(Editor’s note: reader James Griffo contacted us last week and wanted to write a piece on Crystal Palace. With the interminable international break, we figured “why not?” Follow him @j_griff and enjoy.)
South London’s number one club, Crystal Palace, has always been a favorite of mine. They have some of the best (and craziest) fans in the world, for one. Selhurst Park literally rocks every time “Glad All Over” and “We Love You” are sung. In general, the Eagles are just a likable team (unless you’re a Brighton or Millwall fan, then it’s a completely different story).
Palace’s 2012-13 season was one to remember. Kevin Phillips (he was god on Sunderland, just saying) scored the extra-time goal that sent the Eagles to their first Premier League appearance in eight years. It’s a moment that will never be forgotten in my book.
Normally, when the Championship sends its three teams to the Premier League, those three teams will usually be odds-on relegation favorites. Palace found itself in that very position before and during the first seven weeks of the 2013-14 season.
The season was a complete mess at the start: Palace only snagged three points through the first ten weeks and were smack dab at the bottom of the table. Ian Holloway, whom everyone loves, was gone. Their lone win was 3-1 against Sunderland, and they had conceded 23 goals against eight scored. They were definitely relegation favorites.
Then, along came familiar Welshman Tony Pulis, who rescued the Eagles from relegation, taking them all the way to the middle of the table, beating out Brendan Rodgers for Premier League Manager of The Year.
Not only was finishing 11th last season a massive feat, but they also shattered Liverpool’s chances (sorry, Reds fans) at winning the league. Palace scored three goals, two of them from Dwight Gayle (PETERBOROUGH REPRESENT), in 11 minutes to draw 3-3, another thing to be insanely proud of as a Palace fan. The Eagles also shut out Chelsea, winning 1-0 on a John Terry own goal – one of the best moments from last season – and beat Everton 3-2 as part of a five-game winning streak through the last eight games of the season.
Fast forward to this season. Pulis is gone after a fallout with management, and another familiar face, Neil Warnock, is in his place.
Pulis’ abrupt departure came as a complete shock. Who would’ve thought the reigning Premier League manager of the year would leave after a season of heroics? The majority of Palace supporters were probably thinking about the new, probably huge incoming contract that Pulis was going to receive from Palace brass. So much for that now.
We later found out why Pulis left: things were not going his way during the summer window. Pulis’ summer goal was to lure big names to south London, but the board didn’t want him to extend the transfer budget funds. Ironic, considering Palace smashed their transfer record on the final day of the window. But more on that later.
He was in love with Gylfi Sigurdsson, Tottenham and Palace agreed a fee for him, and it looked like things were going Pulis’s way. But then, Sigurdsson threw their bid out the window and accepted Swansea’s backdoor offer. Palace ended up getting Cardiff striker Frazier Campbell, Fulham’s Brede Hangeland on a free transfer and right back Martin Kelly, who literally sat behind Glen Johnson at Liverpool for days, hours and millenniums on end. Certainly, those are not terrible signings, but they weren’t good enough for Pulis at the time.
Despite all of the early season hullabaloo, Palace did have a very active transfer window, especially on deadline day. Warnock shattered the team’s transfer record to bring in James MacArthur, one of Wigan’s 2012-13 FA Cup midfield engines. Left back Zeki Fryers, who never found his niche at Spurs, was also brought in. Irishman Kevin Doyle was acquired on loan from Wolves. And last but not least, the returns of team immortals Andrew Johnson (not the 17th U.S president) on a free transfer and Wilfried Zaha, who is trying to get his career back on track after disastrous spells at Manchester United and Cardiff.
Bringing back Zaha was a great move. It was clear that he couldn’t bear another second with United, due to the insane lack of playing time he got. Considering the fact that Zaha started his career with Palace and assisted the Eagles in many departments, like setting up Phillips for that promotion-clinching penalty kick, it wouldn’t be a total shock if he ends up signing long-term with Palace during the January transfer window.
