After another lost season, it’s time for Crystal Palace to deliver

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04: Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Newcastle United at Selhurst Park on February 4, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04: Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Newcastle United at Selhurst Park on February 4, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images) /

Roy Hodgson helped Crystal Palace shake off an awful start last season to finish mid-table. This year they should be aiming higher.

There are better ways to start a season than with seven straight losses and zero goals, and there are better times to fire your new manager than four games into the season. But if you must do all that, there are worse managers to handle the fallout than Roy Hodgson, who enters his first full season as Crystal Palace manager with somewhat higher expectations than met his arrival at the club last September.

Palace have the talent to challenge for the Europa League places this season, and will benefit from the stability provided by a full preseason under Hodgson. Perhaps most importantly, it seems hard to imagine they’ll be as unlucky as they were last year.

The Eagles were joint 10th in the league in goals scored in 2017-18, with 45 — not great, but better than three of the teams that finished above them, including seventh-place Burnley. According to Understat, however, they underperformed their xG total by almost 12 goals, six more than the next most unfortunate side, Newcastle. (The defense was also worse than expected, per Understat’s xG model, though not nearly to the same degree).

A significant part of that was their profligacy from good positions. They missed the fourth most big chances in the league last season, fewer only than Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal, who create far more chances overall. If they had matched their xG totals, Palace would have finished 14 points better off, good enough for a seventh-place finish.

This doesn’t mean improvement in 2017-18 is guaranteed. After all, these chances are going to have to be converted by someone, and there are significant question marks over the quality of last season’s most wasteful player, Christian Benteke. The Belgian scored only three league goals last term, a vast downgrade from the club-leading 15 he managed in 2017-18. Unsurprisingly, he also ranked second in the league in missed chances with 20, three behind Mohamed Salah, who took almost 100 more shots. Benteke is a talented player, but he needs to overcome whatever funk he was in last season if Palace are to climb the table.

However Benteke plays, Palace’s most important player, provided they can hold onto him, will be Wilfried Zaha. The winger enjoyed something of a breakout season in 2017-18 despite missing time with injuries, as evidenced by the fact Palace lost all nine games he missed. A skilled dribbler and goal threat, Zaha is one of the most exciting players in the league. He’ll play a key role in Palace’s attack this season, taking on defenders and dictating the movement in the final third. If he doesn’t perform, the quality of Benteke’s finishing may be irrelevant.

Hodgson is unlikely to toy with his preferred 4-4-2 formation next season, which proved galvanizing in its simplicity following Frank De Boer’s ill-fated attempt to play 3-4-3/4-3-3. Even with the loss of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose loan spell came to an end, and Yohan Cabaye, who will play next season for Al-Nasr of the UAE Arabian Gulf League, Palace have the personnel to make the 4-4-2 work.

Zaha looked dangerous playing next to Benteke in the front two last season, but could also play in midfield. Andros Townsend, who led Palace with seven assists last season, also split time up front and on the right wing, but is likely to play in midfield this season. Joining him will be Luka Milivojevic and James McArthur, two versatile midfielders who can contribute on both sides of the ball. Milivojevic was Palace’s leading scorer last season with 10 league goals, a sign of both his quality and of the team’s awful finishing overall.

The midfield ranks will be further supplemented by the arrival of 22-year-old former wonderkid Max Meyer, who arrives on a free after letting his contract run out at Schalke following a disagreement with sporting director Christian Heidel. Whether he can rediscover the form that made him one of Germany’s most highly-rated prospects remains to be seen, but watching him try will be one of the more intriguing subplots of the season.

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Defensively, Palace will rely on Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt at full-back, and the pair of James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho at center-back. Sakho struggled with injury again last season, but is a formidable defender when fit, and his distribution from the back can give Palace another dimension going forward. Given the necessary playing time, he can form a good partnership with Tomkins.

Wayne Hennessey had another so-so season, conceding 41 goals. Vicente Guaita arrived on a free transfer to provide more cover for the Welsh goalkeeper, but in a mostly strong team, it’s hardly a position of strength.

The statistics, the manager and the quality of Crystal Palace’s talent show they can contend for European soccer this season. Getting off to a good start will be paramount, and should be easier for them since they don’t have as brutal of an early season schedule. Palace only play two top-six teams in their first 10 games, as opposed to the four (and Burnley, who finished seventh) they played last year to start the season.

Combining an easier start with a little bit more luck in front of goal means Palace could confidently establish the direction of their season by November. By then, they’ll know if they’re making strides toward a Europa League spot or once again floundering near the relegation zone.