From Mid-Table to Europa League – Let’s Fix Crystal Palace

I thought it would be fun to ‘fix’ a club. While there might not be anything wrong in particular, I want to try and push a club to the next stage, and decided to choose Crystal Palace. They have a very interesting way of playing, and gets the best out of the players there, while also keeping them solid defensively and allowing them to create chances. They are quite simple, but effective.

So what are Palace good at? Well first it’s chance creation. The Eagles are 6th in shots per game, ahead of the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal. They are a side that are very good at quickly transitioning the ball, with Zaha, Wan-Bissaka, Van Aanolt and Townsend all being good dribblers. They are 3rd in the league for dribbles per game, with only Man City and Chelsea ahead of them. Finally, their ability at winning the ball back has to be praised. Palace are a side that focus on quickly regaining the ball, and moving the ball up the pitch. It’s why their dribble numbers are so high. Milivojevic and Wan-Bissaka put in a lot of defensive work, and even players like Zaha and Ayew are putting in a tackle per match. It’s why I’ve chose Palace, because they have an effective style, and makes them a threat. They have the 7th best away form in the league, because their style suits that underdog approach.

Now that we know what is good, let’s look at the more negative side. The first is their home record. I mentioned how well Palace have done away, but their results at Selhurst Park have not being nearly as impressive. They home record ranks 18th in the league, with the Eagles only winning 4 games at home. To describe them as unfortunate is an understatement. xPTS would rank them at 7th in the league, with Palace being very unfortunate to have such a poor record. Their shots and dribble numbers are much better at home than on the road, which highlights the next problem. I mentioned how good they are when it comes to transition and creating chances, but they have a finishing problem. While Palace rank high when it comes to taking shots, their shots on target are not as impressive. They rank 15th in shots on target per game, eight places below where they rank with regular shots. It highlights their biggest problem when it comes to attacking, lacking a good striker. While Hodgson playing Townsend and Zaha as a striking pair did work, they just lack a vocal point, and someone who has a better ability at finding space and taking those chances. Batshuayi has added that to an extent, but I think they need something else, and his move seems more of a boost for the Belgian’s career than for Crystal Palace. The midfield could also use a boost. Kouyate is a below average player at best, and Max Meyer has been horrible, continuing his reputation of being a player many think is good, but just doesn’t offer enough to justify dealing with his baggage, meaning his wages. Meyer left Schalke because they refused to accept his wage demands, which makes sense considering he was bad last season.

Now that we’ve went through the good and the bad, let’s talk about what needs to change. The manager is one that might make a lot of sense, but as mentioned on my manager rankings, I like Hodgson a lot and is still getting the best out of this side, but if the owners do want to upgrade for justfied long term issues (maybe Pablo Machin is getable) but for now we’ll stick with him.

Let’s look at the players. Their goalkeeper options are fine for now. Both Hennessey and Guaita have been fine enough to keep around, with Hennessey finally being replaced. Defence is where it becomes a bit more of a priority. We’ll look at players to bring in later, but for now we’ll focus on who stays and goes. Starting with the centre back options, I think Tompkins and Sakho will be fine for now, but it will be area that I will be looking at later for additions. While both players are have formed a solid partnership, their back ups should be looking at moving on. Scott Dann used to be a regular in the side, but has only started 3 games. He’s also 32 and it might be time for him to leave. The team needs to ensure that they’re is solid competition in all areas. Martin Kelly was one I was thinking of letting go, but then we’d only be left with two centre halves. The full backs are an interesting topic. They arguably have one of the best pairs of full backs in the league, with Wan-Bissaka and Van Aanholt being great at transitioning the ball, winning it back and giving the side a lot of width. The former is going to be on many big club’s radar, but it would be vital to keep hold of him for at least another season. However if United do offer something crazy like £50m, I couldn’t blame Palace for accepting it. We aren’t going to be looking at another full back, since in this perfect world, Wan-Bissaka stays.

