BY SAM SMITH
The performance by Crystal Palace against Brighton on Sunday suggested little other than that the Eagles are merely in the Premier League this season to exist.
There will be no relegation battle, but also no challenge on those higher up the division. There may not even be an involvement in any of the campaign’s most memorable matches, nor will there be many goals – at either end. It is these facts that encapsulate Roy Hodgson’s last few years.
After each game, the discourse almost invariably descends into a civil war. Those who are keen to remind that staying in the Premier League is financially important, particularly in current times, will waste no time in offering praise. They will say that Hodgson is the perfect manager for a club like Palace.
The last seven years has, objectively, been the most successful period in the club’s history and Hodgson has been at the forefront for the last three.
Others, who just want to see some excitement, some goals and the best player not so blatantly out of position, want change. They see teams of a similar stature maintaining assaults on the top-half, even having stints in the Europa League, and ask why Palace cannot be there too. Those queries are perfectly valid.
Under Hodgson, the South Londoners are far too defensively solid and concede too few goals to suffer a capitulation so bad that it drags them into the bottom three. They can also bank on the fact that there are enough teams consistently poor enough to finish below them. Palace are not consistently bad – far from it – but they are consistently ambling along.
The Eagles are also very unlikely to move into the top half.
Palace might have seven points from five games at the start of this campaign, but they are the lowest-ranked team in the division for possession and successful passes. Those statistics, while still managing a point per game, are unsustainable.
Wilfried Zaha’s penalty against the Seagulls was their only shot. Had Michy Batshuayi better timed the run that saw him burst through on goal midway through the second half and score – only to be denied by the assistant referee’s flag – then the 2-0 scoreline may just have been the biggest miracle of the season.
Even in the final 20 minutes when Brighton were gaining greater control and were looking likelier to score, and with Palace’s defence needing someone to ease the pressure, the £15million creative midfielder whose most notable attribute is his ability to drive forward with the ball remained in reserve.
Eberechi Eze scored 14 goals and assisted a further eight last season and although that was against inferior opposition in the Championship, there can be no argument that he would have made a difference against a tiring Brighton team.
If the view among the management is that the 22-year-old is unable to shift the game in Palace’s favour against a club who have consistently finished below the Eagles, then why was he signed at all?
Hodgson’s satisfaction with a display that saw his side camp deep in their own half and repetitively use their rare possession to play hopeful passes down the wings for Michy Batshuayi and Zaha to chase was evidence that the 73-year-old has failed to read the room.
The dissenting voices have been stifled by the absence of supporters in the stadium.
To an extent, those who are in favour of Hodgson make a fair point. You only have to look at the bottom of the Championship, and even into League One and League Two, to see that those who have fallen out of the Premier League have not only struggled to claw themselves back, but have suffered severe financial hardship.
Given that the Eagles are hardly a money-making machine, there is every chance that they could fall in the same direction were they to go down.
Hodgson may not take Palace out of the Premier League, but the insistence to merely exist at the top level could prompt stagnation. Teams will overtake them.
The blame for that does not solely lie on Hodgson’s shoulders and whoever his successor is could face the same problem.
Most clubs of Palace’s stature will look at Fulham – tomorrow’s opponents – and sense an opportunity. The worst defence in the Premier League should fear coming up against an attacking trio of Zaha, Eze and Batshuayi.
But that is not necessarily how Hodgson will view the game against his former side. The meticulously pragmatic approach will be to focus on not conceding and then seeing if Zaha and Batshuayi can produce something at the other end.
Providing that approach never goes spectacularly wrong, it will be what keeps Palace in the Premier League. Some will argue it is fine while others, in growing numbers, will simply lose interest.
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