With the Premier League season now underway, we’re all engrossed in the transfer speculation and frustration of the summer window; what Palace will or will not do in the market as well as all the drama that goes along with life in the top division. At the back of our minds, hidden amongst the emotional hangover from the FA Cup Final (consisting of a mix of disappointment and immense pride, even now) is the lingering doubt over last season’s erratic form.
Palace exploded out of the blocks at the start of the 2015/2016 season, picking up a notable win away to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge along the way (at the time, we all thought that was a commendable achievement; turns out we’d be one of many). Come the turn of the year, Palace had picked up nine wins, and sat 5th in the table. Dreams of European football were swept aside as quickly as they had risen and what followed was frustrating, disappointing and ultimately, very worrying. We limped across the line on the home straight, and fell at the final hurdle at in the FA Cup, eventually finishing the season in 15th, safe in the Premier League for another season.
With our fourth season in the top flight of English football kicked off, it’s imperative that Alan Pardew and his coaching team ensure the players are fresh after a summer of European highs and lows, wash away the bitter aftertaste of the Wembley defeat, and help sculpt a team ethic and mentality that will hopefully mean our boys in red and blue can deliver on the pitch week in, week out and well into the spring of 2017.
For me, and for many others I’m sure, the catalyst for last season’s spiral towards the bottom of the table all started with injuries to important players in key positions. Notably, the seemingly Everton-bound Yannick Bolasie’s injury, as well as the absence of midfield bulldog James McArthur, coincides almost exactly with the drop off in form. With summer signing Bakary Sako out with a hamstring injury too, we were left with one out and out winger; Wilfried Zaha. He huffed and puffed as always, but Zaha was our only notable wide threat, and he was easily marked out of games, double-upped on and more often than not cut a frustrated figure on the pitch. We lacked balance, with makeshift wingers sat across from Zaha, and lacked the dynamism shown earlier in the season. Due to McArthur’s absence, Yohan Cabaye struggled to find the same sort of relationship he had developed with the Scot with fellow team mates Joe Ledley and Miles Jedinak.
We looked out of sorts at times, to put it nicely, with the elephant in the room making itself known more and more obvious as the weeks dragged on; we needed a striker, or at least someone to take the game by the scuff neck and pull a result out of the bag. Connor Wickham, a promising signing at the start of the season, showed glimpses of what he was capable of, but was plagued by poor luck on the injury front also.
Whilst the injuries played a part, it is ultimately the manager’s responsibility to put a team out each week, picking the players available and assembling a team and/or system that he feels can put points on the board. Buoyed by talk of attacking football, utilising our “mavericks” to exploit the exciting players in our squad, Plan B left us all wanting once the injuries piled up. With our wings clipped, we were all left scratching our heads at why it was going wrong, and more importantly, why it wasn’t being addressed. January’s transfer window should have been the opportunity needed to address any squad imbalances, but what now seems to be a case of delicate financial management (the end of a three year Financial Fair Play cycle, basically) meant we were boxing with one hand behind our back.
Alan Pardew has often been accused of being a very hot and cold manager. His time at Newcastle showed odd bouts of form; win streaks followed by a run of losses, repeated throughout the seasons. We mustn’t forget though, that Newcastle endured eighteen months without signing a player. I challenge any team, in any division, to subject themselves to such a crippling transfer policy, and not see results impaired on the pitch. A form table doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Fortunately, Palace moved quickly at the start of the current transfer window to bring in new faces in the form of French international goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, West Ham favourite James Tomkins, and the rejuvenated Andros Townsend. With plenty of time left in the window, the management behind the scenes have seemingly acknowledged the problems of last year, identified targets, and are doing all they can to ensure the squad is ready for the marathon to come. The striker shaped hole in our squad is still there, but Steve Parish and Alan Pardew have both acknowledged this shortcoming, and at the time of writing we’re supposedly in talks with Liverpool regarding Christian Benteke.
The problems are being addressed. The squad is being shaped, improved and deepened. It’s a slow process, with each summer providing the opportunity for an evolution, rather than a revolution. We will start this season stronger than we did last year, but who knows what the full squad list will look like come the end of August. Injuries will inevitably occur, but one hopes we will have done sufficient business to give the manager the cover needed to avoid last year’s collapse in form. Once the board have delivered all they can, it’s then down to Alan Pardew to prove to any doubters wrong that with the right support, he can deliver the results and performances we all hope for.
Written by Tim Green. You can follow Tim on Twitter