Moving on to the midfield, Max Meyer is the first to go. Since he has arrived on a free, you can get some money for the player, because he isn’t worth keeping around. Schlupp and Townsend both stay, with the pair having their best seasons in recent memory. They are versitile and can help fill a number of positions. McArthur, Milivojevic and Kouyate all stay. Regarding the forward options, all are going to be sold besides Zaha. Benteke, Sorloth, Ayew and Wickham are all going to be sold. All have failed to add goals on a consistent basis and also haven’t shown enough to justify even keeping in the first place. It’s an area that definitely needs improving.

Palace have been making conistently bad business in recent windows. Many just seem to have arrived based on the falsely believed ‘premier league proven.’ Palace are another side to show that just because you have players who have experience in the league, doesn’t make it a guaranteed success. I would never recommend any Premier League side sign a player from the same league, unless they’re a relegated side. There’s always an expense based on selling to a Premier League side, as well as many clubs refusing to give to their rivals. Ayew, Kouyate, Benteke, Townsend and Schlupp are average players at best, and the club could have found better options abroad, but decided to play it incredibly safe. Let’s get to the most interesting part, and talk about which players will be brought in, if I had such control.

Let’s begin with an additional centre back. With Sakho, Tompkins and Kelly all over 28, it means a younger addition makes the most sense. With the solid partnership that Sakho and Tompkins forming a decent partnership, it means there’s a chance to find some value in the market here. The first option that should be considered is a player from the tier below. After seeing plenty of players make the step up from the Championship, it’s proof that there is definitely value to be found. Bournemouth are a great example of this, with Brooks, Mephan and Lewis Cook all showing plenty of promise since making the step up. Palace could try a similar approach, since the quality in the Championship is starting to increase by the season. the first suggestion is 24 year old Bristol defender Adam Webster. Ever since their impressive run to the League Cup semi final last season, I’ve always kept an interest in seeing how they’re doing, and after their drop off during the second half of the season, they have definitely shown improvement. They currently sit in 5th, with the 3rd best defensive record in the league. Adam Webster has been very good in the heart of that Bristol defence, turning them into a side finally ready for a chance at promotion. This isn’t exactly a new revelation either. Webster should a lot of promise at Ipswich, with his high interception numbers and massive aerial duels showing him to be a player to keep an eye on, but he just wasn’t playing enough games at his former club, with Webster starting only 25 games in the 2017/18 season, thanks to another ankle injury. Bristol took that risk on him and to say it’s paid off is an understatement. He’s started 35 games this season and has become a vital player for them. Earning the nickname ‘Webdini’ (after Italian legend Maldini), he has come up with important moments, including a winner against Middlesborough. Webster has been putting in the numbers to back up this praise, making 2.1 interceptions per game, the 8th highest in the league. He is also a monster in the air, winning 6.3 aerial duels per match, again the 8th highest. He has been simply fantastic, and would be perfect for a side who are needing a younger defender. Defenders are harder to buy in the current market, so a bargain like this is exactly what the team needs.

Midfield is the next position that needs addressing. While Milivojevic has been great and has been winning points thanks to his penalty prowess, he need a better partner beside him. While he isn’t my first choice, I would still recommend Crystal Palace pick up Philip Billing. Huddersfield might go down as one of the worst sides in the history of the league, but Billing has been a stand out. He’s only 22, and has put in massive defensive numbers, with the Danish midfielder putting 4.7 tackles and interceptions and winning 3.3 aerial duels a game. He is still young, and since Huddersfield are now relegated, it makes picking him up so much easier. I think Palace could pick him up for less than £15m, which would be reasonable enough for a player who has performed well in the Premier League.

