Complacent Palace? Making the premier league a long-term home

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Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha (right) warming up before the match during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield.

There was a popular consensus, around the time of October of this season where Crystal Palace sat in 6th in the Premier League table after a draw away at Arsenal, which they could have easily won, that there might be no better time to cash in on Wilfried Zaha than in the January transfer window, which passed on Friday 31st.

Zaha is Palace’s main man. Their lead actor. Their star. Ivory Coast born, Croydon bred, and joined the academy Palace, easily the most heavily supported team of that area of South London, at the age of 12. Apart from a dismal spell at Manchester United in the 2013/14 season, a season best remembered for Andy Tate’s iconic rant on FullTimeDevils on YouTube, Zaha has always been a Palace player, with the exception of an indifferent loan spell at Cardiff City in 2014. It is not an exaggeration to say he has provided Palace with some of the club’s best ever moments (though this isn’t perhaps too hard for a club which has never won a major trophy), certainly of the 21st century, most notably scoring a brace in the second leg of the Championship Playoffs semi final in 2013 against arch rivals Brighton (sensational limbs from Palace fans for the goals if you YouTube it by the way), taking them to Wembley in the process where they would get promoted to the Premier League against Watford, and have stayed in the top flight since.

Since then, despite a great escape under Tony Pulis in 2014, Palace have by and large avoided being in the relegation dogfight since, at least by when April arrives, being in lower to mid-table mediocrity in seasons since, using a relatively similar recipe to do so each season: remain solid defensively, and bank on Zaha using his individual brilliance and creativity to win matches on his own. It’s worked quite well- even more so when Zaha has had a centre forward to pounce off his attacking craft, such as Christian Benteke in the 2016/17 season who hit 15 goals (yes, this did actually happen, under Sam Allardyce, of course). As a result, Zaha has been courted by all of the ‘top 6’ clubs, even if half-heartedly in most of these examples, but a move has been close to materialising in recent years, to Arsenal especially, even as recently as the 2019 Summer transfer window where he reportedly turned in a transfer request.

He has stayed, and this season has been in reasonable form. He played well in key wins for Palace in the 1st half of the season, such as the 2-1 win over Manchester United in August, and has been the 2nd most fouled player in the Premier League this season behind Jack Grealish, however didn’t hit his first goal of the season until the 23rd of November against Liverpool at Selhurst Park. Not dreadful, but not setting the world alight has he has done in previous seasons. Despite a more mediocre season from Zaha, Palace flirted with fighting for a European place until December, and it was perhaps in light of this that the consensus of finally cashing on Zaha was developed, with Premier League safety seemingly in the bag.

Zaha celebrates his 2nd goal against Brighton in 2013

Even though the January transfer window is quiet for most clubs, for Palace this was especially the case, keeping Zaha with only one significant incoming transfer of Cenk Tosun on loan from Everton after Nathan Ferguson’s move from West Bromwich Albion fell through in the final two days of the window. This was likely due to the board’s assumption that it wasn’t worth gambling on too many incomings to push for a Europa League spot, given the strong form of Sheffield United and Wolves above them in the table, and that with Palace in mid-table Premier League survival look secured, but alas, as the title of this piece suggests, this is not the case.

Now, I’m not going all in on a ‘bold’ prediction of saying Palace will get relegated, I’ve left that ‘bold’ prediction to be that Newcastle will go down (even though it’s totally reasonable to suggest), however the complacency of Palace’s board is undoubtedly misjudged for a variety of reasons.

Their position in the League wouldn’t be a problem if positions in the Premier League table were even vaguely representative of intervals between teams’ points totals, however this is a bonkers Premier League season where this is just not the case. As of the first weekend of February, the gap between bottom placed Norwich and 5th placed Sheffield United, accounting for more than three quarters of the teams in the Premier League, is 16 points, or to put it in other words a run of 6 wins. The compression of teams becomes even more striking upon looking at the gap between 10th and 19th, nearly half of the teams in the Premier League, where the gap is just 7 points. Again, to put this in other words, should Watford, currently in 19th, put a run of three straight wins together they could rocket up into mid table, a possibility relatively unheard of in previous seasons.

