Two successive battles for their top-flight status have stalled Crystal Palace’s rapid recent rise. The Eagles had improved their league position every season between 2011 and 2015, culminated by a highest-ever Premier League finish of tenth.
However, two years under Alan Pardew oversaw a small decline. A run to the FA Cup final in 2016 saved his job having managed a 14-game winless run in the league and flirted with relegation. Last season was much more severe; the Eagles had a decent start but their form capitulated in October and club cult hero Pardew was sacked in December.
His successor, Sam Allardyce, set the foundations for where the South Londoners currently preside. Despite a poor start that included a 4-0 defeat to his former club Sunderland, the ex-England boss guided Palace to a 14th-place finish. His January signings, Mamadou Sakho, Patrick van Aanholt, Jeffrey Schlupp and Luka Milivojević, were vital as the Eagles steered themselves away from the bottom three and towards mid-table, and they also improve the squad heading into the 2017/18 campaign.
Allardyce’s shock departure – citing his desire to retire – leaves legendary former Dutch defender Frank de Boer with the job of consolidating Palace’s position as a stable Premier League club. De Boer’s success at Ajax has excited Palace fans and he could be the man to help the club reach its full potential.
A victory against newly promoted Huddersfield Town will be de Boer’s first expectation. However, controversial changes to the formation and playing style have left a section of Palace fans nervous that a shock Terriers victory could be the catalyst for a difficult campaign.
What happened last season?
Palace headed into the 2016/17 campaign with similar expectations to those a year on. They had started the previous season well but poor form saw them tumble down the division at a worrying speed; a 14-game winless run leaving them just points above the bottom three. Supporters expected the team to improve and consolidate their top-flight status following a rocky few months.
Pardew tried to change the style of play, adopting a possession-based system rather than the regimented, counter-attacking style that Palace fans had become accustomed to under previous managers. This meant that new signings had to be made so that the squad fitted the system; Steve Mandanda was signed as a sweeper-keeper, perfectly adept with the ball at his feet and donning a reputation as one of the better goalkeepers in Europe. Other deals included West Ham United’s James Tomkins, a ball-playing centre back, and Andros Townsend to replace the departed Yannick Bolasie, who joined Everton. The club also secured a club-record deal for Liverpool striker Christian Benteke to improve the previous season’s lack of goals, while Mathieu Flamini was signed on a free transfer to replace the departed Mile Jedinak.
Despite successive one-nil defeats in the opening two games, Palace secured eleven points from their next seven games. An impressive 4-1 victory against Stoke City made it apparent that the Eagles had turned a corner.
Off-field troubles, however, soon became a disruption. Defender Pape Souare was involved in a career threatening car accident which left the Eagles with Zeki Fryers as the club’s only recognised left-back. Meanwhile, new signing Mandanda struggled to adapt to life in England and failed to make an appearance after a 3-2 defeat to Burnley on 5 November.
On the pitch, Pardew’s system was still failing to work and Selhurst’s once famous atmosphere grew toxic. Six games without a win, including a forgettable 5-4 defeat to relegation rivals Swansea City, left Pardew on borrowed time. Palace managed a shock 3-0 win at home to Southampton but Pardew was eventually sacked on 22 December after earning just one point from the next three games.
His replacement, Allardyce, started well with an impressive performance in a 1-1 draw against Watford. However, it would take almost a month for the Eagles to earn their first win under the new boss – a 2-0 victory against Bournemouth. Heavy defeats against Sunderland and West Ham immediately had Palace supporters on Allardyce’s back, with the notorious fans group, the Holmesdale Fanatics, even refusing to sing his name – largely because of his connection with the recent corruption scandal.
The 4-0 defeat to Sunderland was as low as it got for the Eagles and a surprising four-game winning run, culminated by an incredible victory at champions Chelsea, lifted them outside the bottom three. Further successes against Arsenal and Liverpool, before a 4-0 victory against Hull City in the penultimate game ensured Palace eventually finished fourteenth.
What has happened in pre-season?
De Boer has already been keen to change the style of play in the off-season, switching from the more familiar 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3. The Dutchman favours a possession-based system and has signed players accordingly. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a powerful, box-to-box central midfielder, has signed on a season-long loan from Chelsea, and de Boer then moved to seal his first permanent signing: Jairo Riedewald from Ajax. The 20-year-old Dutch international is renowned for his versatility but will likely play on the left of the three centre-backs. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is also expected to sign on loan from Manchester United.
In arguably the best deal of the summer, fans’ favourite Zaha has been tied down to a new five-year contract, fending off interest from across Europe. However, Mandanda’s dreadful spell in England came to an end as he re-joined Marseille, while fellow out-of-favour first teamers Flamini, Joe Ledley and Fraizer Campbell were released.
Surprisingly, the Eagles first team have played just four games in the build-up to the new campaign. The South Londoners competed in the Premier League Asia Trophy, coming third in the bi-annual tournament held in Hong Kong. The tour began with a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, in which the new system was criticised for its lack of cohesion. However, it looked much improved as Palace defeated West Bromwich Albion by two goals to nil in the third and fourth-place play-off.
Palace then travelled to Metz where a wonderful Zaha volley was cancelled out late on by an equally good goal by the Ligue 1 side. Another 1-1 draw followed last Saturday against Schalke with Benteke on the scoresheet for the first time in pre-season.
What to expect from Palace in 2017/18
De Boer’s tactical changes mean Palace will look very different next season. Previously, the Eagles have been renowned for counter-attacking but this year will see them try to dominate possession.
The friendly against West Brom was a tale of the Palace of old versus the new Palace. The Baggies, managed by former Eagles boss Tony Pulis, kept their shape well, were difficult to break down, and attacked quickly once they earned possession. Palace, meanwhile, were calm and patient with the ball, keeping the ball in West Brom’s half for much of the game.
Palace’s style will be akin to that of Man United under Louis van Gaal and from a similar ideology to that of the revolutionary Dutch tactician, Johan Cruyff. The Eagles might frustrate and excite in equal measures. Slow build-up play might agitate onlookers but with the likes of Zaha, Benteke and Townsend, Palace have the ability to be unpredictable and unlock defences with ease.
Zaha will undoubtedly be Palace’s star man and getting the ball to him as early as possible seems to be the main tactic. The academy graduate was outstanding in the Premier League Asia Trophy and in the friendly against Metz but found himself man-marked by Schalke. A lack of an alternative way of playing when Zaha finds himself targeted has been a weakness of Palace’s over the last few years and de Boer needs to find a way to ensure his side does not become too predictable.
Palace still require a few more signings if the 3-4-3 is going to come to fruition. Townsend has played as a right wing back during pre-season but this seems a short-term solution until de Boer finds a natural wing back. Usual right back Joel Ward seems out of favour and is not best suited to the lung-busting, energetic role of a wing back. Meanwhile, Palace still require another striker to give Benteke much needed competition, especially with Connor Wickham ruled out until the new year.
With new signings in small quantity, de Boer has instead opted to promote academy players into the first team. Jason Lokilo and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, both DR Congo youth internationals, have impressed and are the most likely to break into the senior side this season. Lokilo, a winger, performed well in friendlies against Metz and Schalke while Wan-Bissaka could potentially claim the right wing back role in the future. Other youngsters include 2000-born midfielder Nya Kirby who featured in Hong Kong, and Under-23 captain Luke Dreher, although his recent injury concerns have seen him slip down the pecking order.
Prediction – twelfth
The Eagles will be inconsistent while the new system develops but improved form around Christmas will lead to a comfortable mid-table finish. Zaha will win the club’s Player of the Year award for the third year in a row.