The MacArthur signing will allow both him and captain Mile Jedinak to act as midfield anchors. In an ideal 4-2-3-1 formation, these guys would be the two Makélélé’s, although MacArthur mostly plies his trade as a central midfielder. Or, Palace can do what Pulis did last year and play 4-4-1-1 at certain points, as both are capable of playing central midfield. (That’s if Warnock decides to play 4-4-1-1, but I can see him implementing a 4-2-3-1 a lot more than a 4-4-1-1 or even a 3-5-2.)
Aside from Jedinak and Zaha, goalkeeper Julian Speroni was the man that held Palace together during their relegation escape and their several promotions. As of this writing, he has made 324 appearances for the Eagles and is probably going to head out at the end of this season (hence the signing of Wayne Hennessey), which will make me very glum, because Speroni is a goalkeeping favorite of mine and one of the most modest footballers out there. Also, he has his own restaurant.
Former Wolves keeper Hennessey was originally signed last January to replace Speroni, but then Speroni signed a new one year contract this summer, delaying Hennessey’s emergence as #1 keeper at Selhurst Park. But unless another keeper is signed to compete with Hennessey (there’s absolutely no way Chris Kettings beats him during training), he’ll be first choice by next season.
Considering Johnson came back on a free, he can act as a veteran presence towards the dearth of front line depth (with Glenn Murray on loan at Reading until January), particularly to Campbell and Gayle. The latter has gotten off to a terrific start this season, with four goals in all comps.
Moving on to players already on the team, Yannick Bolasie is interchangeable as a wide midfielder and winger, but is primarily a skillful, dynamic wing player. Bolasie and Zaha up front in a 4-3-3 system with Gayle at striker would be pace and skills galore. Whenever Palace get hold of the ball and start the counterattack, those guys will be leading the charge.
Jedinak, who doubles as Australia’s skipper, made 133 tackles and 139 interceptions last season, both totals more than anyone else in the Premier League. Quite frankly, you could consider him a fifth defender if a back four is implemented, because he is a rock. That may not happen tactically, as letting him stay in his comfort zone is probably the best option for both himself and for Warnock, but damn it, Jedinak is a wall back there.
Jason Puncheon at wide midfield provides swiftness. You may know him from last season because of, perhaps, the most execrable penalty take of the year (somebody insert Andy Gray’s “What a hit, son!” audio into that clip), but he’s like Bolasie in that he’s skillful on the wing. Puncheon also had/has (maybe still) beef with Warnock and exchanged his thoughts on Twitter about his penalty miss against Spurs. Maybe Warnock forgave him for the remarks, because he praised Puncheon’s performance against Newcastle last weekend.
Algerian international Adlene Guerdiora, who was left out of this year’s World Cup squad, has a scintillating, stinging long shot and can play anywhere in the midfield. Joe Ledley acquiesced to Pulis swiftly when he transferred from Celtic last January and is perhaps the most underrated part of the midfield because of his high work rate, so he should be able to get used to Warnock’s tactics. Finally, Doyle will have Irish friends Barry Bannan and Stuart O’Keefe out in the midfield as well.
Palace also have a nice defense, as many saw last year. Their best defender in my book is Joel Ward, who is a really solid, versatile, all-around defender. Whether it’s his well-known work at center back, left-back, right-back, or even central midfield, he can do it all. England supporters criticized Woy Hodgson for not including him on this year’s World Cup roster. Why have somebody like Phil Jones, James Milner, or Chris Smalling play an untraditional position rather than have somebody play their traditional position(s)?
Also at center-back, we have Scott Dann, Damian Delaney, Brede Hangeland, and Jamaican international Adrian Mariappa, all fine defenders. Hangeland was with Fulham for the lion’s share of his career before Larry King doppelganger Felix Magath took over and turned them into an epic clusterfuck (the Craven Cottage side are currently 23rd in the Championship).
There’s no need to worry about Palace’s relegation chances through the first three weeks of the season. The squad looks solid and has depth and versatility throughout, particularly in midfield. Time will certainly tell whether or not the Eagles can eclipse their 11th place rank from last season. I can see Palace as a mid-table team again, honestly.