Why would Crystal Palace plump for Frank Lampard while Roy Hodgson offers stability and adaptation?
Hodgson won’t be drawn on rumours suggesting he will retire at the end of the season, but there have been suggestions Crystal Palace could announce his departure from the club ahead of Arsenal’s visit to Selhurst Park on Wednesday, to allow returning fans the chance to bid the great man a fond farewell.
Whether Hodgson retires or not, or leaves Palace or not, he is trying his best to give those fans something to shout about; that’s not always so obviously been the case.
The style of football this season would be described by some as functional and the less amiable as negative or dull. And the addition of Eberechi Eze – one of the most exciting young talents in the Premier League – has led to mounting pressure to change tack and take hold of games rather than survive them. The desire for evolution has them looking in Lampard’s direction.
But Hodgson – so often accused of being stuck in his ways – has adapted.
With their Premier League future secure, they’ve moved from a tight 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 with a far greater front-foot focus. Having played two solid but limited central midfielders until the Sheffield United game, Hodgson has opted for just one in their last three, with two attacking midfielders, two wingers and the revitalised Christian Benteke leading the line.
Eze looks great from that slightly deeper role, able to use his stunning ability to glide past players and feed balls into his more advanced teammates – as he did on numerous occasions against Villa – and to unleash shots as the ball falls to him on the edge of the box, with one such whipped effort smashing the crossbar in the second half.
And Eze in midfield gets the best out of Wilfred Zaha. There’s far less need for him to drop and get on the ball to affect the game: he knows he’ll be involved as long as Eze is too. Zaha’s equaliser was fortunate – deflected off Ahmed Elmohamady – but his all-round contribution was far more telling as a result of a switch in his mentality. He doesn’t have to do it all himself.
It was his quality that led to Tyrick Mitchell’s shouldered winner, as he beat a defender in the box, and Mitchell’s quality which created the opener, as he clipped his cross beautifully into the box for Benteke to climb way above Kortney Hause to head in. Mitchell was excellent throughout.
Aston Villa though, were very, very poor. They looked nothing like a team who were in Champions League qualification contention up until a month or so ago. John McGinn provided their only real moment of class.
Faced with an onrushing defender as the ball rolls out of the box, hitting it hard is the go-to play. But nine times out of ten, such a shot is either blocked or blazed over the bar. And it’s finishes like McGinn’s – such was the seeming simplicity – that lead you to question why everyone doesn’t just do that.
It’s nowhere near as easy as he made it look, for one. He manoeuvred his body and feet into the right position, before expertly stroking the ball – without the aid of any curl or spin – off the post and in. His didn’t look to hit the target, he looked for and found the corner. He tried it again later and rolled the ball harmlessly into the arms of Jack Butland – an illustration perhaps of why it’s a technique not used more often and definitely a metaphor for how Villa fell away in the second half. They were’t great in the first, mind you.
But Crystal Palace were brilliant. Not just effective, practical and hard-working, but attractive and fluent. It may end up being little more than Hodgson’s swansong, but it’s provided food for thought for the Palace hierarchy, who face a summer of upheaval whether Hodgson stays or goes. If he can promise this no-fear football from the get-go next season, and avoid the temptation to revert to the tried, tested but boring with something on the line, the relative stability has got to be tempting.