Sunday, 29 September 2013

Reality bites

The received wisdom of trying to achieve top flight survival is that encounters with the teams around you will dictate your future. Games against Champions League contenders are written off as freebies; hope for little and expect nothing. Defeat to Swansea however – with no disrespect meant to an evidently impressive Welsh football team – was a sobering experience. 

Note: The following was written before the weekend and Crystal Palace’s 2-0 defeat at Southampton, however after another game in which the team’s naivety was front row and centre the points I was trying to make definitely would seem to still apply

The received wisdom of trying to achieve top flight survival is that encounters with the teams around you will dictate your future. Games against Champions League contenders are written off as freebies; hope for little and expect nothing. It’s the matches against the rest where your time and effort should be concentrated, a simple case of using resources efficiently and targeting your most likely sources of points. So while it took a dodgy call and unwarranted penalty to lose at the home of the Champions, the burning indignation was offset by the sense it was just a rather annoying way to succumb to the inevitable. Sunday’s defeat to Swansea however – with no disrespect meant to an evidently impressive Welsh football team – was a sobering experience.  

As Valencia might attest to, the men from the Liberty Stadium are a highly accomplished outfit, mixing a progressive passing style with rapid and pin point counter attacking. It was not as if going into the game as a Palace fan you were banking on three points (as a Palace fan there’s never really a situation where that’s the case) but given the Swans are not one of the so called ‘elite’ and given they had just played twice in the space of six days with a trip to Spain thrown in there, the thinking had to be that this was a game where opportunity might come knocking. It took all of two minutes for that optimism to evaporate, and after a chastening 90 minutes spent chasing white shadows, for that optimism to have been thoroughly obliterated.

No-one likes losing games. Obvious perhaps, but there are different ways of losing; as shown at Old Trafford being on the wrong end of a dubious decision can be comforting in a way, giving you that straw to clutch at. There’s a reassurance in thinking the main reason you lost was the ineptitude of the man in the middle rather than any failings that fall closer to home.

Likewise, being the victim of a smash and grab raid from an opposition you’ve had under the cosh all game, whilst frustrating at the time, gives you a strange sense of satisfaction; play like that every week and nine times out of ten you’ll come out on top. Well, that’s what you tell yourself, but when you are so completely and overwhelmingly outclassed, the sort of match where you would hope the referee would have the sympathy to step in and end things early on compassionate grounds, it can be as demoralising as that bubble bursting trip to the schools careers adviser when you are 16 and finding out your personality perfectly suits a job in recruitment or telesales.

Crystal Palace had acquitted themselves well during the first four games, at no point had they been overawed, the defeat to Swansea however was an eye opening, or perhaps more accurately, eye watering experience. At times it was embarrassingly one sided, at others Michael Laudrup’s team appeared to be playing a completely different sport given the rather dramatic contrast in what both were attempting to do. Playing their vibrant brand of tiki taffa, an exhilarating zip to their passing, there was no wasted motion from Swansea and in Michu, the games outstanding performer, the Welshman possessing a man capable of explosive moments from a deceptively languid gate.

Michu famously cost just £2million, the ultimate bargain from a shopping trip abroad. His purchase was part of a continued smart recruitment drive supported by a clear methodology. On Sunday that was set against the more scatter gun approach taken by Ian Holloway on transfer deadline day.

From the moment the final whistle sounded at the play-off final it was clear Palace would have to strengthen, but, without the resources to shop at the high end of the market, lacking the clout and reputation to turn the head of a big name looking to re-establish themselves and with a management hierarchy not connected to an exotic and spiralling scouting network across the globe, cloth would have to be cut more accordingly. It was more a case of hit and hope; looking to unearth a diamond from amongst the rough. It’s not to say that the players signed were poor, most bring a lot of different qualities to the table and a number should prove very shrewd acquisitions in the long term, it’s just there didn’t seem to be a coherent strategy between looking at what was needed and looking at what arrived.

That lack of clarity on how exactly the new additions would fit together appeared to pay a significant role in the jumbled up puzzle that Holloway put out last weekend. Gone were the two holding midfielders and three forward players behind the lone striker and gone was the settled line-up that had been serving the team well so far. In came a number of the new recruits into a 4-3-3 where several of the players looked uncomfortable and out of sorts. Big striker Cameron Jerome marooned on the wing, a central midfield trio overrun and Jason Puncheon attempting to play everywhere but only succeeding in performing nowhere. Playing with two target men a strange gambit when there were no wingers to cross to them and when they were never close enough to each other to play in tandem.

Any team would have struggled to live with Swansea on the day but you can’t help feeling that Palace played into their hands with players struggling to grasp the basic game plan. Tried and trusted had worked for the opening fixtures but it’s hard to criticise a manger too strongly for daring to be creative with his thinking. In a league where even a team that finished md-table last time out can dish out a footballing lesson, thinking from outside the box can be just as useful as a goal poaching from inside it.

Let’s not be pessimistic, in four out of the five games, Palace have more than held their own, matching their more illustrious opposition. If anything, the major concern after the club had lost at Old Trafford was that the club might have realistically had a couple more points to add to their haul of three so far. Nonetheless the Swansea game provided something of a wakeup call, the evidence of the standard required to compete at this level slapping them squarely in the face. Can they compete? Of course, but the Welsh teams masterful control of first the ball and then the game showed that the honeymoon period is well and truly over. Now it’s the bills, arguments and hard slog that come with attempting a marriage to the Premier League. 

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