BY SAM SMITH
Crystal Palace started the season with a draw against Everton at Selhurst Park in August, but most of the narrative centred around transfers and the future of star man Wilfried Zaha.
On Sunday, 11 months later, the Eagles finally ended the campaign with a draw against Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park, but most of the narrative centred around transfers and the future of star man Zaha.
For all that has changed in football and in the wider world over the past year, Palace’s success and their failings can be narrowed down to those two subjects. The club now faces its most important transfer window since promotion in 2013.
Ahead of that opening fixture against Everton, the South Londoners had cobbled together a small squad at a low cost. Dissenting sections of the fanbase wondered why the £50million received for the sale of Aaron Wan-Bissaka had not been reinvested. Others insisted the club keeping Zaha made it a successful summer.
When that small squad was fully fit, the Eagles had their best spells of the season. A four-match winning run that spanned either side of lockdown was one of the highlights of the season and presented a chance of qualifying for Europe, but when the injuries mounted up and the limitations of the squad were exposed an eight-game losing streak followed.
That was only ended by the draw with Spurs.
It was that period towards the end of the season which epitomised the whole campaign for Palace: they showed promise, but then they suffered a couple of injuries and suspensions and, due to a lack of depth, would spiral into a mini-crisis.
For all the criticisms of Roy Hodgson’s conservative style, that he guided this Palace team to safety so early in the season – the points that made them safe came courtesy of the victory at Brighton on February 29 – is a huge achievement. However, it is the way in which top-flight survival was secured with which many supporters are unhappy.
Only relegated Norwich City scored fewer goals. Palace did not score more than twice in any game – and are the first club to do this but still stay in the Premier League. Some might say the route to success is irrelevant, but the Eagles’ lack of goals is clearly unsustainable.
Hodgson usually used a defensive-minded style. The midfield – whether a four or a three – was flat and narrow. But the 72-year-old was just working with what he had at his disposal.
Had the Eagles signed more attacking players in the summer, the former England manager may have been able to revert to the football played when he had the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Yohan Cabaye.
The Palace boss has also not been helped by too many key players suffering dips in form.
With a small squad, those players generally had to play their way back into an improved spell rather than spending time out of the team.
Andros Townsend – usually a regularly feature in the starting 11 – started just 14 games due to either injury or a period of below-par performances. Captain
has had his poorest campaign in a Palace shirt.
Hodgson is also yet to squeeze the best out of the midfielder Max Meyer, but it does not help when the 24-year-old is used deep in midfield.
However, it was the performances of Zaha that were the most disappointing. His poor form was multi-faceted – a transfer request in the summer failed to come to fruition and he had little time to prepare for the campaign with Palace having taken part in the African Cup of Nations.
As the season progressed, the Ivorian’s confidence appeared to dip. The 27-year-old netted just four times, having scored 10 the campaign before.
In hindsight, the value of selling Zaha last summer might have been greater than his output this season. He will turn 28 in November and has little time remaining at the peak of his powers, meaning Palace will probably never receive a fee as high as they have wanted for the last two years. That money would have gone a long way to rebuilding a younger squad amid the financial crisis.
Hodgson suggested on Sunday that Zaha’s situation remains the same – a bid will be accepted if it meets the club’s valuation. The caveat is that there are surely only few clubs, if at all, who would pay a premium fee.
Palace still have the money received for Wan-Bissaka, and last summer’s deals for the impressive Gary Cahill and Jordan Ayew prove Premier League clubs can still find bargains. But dragging down the average age of the squad and resolving Zaha’s future remain the priorities.
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