Crystal Palace Could Cap Fine Season by Helping Decide the Title Race

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterApril 16, 2014

Crystal Palace face Everton for the second time this season on Wednesday in a game that offers a timely measure of just how far they have come this season.

In November, when they last met the Toffees, they were without a permanent manager and in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that had left them bottom of the Premier League with just three points (from 10 games).

Five months, a new manager, 22 games and 33 points later, Palace head to Goodison Park once again looking for their fourth Premier League win in a row.

It has been some turnaround.

Last weekend Palace beat Aston Villa 1-0 at Selhurst Park, sealing their third league win in succession. It was the first time since 1994 that they have won three top-flight games in a row but, more pressingly, those three points leave them tantalisingly close to securing their top-flight status for a second campaign.

It would be the first time in four attempts that they have achieved that feat.

It is a belatedly forged defensive strength that has been the foundation of Palace’s turnaround. Fleetingly in evidence in the early part of the season (under Ian Holloway, only a penalty saw them lose to Tottenham on the opening day, for example, while Manchester United needed some good fortune to make their breakthrough at Old Trafford in September), since caretaker Keith Millen steadied the ship in October and, eventually, Tony Pulis’ arrival in November, it has become the pillar of how Palace are, the essence of how they operate.

The former Stoke City manager has taken some time to work out his best system—best exemplified by the way he has moved full-back Joel Ward around Palace’s line-up like a knight on his chessboard—but has now seemingly settled on the system that will see them through to the 17th-place finish that has always been the overriding aim.

Everything is focused on keeping opposition sides out of the Palace penalty box, with different attacking scenarios—and the requisite defensive responses—practised relentlessly in training.

Pulis’ attention to detail has been in evidence all season: On the touchline, he is never not barking instructions, mainly about the positioning of one or more of his players.

His determination not to let his players drop their standards is relentless. During the build-up to Palace’s third goal in the crucial recent 3-0 away win over Cardiff, Pulis can be heard exhorting his players not to "tire of passing it simple" even as Jason Puncheon opens his body up to try and find the top corner.

Avoiding mistakes is his priority; mistakes, after all, are how goals are conceded and games lost.

"If we take things for granted and take our foot off the pedal and stop doing what we’re really good at, we’ll get a rude awakening," Pulis told reporters last week (via the Croydon Advertiser).

"It is such a tough, tough league, it can change so quickly. You have to stay focused win, lose or draw."

Beyond that, it is all about the tactical system. Two strong centre-backs and three shielding midfielders reduce the spaces and options in the Palace third, and it is then hoped that the side’s two wingers and lone striker (along with their pressing duties) can steal a goal on the counter.

Invariably, Puncheon has been underlining the effectiveness of that approach, his pinpoint left foot providing the ultimate rewards for the hard work of the team as a whole.

"It was a rough start to the season," Ward noted (via London24) earlier in the campaign. "We’re working a lot in training on how to deal with different defensive scenarios. We’re learning and becoming more of a unit.

"If I can do my job then hopefully that helps the team."

As Pulis added: "We have got results because we’re a team—that’s been the theme, that’s it’s got to be a team effort."

So far, so Pulis-typical. Statistics may never be his friend—in a coincidental piece of symmetry, the Times (subscription required) measured that Stoke’s percentage of long balls played this season has dropped by 20 percent, while Palace’s has risen by nearly the same margin—but it would be a disservice to suggest he has reverted to stereotype to salvage what initially looked a lost cause.

Equally, though, it’s simplistic to praise Pulis as Palace’s lord and saviour—that everything good that has happened to the Eagles this season has been a result of his planning.

The final months of Holloway’s tenure were undoubtedly unfocused, disorganised and increasingly directionless, with the players growing increasingly disaffected.

Rectifying all those (often basic) mistakes does not necessarily make one a managerial genius, just a competent one.

In many ways, Millen laid much of the groundwork for Pulis, a man under whom he played for a brief period while both were at Bristol City around the turn of the millennium.