My real recommendation would be Jordan Veretout. While Zambo Anguissa and Joan Jordan were all looked at, I thought going for a player who is in his prime would be a great idea. It would be the Frenchman’s second time in the league, with the Veretout previously playing for Aston Villa, a Villa side that were really bad, and Veretout wasn’t good in the slightest. However he was much younger then, and after 3 successful seasons, 2 for Fiorentina, he has turned into a very good player. Veretout deserves another chance in England, and he would add a lot of Palace. He is a great creator, and can help in quickly moving the ball further up the pitch. His key passes are at a career high with 2.4, which would be higher than anyone else in the Palace squad. It’s one of my biggest issues with how Palace build up. They have this over reliance on attacking through the wide areas. They have been playing Zaha and Townsend have been playing as a partnership for most of the season, and it means they mostly lack any unpredictability sometimes. Having a midfielder who is actually able to create means they don’t have to keep relying on Zaha for everything. It’s their biggest flaw. While he is great at transition, he is awful in the final third. I’ll get more into fixing this problem soon, but having another player who can with that is really useful. It makes them so much better in midfield, instead of having just a solid pair, they have more than that. I think Fiorentina might sell if they’re offered between £20-£25 million. He’s 26 and has played a lot of games for them. It could be more, but that’s how much I think he is worth.

Let’s move on to strikers. Since all are departing, and Zaha will be playing as a second striker, bringing in two would make sense. The first is Karl-Toko Ekambi. The Villarrael striker has not had the best of seasons, but can’t all be blamed. Villarreal have been really bad this season, and have only recently looked like surviving. It was a massive decline from a side that qualified for the Europa League last season. Ekambi arrived in the summer to fix their goal problem, alongside Gerard Moreno. He has scored 8 and assisted 1 in 19 starts, which is good considering he’s playing for a struggling side. Many might look at this selection as a strange one, and I get it. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high and he’s 26, so the chances of this changing are unlikely. He’s getting selected because he’s a really good finisher. He doesn’t overperform or underperform his xG, and has a respectable 0.44 xGP90, which is good considering he doesn’t play much. He is just a really good finisher and would fix one of my biggest issues with Palace, being they take a lot of shots, but not good ones. Bringing in a guy who will put those chances away is needed if they want to push onto the next level. I think Villarreal would sell for more than £20m. He is on a 5 year deal which would make it difficult to sign him. Ekambi has proven before that he can score goals. Villarreal signed him because of his impressive 17 goal season in Ligue 1. If he can replicate that for Crystal Palace, it could be exactlywhat they need.

My next striker choice is more of a wildcard, but would be a lot of fun. I’ve already brought up how the level of the Championship has improved massively in the past couple of years, and my next choice shows this. While Brentford don’t seem to be getting promotion this season, they have a very interesting attack. Ollie Watkins has been on the radar of so many clubs, and seems to be on the verge to a Premier League club very soon. Said Benrahma has been one of the best players in the league this season, and is now in double figures for goals and assists. While both of those players are great, the player I will be talking about is Neal Maupay. The Frenchman has been insanely good this season, scoring 21 and assisting 7 in 38 appearances. He has played more than the players previously mentioned, and as been vital for Brentford. While small, he is quick, technically gifted and gets in very good areas. He is taking 3.4 shots per 90, more than anyone for Palace. While the clear quality difference needs to be pointed out, it’s still positive to have a young forward having such healthy shot numbers. He is also a good creator, which is needed they want to get even more out of Zaha. It’s something I forgot to bring up when talking about Ekambi, but both have very good key pass numbers. A little more is needed from them if Zaha is to work as a second striker. Maupay averages 1.4 per 90, which is very good for a striker. Bringing both Ekmbi and Maupay into the side will give them options and two very good finishers. It’s rumoured Brentford are asking for upwards to £20m for their forward, which is a fair price. It might be a lot for a Championship player, but he is clearly a step above that league.

That’s all the signings I would bring in. Let me know if there are any I might have missed. These names might not be the huge names, but it’s not about the names. It’s about being smart, in taking risks while also having players who are likely to succeed. The Eagles have potential to take that next step up. It’s insanely unlikely that they would take this advice, but it’s I would see in fixing this side.

Best XI of players outside of the Top 6 (2017/18)

After speaking about the best eleven for the top teams, let’s discuss how some players in the lower half of the table are doing, and making an eleven of their best players.

