They got there in the end.
After failing to get a single point on the board until October, and spending almost the entirety of the first half of the season in the bottom three, Palace were fairly comfortable by May. The team settled on an eleventh placed finish, a respectable eight points away from 18th place Swansea. Thus we had a clear narrative: new manager Frank de Boer’s absolutely disastrous reign came to an abrupt end with firefighter Roy Hodgson gradually taking the side from an unspeakably terrible embarrassment to a solidly respectable team capable of staying in the league. Right?
Palace may not have been entirely broken under De Boer. They weren’t great, exactly, but for a club transitioning to a completely different style of play under a new manager having done very little preparation for it in the transfer market, an expected goal difference per game (over a small sample size of five games) of -0.28 was entirely reasonable. The problem they had was some horrific finishing, which saw them score not a single goal from an xG of 4.77.
Shit can happen over 58 shots. There was not significant reason to think that this horrific finishing run was likely to continue, or that it was caused by bad coaching. We will never know what a full season of Palace under De Boer would look like, but the underlying numbers were solid, with a possibility that things would improve with greater coaching time. Nonetheless, bad results caused unrest both in the boardroom and the dressing room, with the decision makers at the club making the sudden move to bring in Roy Hodgson, a supposed safe pair of hands who plays a style more traditionally seen at smaller clubs in the Premier League. Though Palace were not in need of “fixing”, Hodgson did actually improve the side, and they were really quite good at times, putting up the best expected goal difference outside of the top 6.
Playing a low block system, ranking as the second deepest side in the league terms of where defensive actions took place, Palace were an effective unit in a fairly uninteresting way. Luka Milivojevic and one of either Yohan Cabaye or James McArthur in central midfield would sit in front of the back four. The wide midfielders, often Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andros Townsend, would take up very narrow roles on the opposite flank to their stronger footed sides. This narrow 4-4-2 is the approach Hodgson deployed to success at Fulham and West Brom (and to abject failure at Liverpool, but that’s an article for another day), and it made Palace reasonably solid here.
On the attacking side, things were somewhat less settled, though not bad. For much of the season, Christian Benteke led the line, and things got somewhat strange. Having been a reliable goalscorer in the Premier League throughout his senior career, he managed a total of 3 goals for the whole of 2017/18, one of which was a penalty. He didn’t have a problem getting chances either, picking up 8.76 expected goals. For whatever reason, be it bad luck or a genuine problem with his game, Benteke suddenly had a historically terrible finishing year.
The good news for Palace is that everything we know about finishing suggests this is extremely unlikely to happen again. The outcome one would expect is for Benteke to return to the goalscoring form of his first season at Selhurst Park and Aston Villa, and for it to be as though last year never happened. Hodgson, however, disagreed with this view, and took Benteke out of the side towards the end of the season, often favouring an unconventional strike partnership of Wilfried Zaha and Townsend. Though neither are as much of a goalscoring threat as Benteke, this led to a much more fluid and mobile attack. With Loftus-Cheek developing into an excellent ball carrier on the left, he was able to fashion numerous counter-attacking opportunities for Townsend (at this point a serviceable player for a non-top 6 side) and Zaha.
There is no doubting who the key player was, though. Having been moved from his traditional wide role to generally being part of some kind of strike partnership, Wilfried Zaha had the best season of his career. Only two players outside the top 6 were able to put up better expected goals and assists per 90 than the Ivorian, and of the top ten only Riyad Mahrez came anywhere close to replicating Zaha’s 2.89 dribbles per 90. That he’s added more in terms of shot involvement while still maintaining his dribble value is really impressive, and Palace now have a genuine star to build around.
In terms of the transfer market, things have been somewhat mixed for Palace. Loftus-Cheek has returned to his parent club Chelsea, taking his excellent value in progressing the ball with him. His reported direct replacement is Jordan Ayew, noted veteran of mediocre Premier League sides. Ayew is a hard working player, and his mobility should allow him to fit in fairly seamlessly with the fast, fluid attack of Zaha and Townsend. It’s hard to imagine him offering the creative work of Loftus-Cheek, though, and expectations should probably be of merely a solid contributor.
The other notable outgoing is Yohan Cabaye on a free transfer. Cabaye never came close to replicating his Newcastle form at Selhurst Park, but he still did some useful things. Despite his reputation from earlier in his career as more of a cultured deep lying playmaker, his main asset last season was as Palace’s most aggressive presser, with his 21.2 pressures per 90 the most of any player in the side. The most obvious replacement for him is Cheikhou Kouyaté from West Ham for £9.5m, the only real transfer fee Palace paid this summer. In his time at West Ham, it often seemed like Kouyaté’s main skill was finding himself out of position, so it’s not clear how he will help a Palace team in which Hodgson wants his midfielders to take up disciplined roles in front of the back four. And on purely statistical grounds, there doesn’t seem to be much that he does better than Cabaye. At age 28, this is very much a move for the here and now, and as such this doesn’t seem like an inspiring signing.
Perhaps the highest profile arrival, however, is Germany international Max Meyer on the now familiar free transfer from Schalke. Meyer spent his youth career being touted as one of the most prodigious talents in German football, so that he’s ended up moving to Crystal Palace instead of Bayern Munich suggests things haven’t quite panned out for him. Having often featured in more advanced roles without ever really settling on a defined position, Meyer finally seemed to settle as more of a defensive midfielder in his final year in the Bundesliga. As such, it’s not obvious what role Palace will play him in, or even what his main attributes are, but Hodgson has generally been good throughout his career at getting players to concentrate on their core strengths. At 22 years old, there’s still a chunk of development left for Meyer, so this is the one move that does look to have a higher upside.
In comparison to sides like Fulham and Brighton buying a number of high profile exciting talents from abroad, it’s hard to be too impressed by Palace’s window. It’s not clear who will step up and replicate Loftus-Cheek’s ball progression, making arguably a weaker first eleven than last season. That said, Palace were better than many thought last year, with the strange finishing issues most notably of Christian Benteke leading to them scoring 14.5 fewer goals than expected. In order for this side to push on and achieve more than last term’s 44 points, what probably needs to happen is for Hodgson to find a way to integrate Benteke’s target man role with the more fluid attacking moves of Zaha and Townsend. Whether that is doable remains to be seen, but Palace still have a solid side, and another midtable finish is probably a reasonable aim.
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