Crystal Palace 19/20 Review: Mid-table safety under Hodgson
We are reviewing each club's 2019/20 season so far while waiting for the Premier League to get back underway. Here, we look at how Crystal Palace have gone up a gear under Hodgson...
With Crystal Palace currently just six points behind Manchester United in fifth it is tempting to lavish Roy Hodgson with praise for an almighty overachievement in the Premier League. But football's hiatus just happened to come on the back of a three-match winning run for Palace, propelling them into a slightly exaggerated position.
Nevertheless 2019/20 has been a strong campaign for a club seeking little more than to avoid a relegation battle. The Eagles have certainly achieved that, and were on course to stay away from danger even before those recent wins boosted Hodgson's side to within a point of Arsenal and two of Spurs.
Season so far
It has been a year of steady efficiency at Selhurst Park, of the right manager in the right place at the right time to maximise the squad's talents. Crystal Palace have won five league games 1-0, have won by more than one goal on just two occasions (against Norwich and Burnley), and haven't scored more than twice in a single game.
Hodgson has alternated a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 throughout the campaign but the tactics are more or less the same. Palace sit deep in rigid lines of four, wait patiently for the ball, and then break down the flanks. It is simple stuff carried out effectively, the product of Hodgson's vast experience and expertise in the game.
The margins, when playing this way, are wafer thin, and in the first part of the season there were a few question marks about the manager's long-term viability. A remarkable smash-and-grab win at Old Trafford in September would have gone the other way nine times out of ten, while a 1-0 win against Aston Villa - assisted by bizarre VAR controversy - was among the season's oddest results.
Without those two wins Palace would have been nought for six at the start of the campaign and in deep trouble.
But Palace recovered from the wobbly start, stabilising thanks to some strong performances from Patrick van Aanholt, Jordan Ayew, and Gary Cahill. Between them, these three have a knack for putting in match-winning performances at just the right time.
A seven-game winless run through the beginning of 2019 was ended by those three wins just before the break, and herein lies the overarching theme of the year: strings of defeats followed by strings of victories that, depending on which period Palace are in, makes their season look either par for the course or a big success.
The 2-1 win at Man Utd was an extraordinary game. The hosts had 22 shots to the visitors' five, were awarded one penalty and had another clear one denied, but Palace somehow won. Ayew gave them the lead with a neat finish in the first half and after relentless pressure Daniel James equalised in the 89th minute.
United pushed for the winner only to be caught on the break by Van Aanholt. The away fans went wild, kick-starting their season after a winless and goalless beginning.
Signing Cahill on a free transfer has proved to be a brilliant piece of business, adding assurance and leadership to the Palace back four, and he looks certain to win the club player of the year award. Ayew might have something to say about that, mind, his eight goals having been priceless throughout the season.
Wilfried Zaha hasn't looked right since a summer move away from Selhurst Park fell through, and his dramatic drop in form has been the most disappointing aspect of the year so far. The Ivory Coast international has just three goals and three assists to his name, down from ten goals and five assists last year.
Christian Benteke is another one who continues to frustrate, and alarmingly continued to look bereft even after ending his goal drought in February. The Belgian I still missing sitters, and yet his all-round game isn't that bad. He perhaps needs a change of environment.
The 4-0 loss at Mauricio Pochettino's dying Tottenham in September was Crystal Palace's worst performance of the season. A series of shambolic errors and own goals gave Spurs a four-goal lead within 42 minutes, raising fears of a relegation scrap that would prove premature.
What they can achieve in 19/20
In their nine remaining league games Palace have to play five of the current top eight, and aside from the win at Old Trafford Hodgson's record against bigger teams is poor. Consequently, should 2019/20 get back underway they will fall back into the bottom half, making a top ten finish, priced at3.90 with Betfair Exchange, unlikely.
They're out of the FA Cup and already one point shy of the magic 40, meaning anything from here is a bonus. A couple more wins would complete a wholly satisfying year for Hodgson's team.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Almost by accident, Palace have already worked out how to reorganise their attacks to rely on Zaha less, which should mean his inevitable departure in the summer doesn't hit them too hard. What's more, having spent just £5 million on some astute signings last summer and having sold Aaron Wan-Bissaka for big money, Hodgson should have some cash.
On the other hand, The Eagles are already close to their ceiling. A top-ten finish is probably all they can hope for with their current resources, and so 2020/21 isn't likely to bring any big surprises.
Crystal Palace need 11 points from their remaining nine games to better their Premier League points record of 49, set last year, and cap off a good second full campaign under Croydon-born Hodgson. To stay still even while Zaha falters is no mean feat.
The football is hardly spectacular to watch, but under the guidance of their former player Crystal Palace fans are enjoying a stress-free time of late. That, in the financially-perilous modern game, should not be taken for granted.