Upon looking at the points column it’s clear how compact the Premier League is this season

Given that Palace now sit in this mid-table mezzanine, currently in 14th on 30 points, it would be fair to think that the likelihood of two teams catching up with them is unlikely, since Norwich look like they’re adrift and are taking up one of the three relegation spots. However, the batch of teams in the mire beneath them all have the potential to go on a run of wins. Watford have been revolutionised under Nigel Pearson, Bournemouth have got back-to-back home wins and a class manager in Eddie Howe, Aston Villa have Jack Grealish, capable of single-handedly dragging them out of the scrap, West Ham are in scarily poor form but have good individual talent in the squad such as Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini and Brighton aren’t currently getting the fruits that their good performances under Graham Potter deserve.

With respect to this, even if any of these sides experienced a significant upturn in form it shouldn’t be a problem if Palace were to maintain their form of the 1st half of the season, however again Palace have reason to worry that this won’t be the case. Their match against Sheffield United at the weekend was a rare instance of Palace not getting their just rewards from a game, losing 1-0 after a goalkeeping howler from Vicente Guaita despite the xG (expected goals) share of the game being very even at 1.09-1.12. Ironically, Guaita is a key reason that Palace aren’t in the relegation scrap in the first place after putting in numerous clutch performances so far this season and Saturday was a rare lapse in concentration from him. Palace are the lowest scoring side in the Premier League with just 22 goals this season, and even the few goals that they are scoring are from unsustainable sources.

Palace’s 3 goals from penalties this season are to a degree sustainable, with tricky wingers such as Andros Townsend and Zaha adept at winning them on a regular basis, as Matt Woosnam, Crystal Palace writer for The Athletic, pointed out in October. Aside from this however, Jordan Ayew’s 6 goals this season are highly suspect, as, put frankly, Jordan Ayew is just not very good at football, and the two other Centre Forwards currently in their squad of Benteke and Tosun have just one goal between them. Should any of the phenomenon of their penalties running out, Zaha and Townsend failing to materialise their individual quality in games, Jordan Ayew’s run of luck ending, set piece goals ending or goals from the half space on the left flank which Jeffrey Schlupp and Patrick Van Aanholt have successfully exploited so far this season ending then Palace will become even more impotent than they have been this season.

They’ve already been banking on winning games by the odd one or two goals and as cliché and blindingly obvious as it is, you need goals to win games, and you need wins to stay up. As for their defence, they have conceded a respectable 29 goals this season under the experienced command of Gary Cahill at Centre Back, however their xGA (expected goals against/expected conceded goals) is 38.10, meaning they ‘should have’ conceded 9 more goals than they have done currently, dramatically affecting both their place in the Premier League table but more importantly the gap in points between them and the relegation zone, reducing their points total to 24 and thus putting them just one point above the drop in real-world standings, and two points above the drop in the xP (expected points) table.

xP (Expected points table) of the Premier League this season, shown in the farthest right column

They are by all metrics the most boring team in the League, at least on the pitch, but more importantly one of the sides over-performing the most, only truly ‘bettered’ in this regard by Newcastle. They have good players, Zaha the most obvious, Townsend, Luka Milivojević, Van Aanholt and Cahill are others, and have one of the most experienced managers in the business in Roy Hodgson at the helm, who relishes and thrives at managing teams of Palace’s stature (this is not meant to be used disparagingly). Coupled with this, despite having never been myself, Selhurst Park is a ground I’d love to go to. Old-school to the core, big pillars in the way of the away fans so they can’t see- as it should be, and one of the most atmospheric, which can be used to their advantage in the League (though this is not hard- ‘who’s the tallest kid in nursery’ kind of thing).

However, few reinforcements in January, other teams beneath them breathing down their neck and, crucially, unsustainable goal sources mean that Palace will continually be looking over their shoulders until May and it will be a real scrap along the way. A real scrap.

 

Credits to The Athletic writers Steve Madeley, Dominic Fifield but especially Matt Woosnam and to Bleacher Report. Expected goals and points statistics thanks to BA Analytics (@Blades_analytic on twitter) and Understat.com. Images credited to BBC website, FourFourTwo and Understat.com

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