It's been a yoyo season for Palace fans. Here are five things Naveed learned.
1 - Leadership and Organisation Critical Parts of Tactical Set-up
After a torrid first half to 2016, as we embarked upon the 2016/17 season, much was made about a team which would transition into one which plays on the front foot. This involved setting up tactically without a specialist defensive midfielder, naming Scott Dann as captain and selling Mile Jedinak.
Results did not follow – just four wins in half a season and the team conceded five away at Swansea and three at both Hull and Burnley. Being carved open at the opponent’s will, Steve Parish spoke about “winding the dial back” after Alan Pardew’s sacking – a clear indication that more emphasis was needed on defending.
Sam Allardyce’s impact was not immediate and he needed the January transfer window the address the squad’s issues at left-back, centre-back and crucially the addition of a defensive midfielder. The work on fitness, a tactical set-up to effective without the ball, back to counter-attacking and an organised base on which the like of Yohan Cabaye could dictate play and allowing the wingers to flourish culminated in some of Palace’s best set of results in the Premier League era – wins away at Chelsea and Liverpool sandwiching a thrashing of Arsenal at Selhurst Park.
Before the team embarked on a run of six wins in eight, Jason Puncheon was named captain and Mamadou Sakho emerged as a leader and defensive organiser. Whatever the tactical set-up and desired style of play, the roles of leadership and organisation to that cannot be overlooked or underestimated again.
2 – Zaha is the Academy Dream
Little-known when Paul Hart gave him his debut while the club was in administration and thrust into the limelight by George Burley in the first game of 2010/11, Wilfried Zaha scored on his debut and had the fans dreaming. Dreaming that this kid would be the one, the one who becomes a club icon, the one we can be proud of for representing Palace and the one who can carry the team to many great wins.
And while he started that in the Championship, this season he became that player we all dream of seeing come from within the club. Spectacular goals against Hull and Swansea, matching winning performances against Chelsea and West Brom and then the quantifiable product – seven goals, nine assists, averaging 1.1 key passes per game, the most completed dribbles in the Premier League, the most fouled player in the division. The list goes on.
Two years before his debut, Neil Warnock gave debuts to eleven academy youngsters and while Nathanial Clyne and Victor Moses ply their trade towards the top of the table, neither (for various reasons) saw through their progression at Palace. The hope all Palace fans are clinging on to is that Wilf stays and does see it through. He is more than just a delight to watch; he can now lay claim to being Palace’s best ever player. That he came through the academy is the icing on the cake.
3 – The Goalkeeping Situation Needs Prioritisation
In Julian Speroni’s last three seasons as number 1, the club won promotion (largely thanks to him at the Amex and Wembley), finished 11th and then 10th in the top flight. Since then in each of the last two pre-seasons, the club has tried to sign a number 1 to replace him. Two years ago, Alex McCarthy joined and went straight into the team. Despite results, he didn’t look at ease and was replaced by Wayne Hennessey.
Last summer, French International Steve Mandanda signed and while Palace won the first three games he played in, Mandanda has not played since his 9th appearance. Again, Hennessey came into the side and kept his place. That is in the face of a number of misjudgements and outright errors he has made throughout the season.
Whether it is questionable position at free-kicks, slow to react to long shots or missing crosses, there has been enough evidence to suggest that the club should try for a third successive year to sign a competent goalkeeper. Hennessey has among the lowest save success rate in the Premier League and conceded 46 goals from 134 shots faced. To avoid a repeat of this season, he must not start at first choice in August.
4 – Squad Depth Needs Refreshing
While Allardyce knows the areas of the squad he wants to strengthen, his hand may be forced with some first teamers departing. However, as well as getting the recruitment for the first XI right, he also needs to refresh the bench options if the squad is to avoid suffering the fitness and injury issues it did for the two years prior to his arrival.
The left-back situation, with Jeffrey Schlupp and Patrick Van Aanholt competing for the starting spot is what needs replicating elsewhere. The likes of Chung Yong Lee, Bakary Sako, Frazier Campbell and Joe Ledley cannot be the back-up players if Palace are to push the top 10 as Parish has indicated.
Additionally, Joel Ward and the central midfielders need more competition to both push them and allow them a break and while we have been fortunate that Christian Benteke has played the majority of games, that fortune may not be repeated next season. A busy summer of outgoings and incomings is needed to give the squad the balance needed to ensure a season with little turbulence.
5 – Fifth Premier League Year to be Celebrated but Not Wasted
Achieving a club record fifth year in the top flight is a cause for celebration, given it is the longest in a 112 years. However, beyond the playing squad being addressed to prolong the record, each of the last four seasons have shown slipping back into the Championship can happen if complacency sets in.
Two wonderful second halves to the season saved Palace under Pulis and Pardew and the latter’s excellent start to 2015/16 meant winning just two games in half a season didn’t result in relegation. This season, a burst of six wins in eight brought us close to survival. In that time, the likes of Aston Villa and Newcastle have been relegated.
In any given season, it could be Palace and with that in mind, it is important that we start to see tangible changes to the club’s infrastructure. While things may be happening behind the scenes, visible progress with the stadium, advancing the training facilities and an academy capable of Category 1 status will provide a strong basis for the club to build from regardless of which division the club is in. We can lose our Premier League place at any time. It’s crucial these years are not wasted.