After a worrying second half of the 2015-16 season, 8 games into the new campaign the situation at Selhurst Park looks a lot rosier. Despite losing the first two games, Palace have since gone 5 unbeaten, picking up 3 wins in the process. Perhaps more importantly, as I read on the Holmesdale forum the other day, Pardew’s smug factor is up to a more comfortable 80%.
Although it is difficult to reach any big conclusions after 7 games because of the relatively low number of games and the variation in difficulty of schedule across the league, some patterns can start to form. After 12-15 games we will get a better idea of the overall level of the team, but for now we can get some insight in to how Crystal Palace have performed.
Palace’s 3 wins have come against the teams in 16th, 19th and 20th, and their other point against Bournemouth in 13th, which may help to keep fans’ feet on the ground (or not). However, the latest game saw them pick up a deserved point away at Everton who had started well, so Palace will be looking to carry this form into upcoming games against bigger teams of City, Liverpool and Leicester.
Mid table glory
In terms of shot performance, Palace have started well going forward and defensively – showing up positively in terms of total shots, shots on target and shots in the box. Potential warning signs such as worryingly high save percentage (proportion of shots on target against that are saved) and/or sky high conversion rates are not there and the position of 8th looks to be in line with the underlying team performance.
The team is running a little hot on converting shots on target into goals (5th highest in the league at 38%), mainly thanks to Christian Benteke who has scored 3 of his 4 shots on target (all with his head), so this may revert slightly in the coming weeks. However, The supply to the big Belgian so far has been promising, with him taking 3 shots per 90 minutes, so hopefully he will start to put a few more of these on target and can maintain his form.
In terms of style, there have been a few mentions of a change to a more pressing game showing up in the numbers. Colin Trainor’s pressing measure had Palace as the 4th best team in the league before the Everton game, while by my more basic calculations of Colin’s older metric ‘Passes per defensive action’ (PPDA), Palace are riding high in 3rd. Pardew has mentioned this in a couple of interviews, so it will be interesting to see if this continues.
Regarding Pardew’s other comments around changing from more of a direct team to a controlling team, Palace have had more possession than previous seasons, running at 51% after 3 seasons of less than 50%. Other than this increase in possession, Palace still play a very similar number of crosses and long balls per game, and the attacking focus remains on wide play and set pieces for chance creation. With Christian Benteke now leading the line however, this tactic looks immediately more effective.
As I mentioned in the season review blog post; a clear area to improve was the sheer volume of shots we were conceding last season – the most in the league. Compared to the same fixtures as last year (swapping Boro for Norwich), the performance is spookily consistent, with the same number of goals scored, goals conceded and points. What does look better comparing this season’s fixtures to last is that we have conceded slightly less shots and shots on target in total. This season we have conceded 4 from set pieces already, so have conceded just 4 from open play, compared to 8 in these games last year. (Increased goals from set pieces is obviously not great, but these tend to fluctuate more than open play goals).
The initial impressions are that we have become a bit more solid, both from the numbers and from watching. The partnership of Ledley and McArthur has started the last 4 games and looks to be offering the defence a bit more protection. With Cabaye struggling to make an impression in the minutes he has had this season, it may well be the case that Pardew keeps one of his favourites on the bench for the foreseeable future.
Also, despite the strong start to last season where we in fact had more points (12) after the first 7 games than we do now; the stats look a lot better this time round. We are taking more than 2 shots a game more and conceding 6 (six!) shots per game and nearly 2 shots on target per game less. This was impacted by our tough run of games the beginning of last season, but seems to hammer home the idea that we had a bit of the rub of the green in those early fixtures, mainly that we were saving a huge amount of the shots we faced. This high save percentage was unlikely to continue (and dropped away rapidly around the half season mark…funny that!).
Reasons to be cheerful
All in all, there are reasons to be positive about the start of the season, particularly against the backdrop of the end of last season. The attack has performed well and in line with our position in the league, Benteke is scoring, Puncheon is back to his chance creating best and Pardew’s aims to become more of a pressing team seem to be having an effect. At the back, we have improved at preventing shots – even with the first choice pairing of Dann and Tomkins playing just 45 minutes together. With all this in mind, although it is early days, it seems unlikely that we will be dragged into a proper relegation battle. Bookies odds reflect this and Palace can legitimately look at aiming for the top half.
The next 7 or so games will be very interesting as it will show whether we can continue this solidity into games against the big dogs or we will revert to last season’s more ‘Moses parting the red sea’ approach to defending. It will also be worth watching how Pardew manages Cabaye and looks to integrate Loic Remy into what seems to be a well oiled 1 striker system.
Thanks for reading!