After the frustration of the performance against Sheffield United, there was largely justified criticism of Roy Hodgson and the players, specifically the manager’s rigid approach mixed with inconsistent application on the part of the players. Two weeks and two wins later, the football world is looking different to Palace fans.
As ever, the issue was neither the binary pick between the manager not being good enough or the players not being good enough. It was that huge area between them – the manager is plenty good enough as are the players; it was how they were being used which was the crux. The switch over the last two games by Hodgson has been rewarded with six points.
While a lot has been made of luck being on Palace’s side over these two games, luck has always played a part in football and it is no coincidence when you get more luck when you do more things correctly as a team.
Hodgson has moved from the narrow 4-4-2 and switched to a system fluid enough to switch to any of a 4-5-1, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 at times. In Jeffrey Schlupp and James McArthur he has two players who allow this flexibility in-game. While their continued selection when the team is not playing well does raise a level of frustration among fans, when they play well the whole team sees the benefit as was the case against Villa. Schlupp moving from his wide left position to a narrow one when required and McArhur being his usual busy self allowed an impactful performance from others.
Central to this was Cheikhou Kouyaté. He was, with the movement around him, able to patrol as needed – helping Luka Milivojević in defensive duties when needed, being available to all four defenders to get the ball as well as playing a part getting the team moving forward. It was the sort of display which was key to the win but only possible if the players around him are working in their roles. The immediate beneficiary of this was Milivojević, the captain free to play him game knowing the midfield would not be exposed.
Palace controlled the game because of the midfield coupled with the threat of the forward players – Jordan Ayew has been highly impressive in this performances this season and is unrecognisable from the player who was on loan last season. He is also symbolic of Hodgson’s tactical shift; moving to a mobile forward enabling more areas to threaten an opponent rather than rely on Wilfried Zaha. Zaha himself may not have been a match winner, but Villa were always watching him and he often had the attention of two players on him. His presence on the right is what gave Ayew the space to run in to on the left for the goal with two of the defenders watching Zaha.
The defence against Villa was also largely composed with Gary Cahill making an impressive home Premier League debut and showing why he has been a regular England international and club level champion. While he has the defensive attributes we would expect, he showed elements to his game which we would not expect the team to have been missing – that being a player not afraid to spend time with the referee. Whichever way a decision went, Cahill reacted to praise or question the decision. This added to his all-round display which resulted in Villa failing to create a single (legitimate) chance in the match.
Winning the last two games has meant that Palace go into the international break having made their second best start to a Premier League season. A lot of the angst aimed at Hodgson, his players and the owners has subsided. The key from here is to build on this start – the only start to better this one was not sustained and Palace ended with our lowest points total since promotion and a run of two wins in half a season. Hodgson knows, we hope, how to build from a base better than Alan Pardew.