Fear and loathing at Selhurst Park: new boys must shock Crystal Palace to life
Those bleary-eyed Crystal Palace players who had filed into the main meeting room upstairs at the club’s training centre early on Sunday morning did so with a sense of dread. The next few hours were spent revisiting the horrors of that first-half capitulation to Sunderland, wincing at the sight of panic setting in at the first setback against the division’s bottom club, or at the paralysis which undermined any hope of recovery. A ninth home defeat had condemned this side to a place in the bottom two.
Sam Allardyce and his technical staff exposed every hint of weakness up on the giant touchscreen television, pointing out errors and questioning his players’ judgment at each of the four first-half goals conceded. The exercise was not designed to humiliate. Rather, this was an attempt at exorcism. Palace are to go back to basics over what remains of the campaign seeking, desperately, to claw their way upwards. This was the manager belatedly taking this squad back to basics. The first team, off as scheduled on Monday, have since had time to digest and contemplate what must happen next.
What have Allardyce and his staff identified?
The midweek win at Bournemouth had proved a false dawn. Return to Selhurst Park and the first stumble still provokes collapse, a combination of Lamine Koné’s goal and Yohan Cabaye’s injury providing the catalyst for the latest implosion. All the information and preparation from a meticulous build-up went forgotten from the moment Palace were asked to play catch-up, with Sunderland able to wait for anxiety to prompt opportunities to extend their lead. “I saw frailty from the moment we went behind,” Allardyce had muttered. “Fear, fear, fear, fear.”
This group carry the scars inflicted not only by this season’s wretched home form – seven points from a possible 36 – but by three and a half years of underachievement at the venue. Those on the outside looking in recall that swashbuckling comeback against Liverpool and John Terry’s own goal against Chelsea, or even high-profile victories under floodlights over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, and assume this arena is a fortress. Yet, while the atmosphere is invariably raucous, visitors have found Selhurst Park more accommodating than intimidating. Palace have mustered only 22 wins in 69 home league games since promotion in 2013, with only 17 teams seen off en route. Stoke City must kick themselves at having been victims three times to date.
A fourth successive top-flight campaign had fuelled expectation levels. Even after the nosedive endured over the second half of last season, few had anticipated a season of toil ahead after significant summer investment. The talk was of progress. That stuttering home record explained the previous manager’s desire to develop a more imposing brand of football, less reliant on the counterattack, only for those tweaks to undermine the side’s previous qualities. There is quality in this squad, and a desperate desire to put things right, but there is also mental fragility born of 14 months of awful results.
What has been the message transmitted to the players?
The chairman, Steve Parish, had impressed the sense of desolation and frustration being endured by fans in his post-match address in the dressing room on Saturday, though few present could have escaped the local mood of disgust. The message from Allardyce, having dissected the errors at Sunday’s 7am meeting, has increasingly centred upon “respecting a point” in an attempt to prevent panic setting in again.
This, after all, is a team who have conceded nine goals in the last eight minutes of games this term, costing them nine points in the process. Fingers could be pointed to a lack of concentration or fitness – they have shipped 14 goals in the final five minutes of halves – but, more often, they have found themselves torn between pursuing a much-needed victory (quite often having just forced parity themselves) or settling simply for stalemate. A blend of anxiety and ambition has given way too readily to ill-discipline. Sometimes, the manager has said, it is better simply to shut up shop.
It could be argued such messages should have been delivered back in late December upon Allardyce’s appointment. It might have prompted something more akin to the “new manager bounce” Palace had hoped to initiate with change. Yet it had been similar upon his appointment at Sunderland last season, when he had lost eight of his first 11 games. It was only in the run-in, when one game was lost in 11, that things really clicked and, even then, seven of those had been draws. Those proved to be the foundation for survival. Given six teams are currently covered by two points at the foot, a tally as low as 36 might actually keep a club up. Anything other than a defeat will do.
The new arrivals have to make an impact
There is an irony that a club whose supporters have never been entirely comfortable with the lavish trappings of modern day top-flight football are now pinning their survival hopes on a quartet of new faces secured at vast expense. No Premier League team spent more in the mid-winter window, and only one of the quartet of new faces played on Saturday. The management argue the likes of Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic, and even Jeffrey Schlupp and Patrick van Aanholt, have not been infected by that fear of failure at Selhurst Park. They will not share the same apprehension and self-doubt about playing at the stadium.
Necessity drove transfer policy. Palace have been unbalanced without a left-back since Pape Souaré’s car crash in September, while Schlupp offers raw pace down the flank. Sakho may have appeared limited at Liverpool, but Allardyce will not place the same ball-playing demands upon the Frenchman. He is the kind of no-nonsense defender, and charismatic figure, who could rally a forlorn rearguard. Then there is Milivojevic to offer Palace reminders of Mile Jedinak’s strong-arm, destructive capabilities in defensive midfield. It may have been the right time to move the Australian on last summer, but this club never replaced him adequately. When things were going awry, Jedinak in his prime would have mustered a crunching tackle – whether legitimate or not – or on-field tirade to get his team-mates’ juices flowing. The hope is Milivojevic, while apparently more than capable on the ball, can be as authoritative once his visa has come through.
Yet, while they promise much, Sakho and Milivojevic remain the great unknowns. One has not played a competitive game since April, and was not included in the under-23s’ 3-0 win over Cardiff on Monday. The Serb was plucked, at significant expense, from Olympiakos having once left Anderlecht 12 months into a five-year contract, and has no experience of the Premier League. “He’ll bring a bit of stability,” said Allardyce. “Teams get through our midfield far too easily, and far too often.” He has to hit the ground running.
So what happens next?
In the short term the new signings must feature at Stoke on Saturday, fitness permitting, if only to offer a bruised lineup some respite. The likes of Damien Delaney, Joel Ward and Jason Puncheon boast emotional attachments to this club, but they appear weighed down by the failings of the last 14 months. Their frustration is obvious, and form has suffered accordingly. Indeed, with Steve Mandanda still not fit after knee trouble, it would not be the most unwise move for Allardyce to select Julián Speroni in goal, if only to raise the mood of the support. Some would dismiss that as a PR stunt, but Wayne Hennessey’s confidence has also drained, and Palace’s longest serving goalkeeper did nothing in the FA Cup third round ties with Bolton to suggest a recall constitutes a risk.
Palace are offering fans free coach travel to Stoke once again and will be backed by a substantial away support in the Potteries, yet these players cannot bask too long in life away from Selhurst Park. Middlesbrough, Leicester and Hull have all to visit south London before the end of the season. Given that this team’s last three away matches are at Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United, if those critical home fixtures are not won then their stay in the elite will surely not extend beyond May. Allardyce has used his shock tactics. Now they have to work.
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