This week could define Crystal Palace’s season.
Their prospects could look very different at full time against arch-rivals Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.
If all goes well, there will be new faces at the training ground, the dour mood will have lifted and optimism about a stronger end to the season without genuine fear of relegation will follow. The closing of the transfer window on February 1 will provide an opportunity to assess how prepared Palace are for the final 17 games of the season.
A defeat against Sheffield United in Tuesday night’s game would heap additional pressure on manager Roy Hodgson, with his position already under serious scrutiny following two wins in 16 games, and set up a possible ignominy of Palace disposing of a manager after a game at the Amex for the second time in as many seasons.
But we are not there yet and with the transfer window still open, Palace are hopeful of bringing in reinforcements.
However, there is a contrast between the comments made by Hodgson and by chairman Steve Parish about the areas and profile of players being targeted and what has borne out in reality.
Although Blackburn Rovers’ Adam Wharton fits the model of buying young, developing and improving before making a profit, it is difficult to understand why Palace seem prepared to spend more than £18million ($22.9m) on a 19-year-old central midfielder who has no Premier League experience and may not have found himself used regularly by the manager.
But there were similarities to the decision to sign goalkeeper Dean Henderson for an initial £15m in the summer — that was an opportunistic purchase and an area in which Palace required another player, while if the 26-year-old impressed, then there was good value in the deal to sell on in future. But it represented a chunk of their budget with needs most pressing elsewhere.
Bringing in Hodgson, who has a clear preference for tried and tested players, to coach a squad with an experienced starting XI and also largely comprised of untested youngsters with potential but little familiarity with the Premier League was a peculiar choice beyond trying to secure another Premier League season at whatever cost, however much it may have represented what Palace believed to be the best chance of avoiding relegation.
Both Hodgson and Parish were keen for ready-made players during the January window. A deal for Genk’s Daniel Munoz is imminent, which will provide a short to medium-term upgrade at right-back, with the 27-year-old capable of slotting in quickly.
“It’s experience (we’re looking for),” Parish said before Palace’s 2-0 defeat against Bournemouth in December. “We’ve got to cover Cheick (Doucoure, who is out for the rest of the season with a ruptured Achilles).
“He’s an important player, our player of the year last year. I wouldn’t say we won’t buy anybody, but (loans) are what we’re going into the market for.
“You can have plans but until you get to the market and see what happens, it’ll dictate what you do. We’ve got to get cover, maybe on the left-hand side as well.”
Palace’s recruitment strategy in January has changed often. Money has been found in the right circumstances for the right players. Signing Munoz makes sense in that neither Joel Ward nor Nathaniel Clyne are sufficiently attacking to support Michael Olise on the right or to help fill the attacking void when he is injured, but it is not the most pressing position for Palace — they have only one senior left-back.
Hodgson declared he was satisfied with the squad he had at the end of the summer window, although he has subsequently lost Doucoure, while Eberechi Eze and Olise have played together just six times this season.
“The danger with transfer windows is that the outside world makes it a bit of a competition,” he said. “‘Who can spend the most money? We’re bringing in this one and that one. We’re going to South America and Holland and buying all these players’.
“It’s as if fans are disappointed unless their club is spending hundreds of millions of pounds. Those fans aren’t happy when things don’t go well and those hundreds of millions of pounds spent sees the club go into liquidation.
“It’s not a question of piling up players or spending millions, it’s a question of getting the right players who are going to help you and your club and will do a good job.”
The argument that clubs must spend significant sums in the window to appease fans is a false one, but Hodgson was right to caution that it is about bringing in players of the right profile. Palace’s interest in Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips, who has now joined West Ham United, made sense, but Wharton would not be a direct replacement for Doucoure.
Hodgson is aware of the need for something to offer a shot in the arm for this Palace side. They were dumped out of the FA Cup in the third round by Everton on January 17, where he was subject to more angry chants from the away fans at Goodison Park.
A few days later, against Arsenal, nothing had improved. Palace lacked competitiveness and were thumped 5-0, with fans directing their ire at the running of the club.
The feeling is already toxic. A 10-day break has allowed things to calm down, but tensions could have also simmered further.
The mood for the remainder of the season hangs in the balance.
New arrivals combined with victories over Sheffield United and Brighton would offer significant respite, but defeats would put them in a dangerous position. Add to the mix a lack of new recruits and it is hard to see anyone tolerating the situation.
(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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