A forgettable game of football may have impressed Roy Hodgson, but offers little inspiration to the talented Nigerian wonderkid
When Eberechi Eze was replaced by Jeffrey Schlupp with six minutes of normal time to play, the 22-year-old was probably relieved by his withdrawal.
There’s usually a buzz when Manchester United visit, but Wednesday night was a forgettable encounter that neither side deserved to win. The goalless result underscored the struggles of both sides in the final third of late, although Crystal Palace’s seems to have been ongoing for a while longer.
They are one of those sides the average observer tends to forget are in the Premier League; never truly battling relegation but rarely pushing for a top-half spot. Roy Hodgson’s Eagles threatened to gate-crash the top 10 party pre-lockdown last season, only to collapse spectacularly to end in 14th place.
Despite their supposedly lowly finish, the South London side were nine points above third-bottom Bournemouth. Top flight status was never in question regardless of their decline after the league’s resumption, just as it isn’t now with Palace in 13th.
Hodgson’s men are 11 points ahead of 18th-placed Fulham and there’s a sense they’ll do just enough to stay in the league…again. While their recent run reads one win in five, the London club had won three of their last five matches before hosting the Cottagers and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s troops on Sunday and Wednesday respectively.
While the experienced Englishman may be content with the results at Selhurst Park, the performances are underwhelming and signs of progress are non-existent. Where does that leave Eze, who was replaced after 84 minutes against the Red Devils?
The Anglo-Nigerian was meant to spark off a change in approach in South London, but what many imagined and expected hasn’t come to fruition. What’s chiefly rankled is the fact little, if anything, has changed, and there’s an argument that a regression has really occurred.
They are averaging 40.8 percent possession this season, lower than three previous campaigns under the former England manager while their shot-creating actions per 90 in the trainer’s time at the club is at its lowest (14.0). Last year, the Eagles tellingly ranked bottom for SCAs per 90.
Eze’s arrival hasn’t boosted Palace’s attacking menace whatsoever, neither has the entertainment value risen in any form. Their shots per game in 2020/21 (6.4) is lower than previous campaigns under Hodgson and the decline is startling, despite the increase in talent at the club.
The attacking midfielder was deployed as a wide midfielder on Wednesday but created no direct chance from open play. He did release Jordan Ayew into space in the second half, but Christian Benteke’s air shot meant the Ghana forward’s cut-back wasn’t converted.
Despite completing a game-high four dribbles, none were in threatening areas and he did little utilising his strengths to carry the side upfield in the encounter.
Hence, the fact Wednesday’s dour stalemate with Man United was indeed Palace’s best showing in a while was striking. It’s not lost on anyone that the South London side have fired blanks in four of their last five PL matches, while the 2-1 win at Brighton & Hove Albion was a classic smash-and-grab success.
10 shots on target in their last five games with none coming in the Fulham draw has put the Eagles in a bad light, and the apathy towards the team is starting to spread.
Hodgson has seemed unmoved by the criticism of his side in the last few weeks and defended the overly negative approach at Brighton, was seemingly pleased against the Cottagers and evidently delighted by the United draw.
Be that as it may, there’s a feeling this side have plateaued under the 73-year-old, who may not be in the dugout next season. Given the club’s delicate situation with no less than 12 players’ contracts running out this summer, some may suggest this could be the perfect time to rip the old approach and lay the foundations for a new phase at the club.
Still, such upheaval may be frowned upon, particularly as the club’s last attempt to be progressive in 2017 was short-lived after Frank de Boer lasted only 77 days in charge. Ivory Coast star Wilfried Zaha felt the squad’s limitations meant they faced an uphill talk at the time.
Almost four years later, the club are at a crossroads.
On the one hand, there’s a possibility of injecting fresh blood into an ageing squad with the majority in the last few months of their deals anyway. On the other hand, the club may get the ‘be careful what you wish for’ speech if they change things drastically.
Hodgson spoke about ‘expecting a lot’ from Eze before Man United visited, but how is the talented playmaker even expected to thrive when he’s hamstrung by the club’s broader approach?
There needs to be a sea change at Palace if they want to be beneficiaries of the Anglo-Nigerian’s talent, and this summer may be the opportune moment in South London. Whether the higher-ups make huge decisions to alter the club’s ambition and general direction, though, is up in the air.