With the new season soon upon us, Crystal Palace are heading into the new season in optimistic mood. Having been pipped at the final hurdle in last season’s FA Cup final, the Eagles are desperate to finally taste success.
Alan Pardew’s side still have plenty of work to do before the opening game against West Brom, but a mid-table finish should be the minimum expectation for a club that failed to live up to their early hype in last season’s Premier League campaign.
Mixed emotions last season
Last season saw Palace complete a full campaign without a managerial change for the first time in three seasons which added some much needed stability to the club’s ranks.
Pardew used the summer transfer window to stamp his own identity on his squad. Yohan Cabaye, who the Palace boss worked with when the pair were at Newcastle United, signed from Paris Saint Germain for a club-record fee, while Connor Wickham and Alex McCarthy were other notable big-money signings.
The Eagles started the season with an emphatic 3-1 victory at newly promoted Norwich City and were flirting with the Europa League qualification places in December. Victories away at Chelsea – just the Blues' second home defeat under Jose Mourinho at the time – and Liverpool were the highlights of the first half of the season.
However, an amazing turn of events saw Pardew’s side capitulate after Christmas and they started to fall down the Premier League table at a rapid speed. A mixture of injuries, key players’ loss of form and poor tactics led to an horrific run of results and a fourteen-game winless run ensued with heavy pressure mounting on Pardew.
The side’s form improved towards the end of the season, which was largely helped by the euphoria of reaching the FA Cup final. A 2-1 win against Stoke City at Selhurst Park finally secured mathematical survival and a fifteenth-place finish with a game to spare.
Although beaten by Manchester United in the FA Cup final, the Eagles will see their run in the traditional domestic cup competition as the highlight of the season. Victories against Southampton, Stoke, Tottenham Hotspur and Reading led the club to Wembley stadium where they faced Watford in the semi-final. Palace went ahead through an early Yannick Bolasie header, but the Hornets levelled the score line courtesy of talisman Troy Deeney. However, Wickham’s header ten minutes later secured a famous victory and set up a replay of the 1990 FA Cup final.
Jason Puncheon appeared to have landed the South London club their first major trophy when he fired past David de Gea with eleven minutes remaining against the Red Devils, but the jubilation lasted just two minutes as Juan Mata struck via a deflection to take the game into injury time. Chris Smalling’s sending-off should have swung the game in Palace’s favour but Jesse Lingard’s wonderful volley in extra-time secured Louis van Gaal’s first – and only – trophy as Manchester United manager.
What to expect in 2016/17 from Palace...
A good start to the season will once again be very important if Palace are to stay clear of a potential relegation fight. The Eagles face four winnable games against West Brom, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Sunderland in the opening two months of the season, before a tricky October sees them take on Everton, West Ham United, Leicester City and Liverpool.
Palace will be hoping to be around the mid-table places by the time they enter the final two months of the season as games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in April could ultimately decide their fate. Pardew’s side must then travel to both Manchester City and Manchester United in May.
Tactically, Pardew is expected to rotate between the much tried and tested 4-2-3-1 as well as the more traditional 4-4-2. The shrewd acquisition of Andros Townsend leaves the Eagles boss with yet another winger, adding to their already deep quota of wide men, including Puncheon, Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, Bakary Sako and youngster Sullay Kaikai. A 4-4-2 could allow Pardew to fit his best players into one system; Bolasie would partner Wickham up front, whilst Zaha and Townsend would occupy the wide areas. Cabaye and James McArthur are expected to continue their partnership in central midfield, which flourished during the first half of last season but was torn apart due to McArthur’s injury problems after Christmas.
Defensively, full-backs Joel Ward and Pape Souare will continue on the right and left respectively. New club captain Scott Dann will partner Damien Delaney in the first game, although the Irishman will be replaced by Tomkins once the former West Ham defender has recovered from a knock he picked up during the tour of North America.
Pardew will once again exploit the wide areas where Palace have a long history of having wingers who have caused problems for their opposition. The addition of Tomkins suggests the Eagles boss might also want his defenders to pass out from the back and be slightly less direct than they were when Delaney partnered Dann in previous years. This switch will allow Cabaye to come deeper and receive short passes, which will be a contrast for the former Newcastle midfielder having spent the majority of the previous season watching long balls fly over his head.
Transfer window overview, will Benteke sign?
The Eagles swooped early in the window to complete deals for Tomkins, Townsend and Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. However, the time since has been rather frustrating. Palace’s heavy involvement in the infamous Christian Benteke saga appears to have died down and West Brom’s failure to secure the signing of West Ham’s Diafra Sakho could scupper a potential move for Saido Berahino.
Whilst three players have signed, several have walked out of the Selhurst Park doors. Dwight Gayle is the most notable departure after joining Rafael Benitez's Newcastle for £10 million, whilst goalkeeper Alex McCarthy was also allowed to leave after only a year at the club – joining Southampton for £4 million.
