Twelve months ago there was a sense of esteemed optimism around Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace had just appointed the legendary former Dutch international Frank de Boer and the South Londoners appeared to be heading in an ascending trajectory.
The excitement at the prospect of Cruyffian ‘totaalvoetbal’ at Palace seemed almost incomprehensible to contain. Perhaps one of the many reasons why the Ajax hero failed so miserably was that expectations from external sources - rather than actually inside the club - brainwashed De Boer into immediately thrusting his Dutch revolution upon a squad nowhere near capable enough of producing such a meticulous style.
Four Premier League games. No Premier League wins. Not even a single Premier League goal. De Boer had gone from four Eredivisie title successes to being perceived as the absolute epicentre of managerial fraudery.
Fast forward a year and the mood at Palace is similar, but for vastly contrasting reasons. Roy Hodgson’s revitalisation of a football club that was seemingly spiralling towards an inevitable relegation runs in tandem with his own recovery from his England nightmare. The added story of a 71-year-old managerial journeyman returning to save his boyhood club is one for the lovers of a wonderful footballing fairytale.
Meyer, Kouyate, Guaita in; Zaha staying - now Palace must begin improving
The former Fulham boss - who on the opening day will visit the side he took to a Europa League final - guided Palace to a remarkable 11th-place finish, missing out on the top ten on goal difference despite the Eagles winning merely twice before December.
Buoyed by the now likely stay of prized asset Wilfried Zaha - on whom their hopes rely - and the arrivals of the highly rated Max Meyer, well-regarded Spanish goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, and West Ham utility man Cheikhou Kouyate, there is hope that the Eagles will break into the top ten. For sure, Hodgson will be coy about his side’s chances, maintaining that consolidation following a rough, managerial merry-go-round 18 months is necessary.
But with Palace entering their sixth season in the top-flight, and having seen the likes of Bournemouth, Newcastle and Burnley all come up and finish in the top half, there is an argument to be made that they must do the same. Otherwise, they risk entering the period of stagnation that has seen long-standing Premier League clubs such as Sunderland, Swansea, Stoke and West Brom all relegated in recent campaigns.
Too many times have the Eagles required a late flip in form to save them from the drop. In only one season - 2015/16 - have they actually started a season well, but even then went on a 14-game winless run which almost led to relegation. Coasting around mid-table all year, while also retaining their manager would mean for once Palace fans experience a settled season and remain away from negative headlines.
It is perhaps the case that Palace have underachieved for three years. Their last top half finish came in 2015 when Alan Pardew arrived in the winter and guided them from rock bottom to tenth. Since then, the Eagles have spent drastically more than the majority of teams with whom, positionally, they share a level playing field.
Chairman Steve Parish, alongside American investors Josh Harris and David Blitzer, have shelled out big money on the likes of Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho and Andros Townsend, yet have scarcely seen the complete reward.
Townsend and Sakho have generally done okay, the latter is part of a formidable centre back partnership with James Tomkins which has never been on the losing side. Townsend should add more goal contributions to truly justify his £15 million move from Newcastle in 2016, but notched six assists in five pre-season games which points towards a possible improvement.
The jury remains out for Belgian striker Benteke. The club’s record signing netted 17 times in all competitions in his maiden season but added a measly three last campaign, and even lost his place in Hodgson’s preferred team to the makeshift strike partnership of natural wingers Zaha and Townsend.
There were suggestions earlier this summer that the former Liverpool man would be sold with Hodgson keen to bring in a striker better suited to his preferred style of football. But it seems Benteke will be given one more year to prove his worth and he has scored in both of his pre-season appearances, either side of a knee injury.
The combined fees spent on the likes of Benteke and Sakho total almost £60 million and have hindered Palace’s recent transfer business, with the Eagles still paying installments to Liverpool for the pair. Barely any money has been available to spend since the turn of the year; the January window was poor, with both loanee Erdal Rakip and Polish defender Jaroslaw Jach failing to feature. Jach has since moved to Turkey on loan. The near £10 million spent on Norwegian Alexander Sorloth still seems a dubious decision with the forward yet to score.
Transfer dealings this summer have been much better, particularly given the sparse funds. Meyer, the once wonderkid-hyped midfielder, was convinced to join the Eagles despite interest from far superior clubs. The German will most likely replace the departed Yohan Cabaye in central midfield next to Luka Milivojevic, while fellow new boy Kouyate will play second fiddle to the Serbia international. Former Getafe stopper Guaita arrived following the pre-contract deal he signed at the start of the year but is yet to dislodge Wayne Hennessey due to a communication barrier.
A few more deals could be done before Thursday’s 5pm deadline. One of Swansea forward Jordan Ayew or former player Yannick Bolasie seem set to add depth to the Eagles’ attack. Palace could still do with another central defender to cover for Sakho and Tomkins with Scott Dann unlikely to return from an ACL injury for several months.
But Hodgson’s squad is already better than the one he had last season. It is bereft of the deadwood, high-earning Championship standard players who were holding the team back, and now has a fresher feel with many of the club’s own young players on the edge of breaking through.
It is a squad Hodgson will feel much happier with. One that is far more capable of producing his quick, counter-attacking football, and one that - bar another miraculous injury crisis - should threaten the top half.