BY ANDREW MCSTEEN
A 1-1 draw with Premier League leaders Tottenham Hotspur yesterday saw Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace side repeat the exact same result – with the same scorers in Jeff Schlupp and Harry Kane – the last time the two teams played at Selhurst Park, in the final game of last season.
That game in July saw four academy players on the then expanded bench of nine, but in stark contrast, yesterday saw Hodgson able to boast six, experienced internationals on his subs bench out of seven, with the Palace manager now finding himself in a welcome, but difficult situation.
“We are finding it that little bit harder to keep people on board, to try and keep their spirits up and their enthusiasm up, because we’re not offering them enough,” said Hodgson to the South London Press about managing the expectations of his players in the 18 matchday places available to him.
“In a way, it is a nice position to be in, certainly in terms of being able to put a strong team on the field. There’s no doubt you need a strong bench and that is what’s helped the top teams in our league to continue to be top teams because when they get an injury or when a player isn’t playing at his best, they’ve got a player of equal ability to put in the team.
“When we had the youngsters on the bench in the restart period after lockdown (June and July), we really [had] got hit bit a load of injuries in the same sort of position on the field all at the same time.”
Spurs’ boss Jose Mourinho even commented on Hodgson’s squad strength pre-match, with the Portuguese manager stating the Eagles “…are a very good team, very experienced, starting on the bench and ending on the pitch.”
Such is that strength now that German midfielder Max Meyer again failed to make the squad, featuring last time on 24 October against Fulham, while Tyrick Mitchell, having picked up an injury after the trip to West London, subsequently lost his place to Dutch international Patrick van Aanholt.
Added to this, the availability of centre backs now has meant no place for Martin Kelly in the squad since October, although he has been injured during part of this time, while James Tomkins was missing from the bench in the 5-1 win at West Bromwich Albion last week, replaced by French international Mamadou Sakho. Tomkins then replaced Sakho on the bench yesterday, maybe in a bid by Hodgson to keep everyone happy.
“The competition between the centre backs is enormous and it’s very tough for me [as] none of them are doing anything wrong and all of them are capable, if selected, of going out and doing a good job for the club,” said Hodgson, speaking before the draw yesterday.
“But with centre backs it’s more or less a case of you’re playing or you’re not. With midfielders or forwards, even a full back, you’ve got a much bigger chance of being on the bench and maybe playing some part in the game than you have as a centre back, who normally get changed in a game when they get injured and not for tactical reasons.
“That is, at the moment, the biggest headache I face,” he added. “I’ve got five guys all of whom think that they are capable of, and should be, playing. I can only use two of them and the worse thing is I can’t even use them on the bench.
“That’s a tough one and I have to ask them to understand the situation. There is no easy way to tell people ‘you’re not playing at the weekend or not involved at the weekend’ because to some extent you’re sticking a little dagger in their heart.”
With Hodgson and his assistant Ray Lewington fretting for many weeks last season about even filling their starting eleven, the talk now has changed to the full squad with the Palace boss now missing just a handful of long-term injured players in Wayne Hennessey, Nathan Ferguson and Connor Wickham.
“We do think about the possible tactical changes which the bench could give you,” said the Croydon-born Hodgson to the South London Press.
“As a result the defenders tend to give you less than the midfield and forward players. So, the biggest headache in a way, are the defenders because they are the ones you have to disappoint completely, not only do you not play them because you’re playing someone else, you don’t even use them on the bench. That’s the hardest thing.
“When it comes to the midfielders and forwards it can be a little bit easier because you’re telling someone ‘sorry, you’re not playing, but you are on the bench and there’s a good chance that, you might not start the game, but you might help us finish it.’
“In American sport they’re very strong on that, they have starters and finishers, we don’t think purely in those terms, but there is an element of that involved. Even that’s getting tougher [for us] now because James McCarthy is back training fully, so that’s another person to add to the midfield alongside Max Meyer and the ones that have been with us.”
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