BY SAM SMITH
There was a moment midway through the first half of Crystal Palace’s defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers when Luka Milivojevic and Jairo Riedewald both dropped deep to collect a pass from the defence.
The duo stumbled, almost confused as to who was meant to receive possession. Meanwhile, Wolves pressed quickly, won the ball and raced away on an attack. The subsequent foray was thwarted, but the lack of balance in the midfield remained until Milivojevic’s 86th-minute dismissal.
The scene was emblematic of the pair being ineffective as a midfield partnership. Although Wolves’ wing-backs being provided too much space to exploit was Palace’s major downfall, the repetition of similar moves made by both Riedewald and Milivojevic was also a contributory factor to a comfortable defeat.
Too often were they in the way of each other. It was evidence that the pair are better suited to playing with either James McArthur or James McCarthy – midfielders who offer a passing option slightly higher up the pitch. Their box-to-box tendencies allow Milivojevic or Riedewald to drop deep and dictate attacks.
The midfield was far better balanced in the opening matches of the season when there was one midfielder remaining further back, shielding the defence and offering a short passing option to the back four, and another slightly more advanced.
The absence of balance is glaring when both play the same role. Perhaps it may work with a third midfielder playing ahead, but Roy Hodgson’s insistence on sticking with the 4-4-2 that has largely worked well this campaign makes that option obsolete.
Eberechi Eze would fit that role ahead of two defensive-minded midfielders seamlessly but the summer signing seems to be confined to a 25-minute cameo on the left of the four.
That Hodgson has guided the Eagles to one of their best-ever starts in a top-flight campaign makes any argument that the 73-year-old should switch formations a difficult sell.
Although Milivojevic’s ban will afford the Palace boss some extra thinking time, the personnel of the midfield is a conundrum that Hodgson will need to solve quickly. The South Londoners saw an appeal over his dismissal turned down on Wednesday and Milivojevic will miss the next three fixtures.
Milivojevic hurtled across the pitch to prevent a counter-attack but his forceful challenge on Joao Moutinho caught the Portuguese high between his ankle and shin. Martin Atkinson produced a red card upon VAR review and there seemed little evidence to suggest that there was an error clear enough to be overturned by the FA’s appeals panel.
When Milivojevic returns he may find his place in the team taken, just as he did when he returned to pre-season late having quarantined after returning from a summer break in Serbia.
Only injuries suffered by McArthur and McCarthy have gifted him starts in the last two fixtures.
Riedewald’s emergence from a player exiled to the wilderness of the Palace squad to a regular in the starting 11 has created a problem for Milivojevic.
When even just a year ago there was mild surprise at Riedewald’s name among a matchday squad, the Dutchman is now the Eagles’ first-choice midfielder.
It is a remarkable turnaround for a player whose trajectory is simultaneously Milivojevic’s decline.
If the evidence is that they cannot play together in Hodgson’s two-man central midfield, one will have to give way.
While both thrive as the deepest midfielder, Riedewald is quicker, covers more ground and is more adept on the ball. His ability to wriggle away from tight spaces and ignite attacks is also superior in comparison to the club captain.
In contrast, Milivojevic has seemed slow and lackadaisical in his appearances this season. That might be because he barely had a pre-season, but it has been noticeable for a while longer. Still, his passing has long been criticised and long gone are the days when he would control the midfield alongside Yohan Cabaye.
McArthur’s return to fitness coincides with a battle against an energetic Leeds United midfield.
Riedewald’s assured presence will be required, while the Scot’s energy will be necessary in harrying a team that likes to dominate possession.
Where Milivojevic fits into the equation once he returns remains to be seen, but only in the case of vast absences should it be in a midfield partnership with the vastly similar yet superior Riedewald.
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