up at a decent price. Youngster Scott Banks is promising and if developed properly could well become a long term fixture with Palace..
In attack, Zaha is the only player at the club who should be starting regular Premier League games. Other than Eze.
Christian Benteke has been a big disappointment for Palace. After a decent first season, the striker has managed just six goals in his last 75 games. He was bought to be the main man, he was bought to fire the bullets loaded by Zaha. He hasn’t lived up to the price tag and has gotten consistently worse with each passing season. Palace extended his contract for a season, meaning he will be free to leave in the summer of 2021. That one year extension was probably a mistake. Palace won’t get any money for a player earning the type of money Benteke takes home, when there is close to zero return. It might have been better to make a clean break.
Andros Townsend is no more than a back-up at this point in his career, the same goes for Jordan Ayew. They are good situational players but should not be relied on to play each and every game. Jeff Schlupp is less talented than those two but can provide a decent outlet on the left, and Brandon Pierrick is a promising young player.
Palace do own Alexander Sorloth, but he is due to spend another season on loan at Trabzonspor, as part of a two year loan. Palace spent £9million on Sorloth, loaned him to Gent a year later after 1 goal in 20 appearances and then sent him to Turkey having decided he wasn’t good enough. Sorloth responded by scoring 33 goals in 49 games in his first season with Trabzon’s finest. Palace can recall Sorloth, but would likely have to pay a compensation fee to Trabzonspor.
It’s a move they should consider, as it will be cheaper than a lot of the alternative options out there. They could also potentially see if Chelsea, in the process of buying 85 new players, might be willing to part with former Palace loanee Michy Batshuayi on the cheap. The Batsman has only one year left on his contract at Chelsea, so a bid in the region of £10mil might be enough to land him.
If Palace could add two goalscorers to the squad, to go with Ayew and whatever they can get from Benteke in his final year, they will become more potent as long as the supply line is there.
Zaha is obviously the main supplier of chances at the moment. There’s a lot of talk that he may push to leave Palace this season, but where are his suitors? There is no obvious landing spot for Zaha in the Premier League’s traditional top 6, the elite clubs in Germany – Bayern, France – PSG, Italy – Juventus and Inter Milan, and Spain – Real Madrid and Barcelona, don’t have a need for him and the other clubs in those leagues likely don’t have the money for him. He could potentially go to Leicester, or Wolves or maybe Aston Villa.
Those clubs could afford him, but is a move to any of those clubs attractive to Zaha?
If Palace sell him, they will have plenty of money to replace him and improve other areas of the team but it will be in their best interests to keep him. If they could get him to buy in, and shift to the right side of a front 3, that would simplify his game and potentially make him more explosive and more productive.
Sorloth, or someone like Batshuayi, would benefit massively from the service Zaha could provide from the right hand side.
And Eze would come in on the left hand side. He would bring creativity and more goals to the team, and take the burden away from Zaha. Zaha and Eze would form one of the most talented creative attacking duos in the league and if Palace have a real striker, capable of taking chances, it could lead to a transformative moment for the team. The clogged toilet style of attack they’ve operated in recent years could potentially be replaced by something far more enjoyable to watch, and far more productive for the team.
Hodgson will need to change slightly, from a 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3, or even a 4-4-2 with Zaha and Eze plus two strikers. Eze’s presence will require Zaha to move to the right, unless Hodgson plans to play one of them as part of the front two.
Hodgson himself is out of contract next summer, and Palace really should beginning planning for life after him. Could they tempt Eddie Howe into joining the club as his assistant for a year with the promise of the top job next summer? Howe’s biggest weakness is Hodgson’s strength, and vice versa. One can’t set up a defense, the other can’t develop an attack worthy of the name. Perhaps a collaboration between the two could have short and long term benefits for Palace.
Regardless, Palace need to begin to change how the play over the coming season because history suggests that if they don’t, they will find themselves facing life in the Championship.