Crystal Palace were a popular pick to struggle in 2019-20, but crafty veteran Roy Hodgson oversaw a mid-table finish with few wider worries.
Once the league settled down they were never higher than seventh or lower than their finishing position of fourteenth. However, despite all but securing safety in a pre-pandemic world (the hiatus started when they were on 39 points) their form in the short summer recall was dismal (1-1-7). It’s always hard to evaluate a team with little obvious reason to max out performance, but these games were closer to the relatively poor metrics that Palace had put up through to March.
Year on year, this decline was real. While 2018-19’s twelfth placed finish had not foretold doom for this aging squad--it was backed up by tenth placed, borderline par expected goal output--pre-Covid 2019-20 was different. A -0.41 xG per game stat line ranked 17th and the decline was all inhabited within the attack. The team went backwards from twelve shots a game the season before to under ten; at that stage a league worst total. And then, upon restarting, the performances started to match the numbers. When looking at the last two seasons (shown here in the trendlines) we can clearly see how the metrics were okay in 2018-19 and distinctly-not-okay in 2019-20. This is a huge red flag.
Hodgson had been well aware of his team’s potential failings, stating in September that:
“We'd like to score more but we've not been a prolific goalscoring team in these two years”.
This was a comment based on seasons scoring 45 and 51 goals. In 2019-20 they notched just 31, the lowest total in their entire history. Defence may be the priority for Roy, but usually when your attack is underperforming like this you run the risk of landing in a relegation battle. That this didn’t happen here feels like a stroke of fortune that should be recognised as such ahead of this new season. Palace got tangibly worse and somehow never had to face the music. Intriguingly, Pandemic Season One 2019-20, saw “footballing” teams like Norwich and Bournemouth relegated while Aston Villa and for half a season West Ham were also football first, results later and struggled. It doesn’t always play out this way though, and importantly, Palace's age factor won't fail to kick in forever.
This is the oldest team in the league by some margin. Their average age last season was pushing 30 in a division where 27 is normal. No player under the age of 26 played any significant minutes at all. This was the main factor that provoked pessimism ahead of 2019-20, but now with declining metrics on top of that plus another year, it’s hard to project this team positively:
Goalkeeper Vicente Guaita was a difference maker in 2019-20. We had him ranked third in the Premier League for how active he was in making claims, behind Nick Pope and Alex McCarthy, while for shot stopping only Hugo Lloris and Emiliano Martinez (who had a fine pro-rata run in the late season) were ahead of him. Before arriving in England he was decent for Getafe, and no worse than average in 2018-19 for Palace, so despite age, has scoped out as a fairly positive contributor over a reasonable period of time. As ever though, maintaining hope that your goalkeeper is above average is a function of limited utility to pin hopes upon.
You know what you get with Wilfried Zaha. High volume dribbling, a shot map that eschews a central vortex, turnovers, fouls won and a ceiling that probably explains why the oft mooted big move has never quite materialised. His 2018-19 season saw ten goals, but only four of those were from his main shooting zone; fairly wide on his flank. He continued to shoot from there regularly in 2019-20 but notched just twice from out wide and four times overall while seven total goal contributions was around half his previous two seasons. All his expected contributions mirrored this and declined to their lowest levels since 2016-17 and it's hard to isolate the chicken from the egg. Zaha wasn't particularly good, but nor were any of his attacking teammates. Christian Benteke continues to be an unfortunate poster boy for expected goal variance. This time round his two non-penalty goals came from an expectation of over four. Interestingly, his scoring woes inhabit precisely Roy Hodgson's tenure. The season or so prior to his arrival Benteke was around par--13 goals from 13 xG. Ever since, for three long seasons, it's been hard graft for little reward:
Jordan Ayew scored nine league goals and remains one of the hardest working forwards around. He ranked second for pressure events and fifth for counterpressures among strikers in the division but eighth and 26th for the volume of team regains recorded as a result of them. He's putting the legwork in, but the team doesn't quite push up enough to enact rewards from that. Only two players broached over a quarter of a goal a game contribution for combined goals and assists, Ayew and er... Jeff Schlupp. Only Benteke exceeded the same rate for expected values but under shot by half, and only he again contributed to more than two and a half shots and key passes per game. Whichever way you look at Palace, either in possession or out of it, their attackers ploughed lonely furrows and scarcely clicked.
