Fulham’s return to the Premier League starts fittingly against the team they last played when they left it, Crystal Palace. Nick MacNee assesses the Palace camp ahead of a dawn of a new season.
Does he need an introduction? No, not really. Ever since Sir Roy returned to Croydon, he has entered the hearts of Crystal Palace fans as he did with us and West Brom, steering them away from relegation after the Frank De Boer project was cancelled after four games. It’s frankly appalling that Roy is thrown in with the same group as the likes of Redknapp, Allardyce, Pardew, all nasty creatures who bite and snap at anyone but themselves or whoever’s paying them.
Yet, he rises above the relentless media criticism and works quietly and tirelessly, paying no attention to naysayers and delivers results. His extension to 2020 is well deserved and it may sadly be his last, although I have no doubt it will be a successful end to a monumental career.
The Players – Who to look out for?
Roy Hodgson has worked with a number of players throughout his career who were vastly talented that included the likes of Javier Zanetti, Paul Ince, Roberto Carlos and even the original Ronaldo for a small period of time. Wilfried Zaha certainly has the talent to reach the level of the aforementioned players and had his best season ever as a player (nine goals, five assists) in the Premier League under Roy, prompting rumours of a move to Tottenham or Chelsea.
He has stayed at Palace thankfully and we shall see whether or not he is able to replicate his form of last season. The “tidbit” (I refuse to call it a stat) that Palace failed to win a game last season when Zaha was out of the side shows just how vital he is to his side’s success this year.
Christian Benteke, usually as reliable as reliable goalscorers come in the Premier League, endured a torrid time last season, scoring only two non-penalty goals and dramatically undershooting his expected goals tally (8.78, per Statsbomb).
His expected “improvement to the mean” is largely why a lot of people regard Palace as having a chance to go one better this year and push for a top half spot, despite limited investment in the summer. If Zaha keeps up last year’s performances and Benteke returns to who he was, then Palace are certainly a prospect to be wary of.
James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho form a very Roy Hodgson centre back pairing, with the former personally recommended to Palace by Brede Hangeland as his successor. Tomkins in particular thrived under Roy, despite Sakho’s injury absences. Aleksandar Mitrovic will be familiar with fellow compatriot, Luka Milivojevic, who has been named the new official captain of Palace after Damien Delaney’s departure.
Palace and Roy were largely limited in the Summer Market of 2018, to the tune that they only “bought” one player from another club – Cheikhou Kouyate for approximately £9.8million from West Ham United. They were much more active in the Free Agent market however, bringing in Vicente Guaita to finally replace Wayne Hennessey in goal and Max Meyer, a prodigal German talent but who hasn’t quite found his feet in top level football.
Formerly labelled as someone who would thrive in the number 10 role, Meyer flattered to deceive but began to progress much more after being move to the “Kevin McDonald Number 6” role by Schalke manager Domenico Tedesco. However, he fell out with Tedesco and Schalke hierarchy after a contract dispute and left the club on a Bosman after failing to play the final six games of the Bundesliga system.
Finally, Palace also brought in Fulham linkee Jordan Ayew from Swansea on a loan with an option to buy. Interestingly, Ayew lead the league in defensive actions (tackles + interceptions) for eligible strikers, something that may have attracted Roy to acquiring his signature and may present food for thought for Fulham.
In terms of departures, the only major players to have left Selhurst Park are Yohan Cabaye (who has departed to the Middle East), Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Other notable players who have left Palace that may be familiar to Fulham fans include Chung-Yong Lee, Bakary Sako and Damien Delaney, although they all sporadically featured under Roy.
Even with players jumping ship constantly from club to club repeatedly, Roy’s system never changes. A simple 4-4-2 is still in place, although he did change the starting players slightly towards the end of last season.
Due to Christian Benteke’s striking woes, Hodgson took him out and stuck Zaha and Townsend up front, playing Milivojevic, Cabaye, Loftus-Cheek and James McArthur, all central midfielders, in the midfield four. It is largely down to this rotational change that Palace went unbeaten in their final six game and rocketed up the table to finish 11th.
It’s difficult to say whether this system will be replicated. On one hand, does Roy change a system that worked extremely well, albeit with a few different players now and largely against relegated teams or ones already on holiday? Or does he reintroduce his £35million pound striker in Benteke that surely can’t be as bad in front of goal as he was last year?
I would imagine with news being reported that the likes of Meyer and Kouyate aren’t yet fit enough to start, Roy will return to playing Benteke up top but with Zaha alongside him, given these fitness issues to their new central midfielders. That leaves me to imagine then that Jeffrey Schlupp of Leicester title winning fame will play in Zaha’s normal left wing position.
Right back has also been a position of interest at Palace. The emergence of youth talent Aaron Wan-Bissaka under Roy has put Joel Ward’s position in the starting XI under threat and it’s thought likely that Bissaka will be starting over Ward in the XI on Saturday. He’ll present much more of an attacking threat down Palace’s right side than Ward and is certainly someone to look out for.
Despite Fulham’s influx of deadline day signings, it’s likely that we will only see one start: Joe Bryan straight into the fold at left back. With Slavisa’s admission that Tim Ream is out and Alfie Mawson hasn’t begun training yet, Maxime Le Marchand and Calum Chambers look to be the foreseeable defensive partnership for the foreseeable future… who have had about five days to get comfortable as a partnership and are coming up against Benteke and Zaha.
That’s not exactly the most desirable of situations but one would hope that with Kevin McDonald’s vocal leadership and organisation as vice-captain, he’ll provide some much needed guidance for the pair throughout the game and assist with communication between Chambers and Le Marchand.
We know that Palace won’t exactly demand possession (they averaged 46.8% possession last season) but their attacks will be direct and fast, as we’ve seen from Roy’s teams over the years. With such a new back line, is it possible then that attack is Fulham’s best form of defence in terms of keeping possession and retaining the ball away from the likes of Zaha and Townsend? Well, funnily enough, that has been Fulham’s speciality under Slavisa for the past two years. It’s now time to see whether Slavisa and the new signings have adapted to each other.
My Prediction: 2-2
Scorers: Mitrovic x2; Zaha, Benteke.