BY SAM SMITH
For the second time in five months, Jeffrey Schlupp pounced on a loose ball inside the penalty box and lashed in an equaliser against Tottenham Hotspur.
For Crystal Palace, the goal earned them a deserved point in a second half they had largely dominated.
For Schlupp, it marked a typical performance by the Ghanaian. Eberechi Eze and Wilfried Zaha came away from the game receiving the most praise, but ultimately it was Schlupp who produced the decisive moment.
It is something he has managed regularly throughout his Palace career. There was the winner in a tight December fixture against Bournemouth 12 months ago.
He scored in the 3-2 win against Manchester City in 2018. His goal against Spurs in July ended a seven-match losing run at the end of last season.
The Eagles have lost just one of the nine games in which Schlupp has found the net. There have also been nine assists – two have come in successive victories at Manchester United.
In years to come, supporters will look back on the 27-year-old’s time at Selhurst Park and fondly remember a versatile performer capable of playing well in several positions. But the ‘utility man’ label will inadvertently undermine everything else Schlupp has contributed during Hodgson’s reign.
His versatility has often glued the Palace team together under the 73-year-old. He has offered much-needed consistency in times when injury crises and losses of form have threatened to derail the South Londoners.
His importance is evidenced by the fact that his presence allows the likes of Eze, Zaha and Christian Benteke to thrive.
The quartet linked up to thrash West Brom 5-1 two weeks ago and against Tottenham they regularly created chances against a defence that had conceded only nine Premier League goals all season before the game.
When wide in Hodgson’s four-man midfield, Schlupp drifts infield to provide solidity in midfield. An excellent dribbler with a powerful strike of the ball, his high-energy pressing style is effective at stopping opposition counter-attacks when the ball is lost.
That is something Andros Townsend does not quite offer to this Palace side and is why the 30-year-old has made way for Schlupp on the right of midfield in recent weeks.
A defensive midfielder and a forward rolled into one, for Palace to have a player so adept in attacking and defensive phases means Hodgson is able to use Eze and Zaha in freer roles.
“We can keep the compactness of our play with him and Eberechi Eze [in the wide roles],” Hodgson said after the London derby.
“And that enables us to have the two front players, which at the moment are Wilfried and Christian, and they’re doing a good job for us.
“I think when you play with two up front which at the moment we’re doing, you’ve got to make certain that the midfield is solid, and to get that we need players like Jeff, Andros and Eberechi Eze who are prepared to come in off the touchline and not see how much chalk they can get on their boots during the course of the 90 minutes.”
A Premier League winner in a Leicester City side known for its hard work, tactical intelligence, speed and technical ability, it’s impossible not to align those traits with Schlupp’s own game.
The only outfield position in which he has not featured for Palace is right-back. There was even an appearance as a centre-back in a back five under Sam Allardyce when the Eagles lost 5-0 at Man City in 2017.
Despite criticisms that Schlupp has never truly made a position his own, Hodgson is adamant that he knows how to best utilise him.
“I would contest that he’s been played in a lot of different positions,” Hodgson argued after Palace’s draw with Spurs.
“He did have one game where he played alongside the front player, a bit more centrally. But for the best part, we think Jeff’s best position is in one of the wide positions.
“Because he’s two-footed – predominant left, I know, but he’s a two-footed player – we can play him in those wider midfield positions, which is what he’s suited to as well, because he doesn’t play as a winger in those positions.”
For now, it seems Schlupp’s position will be on the right of midfield where he can drift centrally and the bombarding Nathaniel Clyne can overlap. His versatility and contributions in big matches will continue to be an important asset to Hodgson.
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