‘Having worked with the players since Wednesday, I don’t think there’s much that needs to be changed,’ Roy Hodgson’s debut programme notes as Crystal Palace manager read. On the evidence of his first 90 minutes in charge, now might be the time.
Had you asked any Palace supporter absent over the last fortnight to watch their side’s performances against Burnley and Southampton and play spot the difference, any notes made were not in Hodgson’s favour. The only difference in team selection was recalling a player injured last week. The only difference in performance is that Palace had nine fewer shots and 20% less possession.
Palace have now gone five games without a goal at the start of this Premier League season, the only team in the country to suffer that fate. After Bournemouth’s victory over Brighton on Friday night, they are now the only team yet to gain a point too.
Hodgson has been at pains to point out his emotional connection with Selhurst Park this week, where he stood as a child on the Holmesdale Road terrace. If Hodgson could never have imagined returning as manager then or when he was released by the club before making a senior appearance, he would have preferred happier circumstances. This club needs emergency assistance.
Palace’s new manager insists that he is undamaged – if not quite unaffected – by his unsuccessful stint in charge of England, pointing to previous success at West Brom and Fulham. Whilst there is little argument that Hodgson should be regarded as a safer pair of hands than his predecessor, he is hardly a master pragmatist in the mould of Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis, both formerly of this (Steve) Parish.
What’s more, experience is no more a guarantee of success than rawness is of failure, as Marco Silva at Watford can testify. At 70, Hodgson is the oldest managerial appointment in Premier League history. He was last involved in day-to-day management half a decade ago.
If the hope was that Hodgson’s personal relationship would provide the passion and tenacity entirely absent under Frank de Boer, this was an inauspicious start. Palace’s only statement in the first 30 minutes was to be careless in possession and negligent without the ball. Southampton scored after five minutes and could easily have doubled their lead before the home side even had a shot. This is a Southampton team with one league goal from open play before Saturday.
The listless mood was matched in the stands. Lunchtime kick-offs on a Saturday can often require the action to invigorate the spectators, and Palace supporters are understandably keen for proof that the club’s players merit fans’ perspiration with a little inspiration of their own. That attribute has been lacking for far too long.
The most fervent reaction of supporters was to boo the bizarre substitution of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, closely followed by a gentleman in the Main Stand who rose during the first half to shout “Wake the f**k up, Palace.” Well, quite.
“It is down to the players – the manager sets up the team and we created chances but we need to put them away,” was Andros Townsend’s admission of guilt on behalf of his teammates as De Boer was sacked on Monday. It is a soundbite that you can almost set your watch by, the ode to the bolted horse.
Yet Townsend is right. For all the merited censure of De Boer and Palace’s inability or unwillingness to match grand ideas with processes, this is a group of players that has been under-performing for far too long. Short passes are misplaced, wingers are left unmarked and shots are snatched.
This was not a De Boer problem, and nor is it a Hodgson problem; it is a Crystal Palace disease. Fifty-four points from their last 64 league matches under four different managers. Confidence has not just been pierced, it has deflated and dried out.
Evidence for that is found in the performance of individual players. With Wilfried Zaha injured, Palace’s two brightest players this season are Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, with the latter their star turn against Southampton. Loftus-Cheek drove from midfield with the ball, and was unfortunate not to equalise with a low drive. The contrast with Benteke, Townsend and Jason Puncheon was embarrassing.
While Christian Benteke struggles for goals, Yohan Cabaye struggles for rhythm and five or six other established first-teamers just struggle, it is no coincidence that the two newest arrivals are the ones most able to play with something approaching freedom. They are yet to be suffocated by The Fear; it may choke them in the end.
For such a malady, there is no short-term remedy. Hodgson is too experienced to believe that there is any substitute for hard work and gradual progress, and forthcoming fixtures against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are hardly likely to ignite an improvement in form. As the rain teemed down from a slate grey sky over Selhurst Park, the reality was impossible to ignore. This is going to be a long winter in SE25.