With the window likely closing on a sizeable windfall for Zaha, team investment may miss a shot in the arm that could have helped from his departure. They simply have to get younger this window and their first two ventures into the transfer market do finally reflect that as do Hodgson's recent comments:
"We are assembling the pieces of our jigsaw with regard to bringing in some fresh, young players to our squad who will provide the quality and energy we have highlighted as being necessary for us to take the next steps forward."
Firstly, Nathan Ferguson arrived for an as yet undecided fee from West Brom. A versatile defender, he instantly injects youth and promise in to the line up but at 19 years old, ideas towards contribution this season should probably be tempered.
More exciting is the arrival of Eberechi Eze from QPR, for what could be a decent fee, somewhere south of £20m. The Londoner's breakout season saw him notch 14 goals and 7 assists from varied attacking and midfield positions and regularly show up in highlight reels. He is positionally versatile, but frequently occupied the left side--much like Zaha has. How will the attackers all fit together? Zaha did spend time coming from the right in 2019-20 and specifically up front in 2018-19 so it's possible that whoever isn't the left sided starter of the two will find themselves filling different roles in different games, depending on other selection choices (mixing with some combination of one or more of Andros Townsend, Benteke and Ayew too). I'm not going to profess to having seen much of Eze--there's only so much time in the world, even in lockdown--but ideas around why he may have appealed to the Palace dealmakers aren't too far from home. He looks to be slightly more secure on the ball, which is an intriguing boost for an ostensibly flair player and having just turned 22, it's hard not to see his best years as imminent:
Even then, there is a cautionary side of "what next?" for Eze. A headline of 14 goals and 7 assists look great, but he started every game last season, and once you do the maths, it squares off at around 0.35 goals or assists per game, ahead of an expectation below 0.3. His passing threat is boosted by his set-piece contributions which is both great (useful players to have!) and cautionary (his xG Assisted numbers aren't huge, and shrunk just to open play, er... shrink). He looks fairly pressure resistant too which may help him gel into the side, but he is joining the league's worst attack.
Also likely to arrive is Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher fresh off a split season with Charlton then Swansea in the Championship. His differing impact across the two tenures are a great example of why data evaluation is only part of any kind of player evaluation. Gallagher's comments here:
"I think at Swansea they have more of the ball than Charlton did, and he [manager Steve Cooper] gave me a chance to create more chances and I think that's why I've got a number of assists for Swansea." are reflected tidily in the numbers:
A hard-working youngster, without understanding his more withdrawn role at Charlton, it could be easy to believe he wasn't capable of being an attacking contributor, but empowered at Swansea and pushed more frequently into a central attacking midfield role, passes into the box from open play increased, his throughball rate rose, chances created came and assists followed. He's got genuine ability in front of the box, and there's just enough about him and Eze to wonder if Hodgson is looking at a change of tack and getting a rare central creator into his side.
All evidence is that Eze and Gallagher are talented players, but they could bring their best game, and still find it hard to shine in this team. They will hopefully get ample chance to prove their promise but if the season gets gritty, will Hodgson bunker down?
Projection The gambling community is understandably well aware of the risks surrounding Palace's near term potential and Sporting Index opened up with a sub-40 point, fifth worst projection. Palace have averaged below a point a game in 2020, and won four from 18 in that period. The trending is wrong and it will take distinct and real change to the team's metrics to give them a chance of steering clear of a relegation battle. Hodgson has been in the game long enough to see the warning signs and in most Premier League seasons there are double the amount of teams that perform at a level to put themselves into the relegation mix, so he may like the chances of winning a coin flip. But planning and execution of strategy are what limit risks such as this, and having been reactive rather than proactive in turning over their squad it could well be tough for the club. Offered seventeenth today, you'd have to take it.
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