BY SAM SMITH
The performances of the U23 players who travelled with the Crystal Palace first team to Switzerland provided one of few highlights of the club’s two Uhrencup fixtures, but their involvement underlines deeper issues.
Roy Hodgson’s senior squad has been stripped by departures, players being away on international duty and just a solitary signing this summer.
The 71-year-old needed to take seven of the Eagles’ development squad to Switzerland to make up a 25-man squad and while their performances were admirable, there is a general feeling that the youngsters were papering over cracks.
Discarding the youthful seven, there were just 18 first-team players for the game against Luzern last Tuesday and this defeat to BSC Young Boys on Saturday.
The problems become strikingly more prominent when it is considered that only Wilfried Zaha and Cheikhou Kouyate were unavailable due to their participation in the Africa Cup of Nations – meaning the Eagles only have 20 senior members of their squad.
It would be naive to suggest that Hodgson included those youngsters because he wants each of them to be regulars in his squad next season. The former England manager does not have a track record of freely handing out appearances to academy graduates.
Sam Woods was given 12 minutes in a League Cup defeat and Luke Dreher appeared during added-time of May’s 5-3 win over Bournemouth when it was all but already won.
Even Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s debut against Tottenham Hotspur in February 2018 only happened during an injury crisis. Hodgson is not going to alter a 43-year philosophy.
This is certainly not a criticism of the Palace chief but merely a reflection of the situation. Many supporters of the South Londoners appear to expect the likes of Woods, Dreher, Nikola Tavares, Nya Kirby, Kian Flanagan, Tyrick Mitchell and James Daly to play in the Premier League every week but that will not happen.
Woods and Dreher are the likeliest to feature in the first team next season.
Both travel and train with the seniors on a regular basis and that experience means they would be the readiest to step up.
The pair started the Eagles’ first fixture against Luzern and played well.
Centre-back Woods was the only outfield player to play the full game but his first-half role in an unnatural right-back position seemed more of a message from Hodgson that he needs a replacement for the departed Wan-Bissaka. It was a much subtler version of Tony Pulis playing natural striker Glenn Murray as a centre-back during the pre-season tour of America in 2014.
That was not because Pulis thought the now-Brighton target man could reinvigorate his career as the second coming of Bobby Moore, but instead because he wanted to display his displeasure at a lack of cover in that position.
By the time Woods and Dreher were introduced as second-half substitutes against Young Boys, the game was a foregone conclusion. The senior stars had twice gifted goals to the Swiss Super League champions as Palace finished as runners up in the Uhrencup – another missed opportunity of prestigious silverware after reaching the quarter-finals of both domestic cups last campaign.
The 19-year-old defender Mitchell could also provide back up to Patrick van Aanholt if the club choose not to sign a left-back this summer. The attacking full-back was hailed by fans for a last-ditch sliding tackle against Luzern that was similar to those that endeared Wan-Bissaka to the Palace faithful.
But the appearances that trio make – if at all – will most likely be sporadic.
Their prominence at this pre-season tournament is certainly not a suggestion that they will all get regular game time.
Instead, it gives credence to the argument that Palace need first team reinforcements.
The club’s hierarchy will argue that there are still a little over three weeks until the transfer deadline and plenty can be done in a short space of time.
But that is not the point. Palace managed only two wins from their opening 13 games last season, partly because none of their three main summer signings had been able to fit straight in as they had been signed so late.
It is these mistakes that Palace must learn from if they are to finish in the top half of the Premier League.
Hodgson should have a full pre-season with a stronger squad, not be piecing it together a week before the start of the season.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Guaita, Ward, Dann (Woods 67), Kelly (Riedewald 67), Van Aanholt, Townsend, Milivojevic, McArthur (Dreher 86), Schlupp, Sorloth (Meyer 46), Benteke (Wickham 67). Not used: Henderson, Flanagan, Daly.
PICTURE BY NEIL EVERITT
Palace pre-season games are live on Palace TV for Members at eagles.cpfc.co.uk