Crystal Palace have a good news, bad news situation going on. The good news is that they’ve been pretty good, probably even better than their point totals the last couple of seasons suggest. That bad news is that they’re likely to get worse, maybe quickly.
First, the positives. In his almost two full seasons, Roy Hodgson has this team playing pretty well. Two seasons ago he took over with them sitting bottom (although with considerably evidence they were a better team than their record), navigated them to midtable, survived an injury crisis and installed a slightly unorthodox system involving an extremely narrow midfield four with two converted wingers, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend as forwards.
He followed that up with a fairly unremarkable season, one which again saw Palace put up decent numbers despite Christian Benteke struggling at forward, relying on Michy Batshuayi to come in on loan and provide just enough goals for the team to coast comfortably home. On the whole, the teams numbers aren’t going to get anybody dreaming of greatness, but they sure should keep a side safe from any real risk of relegation. The bottom line is that despite a defensive blip towards the end of last season, things have been generally moving in the right direction.
The bad news is that this team is old. Very old. The young star they managed to hold onto, Zaha, is going to be 27. Their sole actual young talent, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is now Manchester United’s right back of the future. The list of even plausibly young talented players in the squad consists of Max Meyer. Tat’s it. And their incoming transfers are James McCarthy, and Gary Cahill, which is the opposite of young talent. Even if the squad is fine right now, it won’t be in a year or two.
Crystal Palace are in desperate need of a rebuild, the kind which involves spending money on young players who might develop into the pillars of a Premier League team for years to come. Unfortunately, that money doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Spending now, on players who can keep the team competitive would surely be less expensive than flailing around throwing money at whatever players happen to be available if and when a relegation fight does occur.
With Zaha staying, there should be enough talent hanging around Selhurst Park to ensure that Palace survive another season, but it’s not a slam dunk. Zaha is asked to do an awful lot of attacking work. He needs to both move the ball up the field, create shots for himself, and set up teammates. He’s extremely adept at dropping deeper, and carrying the ball into the final third.
He’s also totally able to either bring the ball into the box himself.
Or feed it to a teammate (yellow passes indicate an incomplete pass)
Zaha’s game, however, is so tailored to attacking the box from the side, that it makes his shot chart…challenging. Ten goals are great, but when you’re shooting almost exclusively from these angles, that return is unlikely to continue.
And that’s a problem for Palace because they need Zaha’s goals. Christian Benteke is the sides only proven striker. And he’s spent the last two years working extremely hard to un-prove himself. He’s 28 with a significant injury history, and he’s been in and out of the lineup over the last two seasons both because he can’t stay healthy and because his form has been, let’s call it imprecise.
Over the last two years Benteke has been king of the can’t shoot straight club. His underlying numbers are fine, good even. His expected goals from over the last two seasons in somewhat limited minutes total to just over 11. He’s actually found the back of the net three times. Last season his shot chart looked like this.
Now, due to limited playing time, he’s only taken a total of 85 shots over the two years combined. It’s certainly possible that Benteke is just in a shooting slump, and continued minutes should see the pendulum swing back towards normal. On the other hand, maybe he’s just cooked. Each of the last two seasons Hodgson has turned away from Benteke and looked for other solutions, this year he won’t have much choice but to hope that the big man finally finds his form again.
The Benteke issue is just emblematic of the larger structural problem with Palace. There’s not a whole lot of upside to be found, but the downside risks are starting to mount. A good Benteke season doesn’t really take Palace anywhere above the midtable range, but a bad one might put them on the brink. A healthy Zaha season keeps the competitive, but not much more, were he to miss significant time the team might not be able to survive it.
A more carefully constructed team would mix upside and downside. Sure maybe the striker struggles, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka has a breakout year and makes a giant leap forwards. Some players get old and drop off, others step into the breach. That’s not Crystal Palace’s team now. There veteran mix of players are all quite competent but they aren’t going to suddenly become stars. They might, however, start to get old and decline.
Running a team in the bottom half of the Premier League is hard work. It’s like being on a treadmill constantly pulling a side towards the relegation battle. It’s hard to keep improving young players on the quad. The best ones get snapped up by the bigger, richer clubs, and if your lucky enough (and willing to commit the wages) to keep one or two, players like Zaha still involve constant battles to keep around. Meanwhile the stalwart pros responsible for your success continue to get older and all need to be replaced.
Crystal Palace are on the Premier League treadmill. The last two seasons saw them unexpectedly make some strides forward. But, by standing still they’re being dragged inexorably backwards towards that relegation battle. It may not happen this year, but without a lot of work it’s going to keep getting closer. The team is old and not getting any better. It probably won’t kill them this year, but before long it will be too late to stop the trend.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association