BY MATT WOOSNAM AT SELHURST PARK
Michael Oliver brought his whistle to his lips and blew for full-time. A smattering of boos were audible around Selhurst Park. For the fifth time this season, Crystal Palace had failed to deliver a goal in front of their home support.
A miserly performance matched the mood of the day. Heavy, cold, dark. It never rains in football, but it pours.
Wolves came to South London with a game plan which was obvious from the very early stages. They were to play on the counter-attack. Three at the back, four in midfield, three in attack. Exploit the spaces, push the midfield, get a goal and sit back. That was exactly how it panned out.
Nuno Espirito Santo set his team up to be difficult to break down, and to be vicious on the break. It showed. As soon as Matt Doherty blasted the visitors ahead on 56 minutes, they sat back and put themselves into clearly defined block formation. There was to be one testy moment after this, but for the most part they were untroubled by gentle probing, a lack of off-the-ball movement and lumbering football from Palace.
The atmosphere matched the showing on the pitch. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Holmesdale Fanatics’ desire for a singing section in the middle of the Lower Holmesdale Stand, their absence is notable. Occasionally, a cry of “Eagles, Eagles, Eagles!” would emerge across all four stands following a particularly promising spell of pressure, but it was not long before the supporters expressed their frustration at the continued inability to convert possession into anything meaningful.
Four shots on target, of which two came within seconds of each other – Max Meyer’s volley and Jeffrey Schlupp’s follow-up forcing Rui Patricio into an excellent double save – point to the cause of the hosts’ woes. Andros Townsend’s fairly tame attempt from the edge of the box was comfortable for Patricio. They have scored just once this season since the opening day victory over Fulham, if Wilfried Zaha’s two efforts are discounted. When his assist for the goal at Bournemouth is counted, they are yet to score since that day without direct involvement from Zaha.
The real story is a familiar tale though. Mistakes. Genuine, unintentional ones, but mistakes nonetheless.
It is more than half a decade since Palace were promoted to the Premier League. Yet, they rely so much on one player. Aside from the obvious areas of concern on the pitch, it is off it where the real lack of progress lies. The training ground in Beckenham is not befitting of a club which has earned the hundreds of millions from a multitude of sources as a result of the top flight. The academy has been neglected, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s rise largely in spite of it, rather than as a result of it, and with a heap of luck thrown in for good measure.
The stadium has been tidied up, but the new masterplan for its redevelopment remains in the balance with planning permission yet to be granted by the Mayor of London. The club’s recruitment policy is questionable. It lurches from looking to the medium-long term to extremely short-term. Invariably the short-termism is panicking in the January transfer window. Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew were never likely to be, or intended to be, legacy managers. Neither is Roy Hodgson. Frank de Boer perhaps was, but his sacking was borne out of panic after a woeful start last year.
The Premier League does not lend itself to legacy managers, but there are examples against the grain. Eddie Howe has excelled at Bournemouth, Chris Hughton remains in charge at arch-rivals Brighton. Palace might do well to look at those clubs and seek to emulate their best parts.
That none of the Eagles’ summer signings started this 1-0 defeat by Wolves despite their fitness lends concerns to recruitment policy, and poses questions as to Hodgson’s satisfaction with their ability. Two of the three January signings have already left the club, and the other – Alexander Sorloth – is clearly unfancied by his manager.
But again, Palace were not steamrolled here. They competed for the 90 minutes. Yes, they were fortunate not to go two goals behind when Ivan Cavaleiro thundered an effort off the crossbar with 10 minutes to go, but equally they were unfortunate not to equalise when Meyer and Schlupp tested Patricio, or Zaha lashed the ball across the face of goal in the first half.
Hodgson has begun to tinker with his starting 11 and shifted between two relatively similar formations, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter. The end result is still the same – defeat.
Unless things improve quickly, any return of the black-clad Fanatics will be for the funeral procession as Palace’s season spirals into yet another one defined by struggle at the bottom of the table.
Palace (4-4-2): Hennessey 7, Wan-Bissaka 6, Tomkins 6, Sakho 6, Van Aanholt 5, Schlupp 4 (Sorloth 82), McArthur 5 (Meyer 63, 6), Milivojevic 5, Townsend 5, Ayew 6 (Kouyate 72), Zaha 4. Not used: Guaita, Ward, Kelly, Puncheon.