Crystal Palace fell to a gutting 2-1 defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals Brighton on Saturday, with the result meaning that both clubs are now level on points with eight games to go.
The Seagulls had one real opportunity to score – Anthony Knockaert’s winner simply cannot be called a chance – and took advantage, with former Eagle Glenn Murray capitalising on a combination of swirling wind and poor judgement on James Tomkins’ part to get in behind and fire clinically beyond a helpless Vicente Guaita.
The aforementioned clinching goal scored by Knockaert was a result of a breakdown of Palace possession in the final third and an excellently picked out pass out to the wing from Dale Stephens, who then watched his French teammate beat Patrick van Aanholt far too easily and offload a postage-stamp strike into the top corner from outside the box.
Roy Hodgson’s side took their time to build up and create chances while Brighton won the ball back and had it in their opposition’s net merely seconds later.
Chris Hughton’s men soaked up pressure excellently and looked to hit their hosts on the counter wherever possible – it worked, and the Seagulls beat Palace at their own game.
Prior to the loss, the Eagles had torn Burnley apart at Turf Moor in a stellar away performance where the Clarets were the aggressors – as the home side often are – and Palace were dangerous every time they got the ball forward with speed.
The impressive victory was far from a fluke, though, as Palace’s form away from Selhurst Park is up there with the top teams in 2019, whereas their record at SE25 this season if woeful.
The defeat to Brighton was their eighth of the campaign at home and the loss will surely serve as an indicator to everyone at and involved with Palace that there is a clear need for a classic number 10 in the ranks when they aren’t afforded space for counter-attacks.
Now, Max Meyer may seem to be a ready-made solution but the young German often doesn’t get his head up quick enough to find the killer pass and, by the time he does, the opposition midfield or defence is on him like a pack of wolves – at 5-foot-7, the former Schalke man doesn’t have the physical attributes to keep the ball.
Meyer has wasted his opportunities when deployed in his preferred central role this season and looks far more effective in a wider position, where he is allowed to drift in – he isn’t the player to resolve Palace’s struggles in breaking down deep-sat opposition.
Hodgson currently seems to prefer Luka Milivojevic as his playmaker in chief, with the two central midfielders ahead of the Palace captain expected to make runs into the box off of Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha – really, they should be teeing up the aforementioned duo instead.
This approach was extremely ineffective against the Seagulls, whose banks of four and five swamped the Palace runners and made the lives of Jeffrey Schlupp and James McArthur very difficult – the midfield pair took half as many touches as Milivojevic, who sat back and struggled to pick them out with regularity.
Palace have to ease the burden on the Serb by signing a proper number 10 ahead of the 19/20 season – it may require a change of system but the Eagles need a player who can split a compact defence otherwise they risk allowing their terrible record at Selhurst Park to carry on into next season.
It’s all well and good getting plenty of players forward but if you can’t provide that pin-point pass into their feet then they are useless and you leave yourself exposed on the counter.
Prior to Michy Batshuayi’s arrival at SE25 in January, the primary concern was the lack of a proven goalscorer but even Christian Benteke would have been more effective than his far superior compatriot in this game as Palace’s midfielders were incapable of spotting his runs.
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Perhaps they are still adjusting to the forward’s play style and learning when they should look up for him but, regardless, the quality of pass was rarely there – McArthur, in particular, was guilty of sloppy distribution.
There is no point having a top striker like Batshuayi, who took just 34 touches on Saturday, in the ranks if you don’t have the players who can see the runs in behind he makes – the priority in the summer, then, is to sign a top playmaker first, then worry about getting that goalscorer.