These are different times for Crystal Palace. Change was inevitable when they no longer had a manager born during the Truman administration. Without a ball being kicked in earnest, it has come in two respects. Shorn of the guarantee of safety that Roy Hodgson seemed to represent, Palace have been tipped for relegation in many quarters. A club who made a transfer-market profit in Hodgson’s reign now find themselves in the top half of the table for summer spending.
Winning the transfer window and winning in the actual season are very different things but Palace look to have spent wisely. Arguably, they had a greater need to than anyone else: they started at a deficit with the departures of the ageing, the out of contract and the on loan leaving gaps. Exit Gary Cahill, Mamadou Sakho, Patrick van Aanholt, Wayne Hennessey, James McCarthy, Andros Townsend and Michy Batshuayi.
Enter Joachim Andersen, Marc Guehi, Michael Olise and Conor Gallagher. If Palace were accused of spending too little in the years when time seemed to stand still, there has been a belated show of intent. That Andersen was part of a relegated Fulham team and that Gallagher went down with West Bromwich Albion is proof that fine signings in themselves do not automatically extricate a side from the bottom three, but there are reasons to deem the spending spree an auspicious start to Patrick Vieira’s reign and evidence of a club with a strategy beyond Hodgson’s stalwarts growing old together.
For much of winter, Andersen had looked a player whose next club would be significantly higher up the table. Fulham only let in 34 league goals in 31 games when he was on the pitch. Defences with Andersen only conceded every 80 minutes in last season’s Premier League, whereas Manchester United were breached every 77, on average. His capacity to knit together a band of strangers at Fulham and the leadership qualities that earned him the captaincy after a handful of games bode well for Palace.
Guehi, meanwhile, proved the cornerstone of a still more frugal Swansea defence at 20. He feels a player who was a couple of years too young for his own good, the sort that Frank Lampard would have given opportunities during Chelsea’s brief experiment with youth. He has huge potential. Guehi and Andersen offer the possibility of the best centre-back partnership among bottom-half clubs.
Olise is sadly injured now, along with Eberechi Eze, but Palace can derive optimism from how their last midfield recruit from the Championship fared. Certainly, when everyone is fit, there should be scope for more energy and invention in the centre of the pitch. That Gallagher was wanted by Marcelo Bielsa showed his propensity to press. If the Chelsea loanee might be likelier to start for Palace than Leeds, he looks another signing to signal a change in approach.
Perhaps that direction will be downwards. Yet if it is, it might be in spite of their signings, rather than because of them. There were underlying issues at Selhurst Park, most notably an age profile that suggested it would soon be renamed Jurassic Park and a sense of decline was reflected as the defensive record deteriorated. Throw in a lack of prolific strikers, despite Christian Benteke’s end-of-season burst, and a reliance on Wilfried Zaha and Eze for excitement and Vieira’s inheritance was decidedly mixed.
In dispensing of some of the old guard, Palace got worse; in bringing in the new breed, they look to have improved in certain departments. The season brings unusual uncertainty at a club now staring into the unknown. But there is much to like in their remodelling, especially in a policy of building a new team from their centre-back duo.
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