Stuck in a rut

Stuck in a rut
Aug 26, 2016

Crystal Palace

Too early to be described as a relegation six pointer? Perhaps, but then context is everything. When Palace play Bournemouth on Saturday it won’t just be a crucial game because it matches them with one of the other two sides to have also lost both their opening games of the season, it will be because the teams league record in 2016 reads as a very dismal two wins from 21. You can see why it matters.

There’s a line of thinking that before a promoted team gets stuck on the treadmill that inevitably comes when faced with a better class of opposition week in week out, that they can carry over that ‘promotion bounce’ into the early part of the next season; the team that’s used to winning hitting the ground running. The incredible Leicester City tale is another side of this theory. The winning streak they went on at the end of the 2014-15 season to stay up rolled into 2015-16 and then just never stopped. Once you have the winning habit, it’s hard to shake it.

It’s the losing habit that’s very much harder to shake however.

You felt that Aston Villa’s relegation last season had been a long time coming. Newcastle’s as well. Sunderland escaped by the skin of their teeth…again, but it’s not surprising to learn that they are the other team with a played two, lost two record so far. Ruts are hard to get out of once you’re stuck in them. Which is why Palace fans are anxious, it’s why they are jumpy. It’s why a rather limp 1-0 home defeat to West Brom was treated almost as the end of the world. It would’ve been a disappointing defeat whatever the context, but set against an appalling run of form going on nearly nine months is why the natives are restless.

It looked like at the beginning of the summer the club knew it hard to act to arrest this decline, the squad needed fresh impetus and fresh ideas to try and provide an instant Alka Seltzer to the hangover from the season before. Almost uncharacteristically Palace did their business early, and did it well; strong signings in needed positions. A new goalkeeper after a hugely up and down campaign form the incumbent; a Premier League proven centre half entering his prime years and a dynamic winger that had been one of the form players in the second half of last season, even when playing in a poor relegation destined team. But then nothing. Nothing to address the elephant in the room that the team needed strikers and needed them badly.

Ever since promotion in 2013 the team has not had a prolific goal scorer. Many players have been tried, many have done decent jobs, but there has been no-one to score those mythical 15-20 Premier League goals and no-one to provide those get out jail free moments when you are not playing well and your backs are against the wall. As the season rolled over that man had still not arrived. Two games and no goals; two games and no points.

It is important though that the failure to win games in 2016, while not aided by the lack of a focal point to the attack, is not attributed solely to that fact. Other things have to change as well. While Palace are a team blessed with great pace in wide positions – despite the loss of the talismanic Yannick Bolasie – with recent success built on the ability to unleash a lethal counter attack, in too many games they have been overly reactive, reluctant to take the initiative. The gaping holes between midfield and attack and the failure to get support to a lone frontman, has led whoever has been unfortunate to hold that role being left isolated and ineffective. There has been the prevalence of aimless long balls from the back and slow build up play allowing teams to pack their defence. Lack of options off the bench and a mental fragility to going behind all hallmarks of a team in an extreme funk.

Drastic revolution is not needed, but an evolution in playing style is. And while new striker(s) = winning is far too simple an equation, having a new £30 million front man is the first step in the right direction.

Saturday’s game should see the league debut of Christian Benteke, and the early signs from Tuesdays win against – admittedly limited League 2 – Blackpool were encouraging that this is exactly what the team needs. Added to that, the return of the midfield duo – Yohan Cabaye and James McArthur – that formed the basis of the side that finished 2015 so strongly, enabling Jason Puncheon to play closer to the front and the potential wing play of Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha and things begin to look up. But to really get out of the rut, Palace need to be more proactive in their home games, looking to take the game to their opposition. Playing deep and looking for opportunities on the break away from home at the teams at the top is a sound strategy, but home games against teams battling alongside them at the wrong end of the table is when the team needs to be dynamic and forward thinking. Otherwise 2016 may continue to be an annus horribilis in South London.


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