By James Smith
Having won their first three points against Chelsea to end a run of seven straight defeats, Crystal Palace fans could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief.
Whilst it is true they earned the three points, however, they were by no means up against a Chelsea team on top form. As such, Roy Hodgson still has his work cut out, but what must he do to save this side from the drop?
1. Build your team around your threats
If the game against Chelsea told Roy anything, it is that Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend are currently his greatest threats going forward. And, once target man Christian Benteke returns from injury in mid-November, they will have a front three with pace, strength, skill and aggression that will be a headache for any defence in the league.
To utilise this trio though, Hodgson must firstly ensure all three remain fit. Then the rest of the team need to understand how to get the best out of their front three by going directly to Benteke, playing the other two in behind, or quickly moving the play out wide to get the ball to the Belgium striker in the box, where he is, after all, a great threat.
2. Forget about Frank de Boer
With the above in mind, this second point seems fitting. Although in many eyes De Boer’s expansive, passing football was a step forward for the club, now he has been relieved of his position Palace need to stop trying to adopt the Dutchman’s philosophy in the defensive third.
Too many times during the 4-0 loss to Manchester United in September they lost the ball by overplaying at the back, when employing the direct football they are best suited to would have made much more sense. This is not to say that Palace should be restricted to this football forever, but, with the current personnel, possession football should be put aside in favour of direct, aggressive attacking play.
3. Stay organised
In a similar vein, if a team such as Palace expects to remain competitive in the Premier League then organisation and discipline must return to their defence as soon as possible.
Palace cannot hope to command and dictate the state of play against most of their opposition, and as such must be prepared for large periods on the pitch without the ball. Poor marking gifted Manchester United, in the case of Mata and Lukaku, and Chelsea simple goals.
Hodgson is definitely a manager able to organise and set up a defensively-orientated team, but he is also a manager running out of games where the performance and not the result can be appraised.
4. Stay positive
Whilst easier said than done it seems clear that Palace would benefit greatly from keeping their heads up for the full 90 minutes.
In recent games against the two Manchester teams, they did this until they conceded the first goals (having hit the post against City) and then all confidence dissipated. In contrast, when Chelsea equalised at Selhurst Park, the visitors continued to press and push forward, reaping the rewards with a deserved second goal.
As such, it seems that if Hodgson can enthuse some more energy into his team and stop making public comments such as saying his team “look like a beaten boxer” then they may actually be able to play 90 minutes to the best of their abilities.
Despite the evident ability the Eagles’ front three posses, as well as that extra spark Cabaye can provide in midfield, the Palace bench does not provide enough depth for the south London club to consistently challenge the teams around them.
This was shown clearly by the lack of firepower displayed in the games during which Townsend and Zaha were not present. Hodgson himself has hinted at this by stating “Zaha cannot keep Palace up alone.” For the time being, however, the former England manager will have to contend with the squad he was left with, and hope he has more success in the January transfer market than his predecessor had during the summer.
Whilst this may paint a very bleak picture of the situation at Crystal Palace at the moment, this is the current reality. One positive Palace fans can take, though, is that Hodgson has proven himself at this level with West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, and, although he may not have enjoyed similar success on the international level, he remains a tactically astute and strong domestic manager.
Photograph: Ardfern via Wikimedia Commons