In his four-game stint in charge, Millen brought a disparate squad together and, after initial 2-0 losses to Arsenal and West Brom, ended the club’s losing streak with a goalless draw at home to Everton, before signing off with a 1-0 win away to Hull City.

"I said to Tony that I honestly believe these lads can stay up," Millen, who was kept on as Pulis’ assistant manager, told the BBC following his last game in charge. "You pick up on the vibes in training and there is a belief there. They feel they have a chance."

In the hotseat, Pulis was soon informed by the board that they needed to see enough to suggest the club could feasibly stay up before they sanctioned any significant spend in the January transfer window.

The summer recruitment strategy had involved targeting players with Premier League ability who could also be relied upon to do a job at Championship level, should Palace be relegated.

In the main, they found players of that particular profile—just too many of them. Infamously, Holloway had to leave two players out of his registered squad for the first part of the season, including one (French left-back Florian Marange) who had only just been signed.

With a bloated squad of players of a similar, solid but unremarkable talent level, spending more in January and going down would be inviting disaster for Palace, a club already with a chequered financial history.

Yet, when New Year arrived, Palace were actually outside the relegation zone on goal difference and entertaining realistic hopes of survival.

"We weren’t in the game when I came," Pulis stated, per the Telegraph. "Now we’re in the game."

Eventually, after some heated discussions that led to rumours about Pulis’ long-term future, chairman Steve Parish sanctioned four late deals.

Loanee (and childhood Palace fan) Jason Puncheon was signed on a permanent deal in order to use the vacated temporary berth to sign Blackpool winger Thomas Ince, while goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, central defender Scott Dann and midfielder Joe Ledley were brought in for seven-figure fees.

Two of those signings have proven somewhat superfluous as far as this season is concerned (Hennessey has been back-up to the impressive Julian Speroni, while Ince has been consigned to the bench after an initially impressive start, predominantly due to Puncheon’s displays), but Dann and Ledley have improved Palace significantly.

Dann has replaced the ageing Danny Gabbidon in defence and, alongside Damien Delaney, he has reinforced Palace’s back line with his physical presence and organisational nous. It is now eight games since Palace last conceded twice (against Manchester United in February).

Ledley, after an initial start at left-back, has become a vital part of Palace’s three-man midfield, impressing with his box-to-box stamina and poise alongside enforcer Kagisho Dikgacoi and the similarly combative Mile Jedinak.

Jedinak has perhaps been the most important player in Palace’s season—not only does he set the tone defensively, he is also invariably asked to dictate matters when Palace try to set up an attack with his passing.

Puncheon may score all the goals—and his individual qualities cannot be overlooked—but it is Jedinak who has been laying the foundations all season.

The best player, meanwhile (there is a distinction), has undoubtedly been Ward. Starting the season at right-back, moving into central midfield for a period and now covering Palace’s relative weakness at left-back, Ward has been a dominant presence all season, winning a remarkable percentage of his individual duels—especially for a 24-year-old in his first full Premier League campaign.

If he was playing for a bigger club, or a more fashionable one, it is not outlandish to suggest he would have received an England call by now.

"I think it’s our desire and our will to just see games out [that has made the difference]," Ward said earlier in the season. "There’s a togetherness in the group, we’re all working harder for each other and going that extra yard."

If the conventional wisdom is that this season’s Premier League title will be decided next Sunday, on April 27—at the Battle of Anfield, when Chelsea face Liverpool—then it remains highly probable that two further skirmishes, both set to take place in SE25, might prove similarly pivotal.

City also have to visit Everton, arguably their hardest remaining fixture, but both they and Liverpool also have appointments at Selhurst Park (one week apart—April 27 and May 5). Chelsea may draw confidence from this; they know first-hand how tough that challenge will be, aware that their slip from title front-runners to chasing challengers can be traced back to last month's back-to-back defeats at Villa Park and Selhurst Park.

Now Palace and their defensive belligerence could force another critical twist in what has been a most unpredictable title race.

"I am just thinking about Palace," Pulis responded this week, questioned about that prospect. "My only concern is getting over the line.

"I don’t care [who wins the title], as long as we stay up."


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