The end-of-season released list, including big-name strikers Marouane Chamakh and Emmanuel Adebayor, was lengthy. Allowing high earners to leave on free transfers has freed up plenty of cash and you can certainly expect Palace to spend plenty more money. Defenders Paddy McCarthy, Adrian Mariappa, Brede Hangeland and goalkeeper Chris Kettings were also shown the exit door upon the expiration of their contracts, along with numerous youth team players.
What are Palace’s strengths?
Since promotion, the squad has always maintained a very strong bond. Although not the be-all and end-all, this is a very important trait to have, particularly if a side needs to be dragged out of a rut as large as the one Palace suffered last season.
The aforementioned depth of wingers at Pardew’s disposal is another key strength, although their contributions are heavily reliant on whether the strikers are able to finish the chances they create. The addition of Townsend also provides goals from wide areas, which is something Bolasie and Zaha have always lacked. A goal-scoring midfielder such as Townsend will help Palace, particularly in the opening stages of the season should a new striker or two not be signed until the latter stages of the transfer window.
… And what are their weaknesses?
Palace may well have spent over £70 million by the time the transfer window slams shut if they sign all their targets, yet their squad will still be no better than any of last season’s top eight clubs.
A new striker is an expectation before the end of the transfer window as scoring goals has been a downfall of the side ever since they were promoted to the top-flight in 2013. Along with this, Wickham’s injury problems are well documented but his only credible back-up is misfiring forward Fraizer Campbell.
Pardew should go all out to sign Benteke from Liverpool, but chairman Steve Parish seems adamant to stick to his guns and refrain from spending the £30 million that the Reds are holding out for. Palace can certainly afford to pay the amount and if they really want their number one target then they will end up signing him, although how late in the window that will be is still to be clear.
Strength in depth is another worry for the Eagles. The current best eleven is very good, although an injury crisis would leave very little options and could have detrimental effects – just as it did last season. Once Tomkins returns, Delaney and Martin Kelly will be the only first team defensive options should either Ward, Dann, Tomkins or Souare suffer an injury. Back-up for Senegalese left-back Souare is also necessary.
How has pre-season allowed Palace to prepare for the campaign?
The Eagles began pre-season with a tour of North America which included three games against Philadelphia Union, FC Cincinnati and Vancouver Whitecaps. A victory against Cincinnati sandwiched between two draws would have satisfied Pardew and his players, although injuries picked up by Zaha and Tomkins would have overshadowed what happened on the pitch.
Upon their arrival back in England, the Eagles have faced visits to Football League opposition Colchester United (W 0-1), AFC Wimbledon (W 2-3) and Fulham (L 3-1). A development side, including a couple of first team player, then travelled to National League club Bromley where the Eagles won 2-1.
Palace culminated their pre-season campaign by welcoming La Liga giants Valencia to Selhurst Park. A Wickham double and a late Jedinak penalty was enough to earn a very impressive 3-1 victory over one of Europe’s biggest clubs, even despite their recent fall from grace.
Winger Zaha has certainly been the most impressive player during pre-season and will once again be very important for the Eagles in the forthcoming season, particularly if Bolasie leaves as rumoured.
Pardew has also been able to field several young players in recent months which is exemplified by Palace finishing the Valencia game with six academy players on the pitch. The Eagles’ academy has been under fire recently for its lack of productivity so this can only be a huge boost for the club.
Which first team player should you look out for?
The three new signings will undoubtedly be key players for Palace this season, although it’s one of the more long-standing players who will look to set the division alight this season. Zaha has been a key player for a while but is still yet to show outsiders exactly why Sir Alex Ferguson ordered Manchester United to pay £15 million for his services three years ago. The twice-capped England man only lasted one season at the Red Devils under David Moyes before returning to Selhurst Park – via a loan spell at Cardiff City – and it is about time that he asserted himself as one of England’s best wingers as new national team boss Sam Allardyce looks to give all players a clean slate.
Which young player should you look out for?
Luke Dreher’s rise through the academy ranks has been extremely impressive. An Under-16 at the end of the 2014/15 season to a regular Under-21 by the end of last season, the 17-year-old has had two impressive cameo appearances in the first team in pre-season against Fulham and Valencia respectively.
It is unlikely that Dreher will appear at all for the first team in competitive action this season and a loan seems more viable, but you can certainly expect him to impress in the Football League if a club is willing to take a chance with the young midfielder. Regular comparisons are drawn between Dreher and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, so the youngster certainly has a big future ahead.
Other academy players who could impress out on loan are Kaikai, Boateng and Keshi Anderson – who all had good experiences last season at Shrewsbury Town, Plymouth Argyle and Doncaster Rovers respectively.
Eleventh. The Eagles have enough quality to push towards the mid-table places, however, the lack of a 15-goal-a-season striker will hinder their chances of reaching the top half of the table. A deal for either Benteke or Berahino could significantly improve everyone’s expectations of Pardew’s side.