Hodgson keeping it simple for Palace
Background image: Jeff Warder, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Midway through the season, Crystal Palace hold down ninth place. The Eagles aren't in full flight but they're hardly grounded. In his third campaign, manager Roy Hodgson finds success as the anti-Guardiola. Rather than complicated tactics, Palace keep it simple.
Surviving in the Premier League when you're not financially buoyant can be tough. Most teams making the jump from the Championship prioritise survival. When they've consolidated their position, they can be more ambitious. In their seventh consecutive season in the Premier League, the Eagles are finally in that phase.
It wasn't easy getting here. Every season prior to this, Palace battled relegation at some point. Hodgson is their sixth manager since their promotion. He replaced a boss who was ambitious from the off. When Frank de Boer's positive approach didn't take instantly, the board panicked.
Hodgson needed a few games to sort things but eventually guided the club to an 11th place finish that season and 12th the next. The 72-year-old makes the most of what he has. Palace are relatively quiet in successive transfer windows, preferring to bring in decent players on the free market. Max Meyer and Gary Cahill joined after being released by their respective clubs.
The pragmatic approach goes beyond that. Hodgson's squad fares poorly against the top six, winning just four matches in 30 attempts. Instead, they produce results when they should, against mid-table and bottom-half sides.
Hodgson's defence is rugged and old school while the central midfielders cover every blade of grass, break opposition play and shield the backline efficiently. The wingers track back when needed and fullbacks are given license to join the attack.
The boss' man-management skills were tested this term. Wilfried Zaha wanted to leave in the summer but the board refused to sell. Hodgson announced he expected the player to honour his contract like a professional, dealing with contract matters off the pitch. Zaha didn't respond, either verbally or on the pitch. Despite Hodgson writing him into the teamsheet for every match, the Ghanaian international didn't make the scoresheet until Matchday 7. He didn't score his first goal until Matchday 13. After finally breaking his duck, however, he's raised his total to three goals and three assists through 21 games. In the end, Hodgson's patience is paying off.
Zaha is needed to maintain Palace's push further into the table's top half. Conceding only 23 goals, the Eagles boast the Premier League's fourth-best defence but struggle at the other end, averaging less than a goal per game. Every season, there are one or two clubs who don't adhere to the standard formula that each goal scored is worth a point in the standings. Along with Sheffield United, Crystal Palace wring more value out of each goal than they have a right to expect. Their 19 tallies this term put them on 28 points.
Statistics suggest they will regress to the mean at some point. Having suffered more than their share of injuries despite their success, the Eagles hope returning players will stave off the downturn until next season at least. They are eight points from the top four. While no one expects them to finish in the European places, they are a formidable opponent well-positioned to accomplish the unexpected.
Europa League qualification might be the perfect cap to Roy Hodgson's career. Age catches up with him and this may be his last season as a manager. If it is, Palace supporters will be sorry to see him go.