Carlo Ancelotti – who with three European Cups in his locker knows a thing or two about football management – put forward Alan Pardew’s name as the best candidate to be England’s next manager in an interview with Mark Ogden in The Independent back in early December. Yes, December. Just four months ago.
The Crystal Palace manager’s name may not be the first on Ancelotti’s lips anymore. As Pardew unwrapped his Christmas gifts, his club had the same number of points as Spurs and Manchester United – he has not won a League game since. W, D, D, L, L, L, L, L, D, L, L, L, D, L, L doesn’t make a pretty row of letters. And one of those Ds was against the dreadful, dire Aston Villa.
Pardew could do with a W in the next one: Norwich City in the Premier League on Saturday which has become a vital fixture in the nether regions of the table. Norwich, one spot above the relegation zone, will catch Pardew’s free-falling Eagles with a win.
It’s as well the Selhurst Park club had such a flying start to the season – hence Ancelotti’s nod to south-east London – or Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland would have even closer company. So what’s gone wrong down at the Palace?
Most would agree that the club were overachieving in the early part of the season but that they are now underperforming. Pardew points to the treatment room. “For sure, it’s injuries,” he said this week. “The second half of the season, they have been a massive problem.” It may seem like the go-to excuse for managers – after all, which team – apart from Leicester City, freakishly – doesn’t get injuries? But with Palace, it appears that it’s not the how many but more the who.
The funny thing is, we’re not playing badly
Midfielder James McArthur was crucial to Palace’s impressive efforts last season when the team finished 10th. He’s been absent since early February. His fellow midfielder Yohan Cabaye has been in and out and forwards Connor Wickham, Dwight Gayle and Yannick Bolasie have missed chunks of the season.
This largely explains why the fans at Selhurst are not haranguing Pardew from the stands despite the horror run. “The funny thing is,” says Robert Sutherland, editor of the Palace fanzine, Five Year Plan, “we’re not playing badly. I can’t really make sense of it. A lot of it has been down to individual errors. The series of injuries have been a huge problem too.”
However, not everyone at Selhurst is shrugging their shoulders and putting the run down to bad luck. There are rumblings about Pardew’s tactics. Yannick Bolasie, an out-and-out winger if ever there was one, was played up front against West Ham last weekend. It was only when he returned to his rightful position that he looked happy and spent the second half tormenting full-back Aaron Cresswell. Wickham, an out-and-out target man if ever there was one, has been played on the wing. There’s a feeling Pardew is reactive not proactive, that he gets his tactics and formation wrong and by the time he tinkers, it’s too little, too late.
Against Liverpool last month Palace took the lead, then the visitors went down to 10 men. Some felt Palace should have sat in at that point. “He’s not negative,” says Sutherland. “If anything he can be too positive. He prides himself on playing attacking football. Sometimes he should be more cynical. Adopt the Tony Pulis way a bit more, shut the game off. He does have to take some responsibility.”
A particular Palace problem has been the lack of goals, with just 34 garnered in 31 games. The signing of Emmanuel Adebayor seemed like a desperate attempt to solve the problem that the club admit they didn’t address properly last summer. There is some regret that they let Glenn Murray go to Bournemouth. “Adebayor was a ridiculous decision,” as one regular Selhurst attendee calls it. He is now injured and set to miss Saturday’s game having played for Togo during the break – despite saying he was giving up on international football to help his club. As if we couldn’t see such nonsense coming.
Rather than trust Adebayor, Pardew could try Gayle who he admits is the best finisher at the club but who he didn’t play during the early part of the season. But many doubt if the diminutive Gayle can play up front on his own in Pardew’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. He could switch to 4-4-2 with Wickham and Gayle in attack: the traditional big man, little man combo. Decisions, decisions.
But Pardew is not for panicking. He insists the mood in the camp is happy and determined. He is reassured by the analytics men who tell him they are doing everything right in terms of possession, tackles won, crosses into the box, entries into the final third and that if they keep it up, results will come. “The stats we got at West Ham [during last week’s 2-2 draw] told us we were going to score twice,” Pardew says. “Certain targets we reach guarantees us goals. We reached them against West Ham and that’s what we’ve got to do this week. We feel we should have more points,” he adds. “We need to prove that in the next few games.” And the next few games are vital. After Norwich, it’s Everton, Arsenal and Manchester United before their FA Cup semi-final against Watford.
And now the injuries have largely cleared up too. “It’s nice to be entering the game with a fully fit squad,” Pardew adds. Despite the rocky run, it could end up as a brilliant season for Palace if they win the FA Cup and finish in the top half of the Premier League… And then who would be leading the FA’s list of potential managers if England flop at the Euros?