“It’s a funny old game” remarked Jimmy Greaves once upon a time.
And one of footballs most familiar pieces of vernacular has never been truer, the make up of the Premier League this season arguably at it’s ‘funniest’ in this topsy-turvy campaign.
But for one club, it’s been an especially strange one. Having gone from possible European candidates earlier in the season, to one on the fringes of a relegation scrap, Crystal Palace have reenacted another of Jimmy Greaves’ famous quotes – “it’s a game of two halves” – well, if you replace game with season that is.
Back in the Autumn the Eagles were soaring, their pace and power on the counter-attack seeing them as high as fourth place by the start of October, and despite a few ups and downs seemed stabilised in fifth at the turn of the year, their fans dreaming of Europe.
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There was plenty to get excited about for the Palace fans too – class players like Cabaye and Bolasie, a former hero as manager, financial stability – things looked rosy down at Selhurst Park. And they still do to an extent, but the dramatic fall away since the calendar ticked over to 2016 has been nothing short of remarkable.
The side have only picked up two points since the start of the year, away draws at relegation-threatened Swansea and Sunderland their only return from nine games in 2016.
It’s an incredible fall from grace for a side that seemed on the up a few short months ago.
So what exactly has happened to Palace? What reasons can there be for the side having such a Jekyll and Hyde campaign?
Even during the first half of the season, when results and performances were going their way, Palace were still struggling for goals, from their strikers at least. Cabaye, Bolasie, Zaha and Sako got the majority of their goals and even defender Scott Dann chipped in. Their strikers amounted to one goal in the first 19 games, a solitary Connor Wickham strike the only return from their five designated strikers at the time.
Pardew bought in Emmanuel Adebayor in January to try to resolve the issues, but having waited until the end of the window and ‘gambling’ on a mercurial player like the former Arsenal, Spurs and Man City man, things have not improved at all. On the plus side though, his addition does seem to have roused Connor Wickham, who has four goals in his last two outings.
However, the striking issues were present even when the side were soaring. A decidedly bigger factor has likely been the injury’s to key men Yohann Cabaye and Yannick Bolasie. Between them, the pair accounted for over a third of the side’s goals in the first half of the season, even more through direct and indirect assists.
Cabaye’s presence in the middle and Bolasie’s on the wing were sorely missed, and it’s no surprise the side’s performances, if not necessarily results, have improved since their recent return. We should see a continued up-tick in fortune’s between now and the end of the season as the duo re-establish themselves to full form and fitness. Bakary Sako too, who started the season in fine form following his move from Wolves, a key-piece of their early success and also returning to the side from injury.
Many have pointed the finger at manager Alan Pardew too. West Ham, Southampton and, most recently, Newcastle all had excellent spells under Pardew, riding high in the league before suffering what can best be described as a collapse. The Palace boss has a habit of over-seeing blocks of games – win a couple, lose a couple etc – but more worryingly has a proven track record of losing five or six games in a row.
A fine month between the end of November and the end of December, which saw the side pick up three wins and three draws, possibly covers up a multitude of sins at Palace. Perhaps their first half of the season was a mere illusion, the real Palace and the real Pardew now coming to the fore.
Whether through injuries, lack of squad depth or just rank bad management on Pardew’s behalf, the Eagles must be both thankful for the performances and results in the first 19 games, but equally as concerned and puzzled with the downturn since the turn of the year, the returning trends in crowd favourite Pardew’s management now appearing as more than just a product of their environment.