Naveed Khan takes a look at Palace's 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United and questions whether Palace are making the most of the squad's abilities.
Let’s get the caveats out of the way first:
1 – we are only two games into the season; and
2 – Roy was dealt a harsh hand in the transfer market, with the squad a pair of full backs and attacking player short.
Now that’s covered, the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United was as eye-opening for the reality of where we are as a football club as it was eye-closing during the 97 minutes of play. For the last two seasons, Hodgson’s set up and approach has been justified with the set goals and vindicated by end results. But there comes a point where that can no longer be effective because it is both predictable and, even in the last two years, the tactical approach to the game has evolved.
The squad at his disposal is not a bad one despite the rhetoric around this. While James Tomkins and arguably the club’s best ever central defender Mamadou Sakho are injured, Scott Dann and Martin Kelly are very able understudies as evidenced by a competent display against Everton. Joel Ward, while not Aron Wan-Bissaka, is a reliable Premier League full back who has half a decade of experience as first choice. The manager has an abundance of midfield options at his disposal. He has, in Wilfried Zaha, one of the best players in the Premier League.
The question that needs to be asked of Hodgson is not whether or not he is a good manager, because the answer to that is yes. He has over 40 years of experience and success as well as an excellent track record. The question is whether, after two years in the job, he is able to get the best out of the players.
There is some nuance here. It is the bit in-between whether he can get the best out of the players in the system and tactical set-up of his choosing and whether he can set-up tactically to get the best out of the players. Are the players to get the best out of his system or should the system be getting the best out of the players?
The talk of Zaha’s position is largely a red herring; players like him in the modern age can operate in two or three attacking positions. The key issue is whether the set-up around him is appropriate to get the best out of him and those around him. In Hodgson’s first two years, the work of Christian Benteke up front next to Zaha and a solid narrow midfield behind him has allowed Zaha the freedom needed to have a decisive impact on games. But football has not stood still – the reliance on one player, albeit Palace’s best ever, has become predictable and a prime focus for opponents.
Stop Zaha, stop Palace. It isn’t rocket science. As we enter Hodgson’s third season, he needs to embrace other creative options in the side, even if that means less freedom and more all-round responsibility for the talisman.
Max Meyer has spent too long either on the left side or left out altogether. Andros Townsend, who has shown his ability to be creative on a number of occasions, is now a functional wide right midfielder with as much defensive responsibility as attacking. In the centre of midfield, James McArthur is still plugging away trying to be a Yohan Cabaye replacement which is increasing the burden on Luka Milivojevic. When he has mixed up the midfield, it’s been with a versatile Jeffrey Schlupp as opposed to bringing Meyer into where he can impact the game or giving time to Cheikhou Kouyate who can provide the solid base for others to perform.
This is in no way meant to discredit the superb job Hodgson has done at Palace. The last two seasons have seen us finish well up the league regardless of how we started seasons. The functional narrow 4-4-2 has worked. Zaha in a free role has worked. McArthur central or wide ride has worked. Andros sacrificing his attacking game to be part of a team unit has worked. But the signs are these things are not working now. And that is where we are – Hodgson needs a move away from his functional team base and needs to enable more space to creative outlets at his disposal rather than rely on Zaha.
The other quandary is Benteke. The striker has scored four goals in his last 50 appearances, having previously scored a goal every two games (66 goals in 132 starts) in the Premier League and the link there is Roy Hodgson’s appointment as manager. Rather than a loss of scoring form, tactical decisions can help explain the change. He uses the forward as a focal point for his team’s shape, ergo his average position is deeper than it was in the season where he scored 17 goals.
Further, the focus on recovery from lost possession and shape naturally means there is an aversion to crosses being attempted. Often, the team works the ball back towards the centre rather than putting a cross in. While this ensures that if the ball is lost the team has good shape, it also means fewer opportunities are being created for a forward like Benteke. The answer isn’t simply changing a forward; it is changing approach.
Again, while understanding what has always made Hodgson a successful manager and his accomplishments at Palace to date, he has an important part to play in linking the club and fans again. That may be a hefty or for some an inappropriate burden for him to face, but in the position Palace are in now, with rumoured disengagement from some of the ownership, relegation battle fatigue amongst fans, our best ever player wanting to explore new opportunities and a lack of exciting new signings, it falls on Hodgson to invigorate the squad and therefore the fans. This isn’t a call for him to go; it’s a call to acknowledge that while we recognise his remit is to ensure we stay in the Premier League, there is a way to do it which doesn’t create a bigger gap between the fans and what happens on the pitch.