Nick Pope (Burnley)

There isn’t much of a competition here. While I think Jordan Pickford has been very good, Pope has been head and shoulders above his competition. He had came into a very organised Burnley side after Heaton’s injury, and not even looked out of place. He’s been averaging 3.3 saves per game this season, which betters Courtois’s 2 saves per game. While Burnley themselves have been a brilliant defensive unit, they have relied at times on Pope to bail them out. Some that come to mind would be against United and City, where he made some brilliant saves to win his team some valuable points. I’ll be very impressed if Heaton will be able to get back into this team, with Pope being this good

Aaron Wan Bissaka (Crystal Palace)

It might be a bit odd to put a player who has only played 7 games in the premier league this season as the best right back, but for a 20 year old, he has been absolutely brilliant. Against Man United he was incredible in keeping Sanchez quiet. He was tight on him and blocked any pass that was attempted. He’s averaged 5.9 tackles and interceptions this season. Which is just absolutely unbelievable. Every time he has played he has not looked out of place, and could become a key player for Palace next season.

Christopher Schindler (Huddersfield)

Huddersfield in a defensive sense have actually been relatively good this season. For a team with a minus goal difference last season, to concede only 8 goals more than Arsenal is pretty impressive. They also top the table in tackles, ahead of champions league finalists Liverpool. It says a lot about how Huddersfield have been playing this season. They have been playing very risky football, which has given many defeats, but because of that, their defensive players have a lot of responsibility in ensuring that the opposition does not get past. He has been averaging 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, and also 7.2 clearances. It shows that playing this open system has not affected the German. His defensive numbers are at a real high because of the responsibility he has. He’s been excellent in this system and deserves so much more credit than he gets.

James Tarkowski (Burnley)

Michael Keane was excellent last season. He completed the most passes for Burnley in the final third and showed himself to be a strong, intelligent and capable player. But systems are important in football and his move to Everton shows it. He has been exposed more this season because of style changes to the way Everton play. I bring this up to make a certain point, that playing in a certain system brings out your best qualities. Tarkowski might be in this similar mold as we speak. He has replaced Keane perfectly. It’s a another decision from Dyche that deserves as much credit as it is getting. A player no one heard of twelve months ago is now getting England caps. He’s shown himself to be a perfectly capable defender, who is able to keep the shape and do his job. I cannot call him a great defender by any means, because he plays in a system that favours a more pragmatic approach. The credit he is getting here is because of how flawless he has been, and anyone who does their job that good deserves my credit.

Patrick Van Aanholt (Crystal Palace)

Maybe a strange pick. Usually the Southampton fullbacks cover these positions. But because of their off season, other players have to be considered. Van Aanholt had always been an odd player to me. No matter how good he is going forward, the defensive frailties have always showed themselves. His positional sense had always been very off, having the possibility of getting caught out. This season has been different however. He has been averaging 3.4 tackles and interceptions per 90, and most impressively for me he only gets dribbled past 0.6 times per game. He’s a very difficult player to beat in a one on one. His passing numbers might not be great, but that can be explained by Palace themselves. Much of their game comes on the right side, with Zaha especially effective in this regard. It gives the Dutchman the chances to get in dangerous areas. He has scored 5 goals for palace this season, and some of them being very important. He have his inconsistencies, but has been an important player for palace.

Abdoulaye Doucouré

Doucouré has been a very consistent player in Watford’s team selection, and for justified reasons. He’s averaged 3.6 tackles and interceptions per game, while also completing 85% of is passes. He’s showing signs of a very well rounded midfielder. Not only has he been capable of playing in a deeper position, he also can play in a midfield 3. It shows him to be a very flexible player for any team who is thinking about adding depth in that area. He has been a towering figure in that Watford side. Most importantly he has scored 7 goals and assisted 3 for a team that hasn’t been too great in front of goal. In a season that started so brightly, and slowed down after the sacking of Marco Silva. Doucouré has been the only player to get constant praise.

Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace)

Milivojevic has showed himself again to be the best midfielder in this side, and most reliable. He has been relied on for taking the teams penalties, which he has gladly repaid them for their trust, out of the 10 goals he has scored, 9 of them have been from the spot. He’s also completed 4.5 tackles and interceptions per game. Not only is he scoring goals, but his defensive work has been absolutely superb. With a midfielder like Cabaye next to him, he will be relied on for the defensive work. The Serbian has been brilliant again, and continues to be a key player for Palace.

Pascal Gros (Brighton)

Gros has been the signing of the season for me. Many will simply say it is Mohammed Salah. I disagree here simply based on the fact that premier league survival is worth so much to a club that has just been promoted, than any trophy Liverpool can win. Not only that, Gros costed nearly 10% of what Liverpool paid for Salah. For a player who has contributed to more than half of Brighton’s goals this season, it is clear to see why he should be considered the signing of the season. It wasn’t as if this wasn’t expected. He created the most chances in the Bundesliga last season, and Brighton clearly saw that and knew he was worth the small amount of money they paid. He has a relatively low pass accuracy for a creator, at only 76%. But that can be explained on his role. Gros’s role is to create, and seeing as he averages 1.8 crosses and 1.8 long balls per game, that is perfectly understandable. Crosses and Long balls are types of passes that usually aren’t common to complete. It’s pretty incredible that he was able to that, while also making 2.2 key passes per 90. He’s contributed to 8 goals and 8 assists. He’s been Brighton’s best player by a mile, and it’s clear to understand why.

Wilfred Zaha (Crystal Palace)

I’ve never been much of a fan of Zaha. He’s always had the talent, but his final product was always something to desire. This season however, Roy has clearly gotten the best out of him. He’s been the key player for Palace in an attacking sense. Because of the terrible form of Christian Benteke, Zaha has mainly been played as a striker, alongside Townsend. He’s scored 9 and assisted 3. Even though he has definitely improved, there is still more to improve on. He averages 2.2 shots per game, 1.8 key passes per game and most impressively, dribbles past his opponent 4.1 times per game. It’s clear to see that going wide is his speciality, with his incredible ability to take on players. His threat to the opposition can clearly be seen, based on him being fouled 2.6 times per game. He is winning the ball in good positions for his team. On a talent basis, he is one of the most talented out of the lower teams in the table, and while there are more areas for him to improve on, mainly his conversion rate, he has still been very good for Palace this season.

Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)

I think Mahrez has been absolutely brilliant this season. Leicester themselves have been very on and off this season. At points they have reminded us why they won a league title, and others remind us why they were so poor last season. Leicester themselves haven’t been ruthless enough with their squad. It’s clear to see that there are players who shouldn’t be at the club. Players such as Morgan, Fuchs, and Simpson all need to be moved on. Their fragility as they begin to show their age is getting more and more clear. Mahrez is another example, but in an opposite situation. Mahrez has been brilliant this season for the foxes, and continued to be their main creator. He’s scored 12 and assisted 10. Thosr are very very good numbers for a wide player. Not only that, he has 2 shots per game, makes 1.6 key passes per game and also completed 2.3 of his dribbles. He’s quite similar to Zaha. The only difference being the strikers they play with. Vardy has scored 20 goals, which has put less pressure on Mahrez, but he has still been excellent. Zaha’s numbers have been much higher, yet he has scored and assisted less than the Algerian. It shows the difference in quality, and which player is ready for the transition to an elite club. With Arsenal looking for wide talent, this summer could be the only where Mahrez finally makes the big move.

Kenedy (Newcastle United)

While many would be including Vardy in this XI, I decided to be a bit different, and choose a player who decided the fate for a certain Northern club. Before the Brazilian signed, Newcastle were in a mess. They were struggling with scoring goals and defending. Rafa made two loan signings that changed both. Dupravka in goal, and Kenedy on the left side. While Matt Ritchie had that right side locked down, the left side was still much for debate. Atsu was very inconsistent, and Jacob Murphy seems to have been a mistake before he even played. Kennedy arrived and instantly showed what they were missing. He’s a player who wants to try things, and isn’t afraid to get involved. Kenedy has been averaging 1.8 shots per game. In a Newcastle side that overall hasn’t been too attacking, that is showing how much he is willing to attack. What I find most impressive is his defensive work. He’s been averaging 3.3 tackles and interceptions per game. For a wide player who is also taking plenty of shots, it’s unbelievable he’s able to do both. If he doesn’t sign for Newcastle, he would be perfect for a team with an intention to press. His ability to work the left side and contribute in front of goal is very valuable.