Crystal Palace are fighting for Europe - how did that happen?
After 10 games of the season, Roy Hodgson has a modest squad challenging for Europe. Here is how he's done it.
Played to his side’s strengths
Run your finger down Crystal Palace's squad list and your heart won't start racing.
A solid enough group of players, but not much more. Max Meyer, their one true playmaker, has been unfancied ever since signing last summer.
But Hodgson has embraced his side’s unglamorous nature and set them up accordingly, as 10 goals in 10 matches proves.
A few stinkers get served up at Selhurst Park, where opponents are reluctant to leave themselves exposed to the counter-attack, but so what? Points are accrued regularly.
Palace have won two, drawn two and lost to Man City in their five home league matches. All of those matches have produced two or fewer goals.
They rank third-bottom for xG at home, but that rises to 13th for away matches, where Wilfried Zaha, Andros Townsend and Jordan Ayew are able to attack the space on the counter-attack.
Manchester United, West Ham and Arsenal have already been victims this season.
Barring their home game against City, Palace’s xG against figure is similar both home and away, further proving that not much changes in that department regardless of where they are playing.
Zaha’s desire to leave in the summer overshadowed the beginning of Palace’s season, but it is to Hodgson’s credit that any issues were cleared up quickly.
The 72-year-old pitted his star player into the opening-day 0-0 draw with Everton off the bench just two days after the closure of the transfer window, before restoring him to the starting XI for their second game at Sheffield United.
By trusting to Zaha’s loyalty to Palace, and resisting the temptation to make a big statement, Hodgson ensured that any bitterness between player and club was quickly extinguished.
Zaha has underperformed since, but by setting up the team in a way that it doesn’t totally rely on his creativity like previous Palace sides, Hodgson has ensured that the spotlight remains off him.
Palace had hardly any money to spend over the summer, with Hodgson not even seeing much of the £50m earned from the sale of Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United.
So, typically, he consolidated, rather than risk what there was of a budget on the mercurial player that his squad seemed to need.
Signing the reliable Gary Cahill on a free transfer improved their already steady defence. The 33-year-old, who barely kicked a ball for Chelsea last season, has been a revelation, one of the best Premier League signings of the summer.
James McCarthy arriving from Everton can also be filed under functional rather than thrilling, but he is another capable of the performing the role Hodgson requires from his midfielders.
Ayew, meanwhile, has found another level after his loan move from Swansea was made permanent.
Hodgson’s transfer business proves that pragmatism, and recruiting to a plan, will always be successful.
Being a decent bloke seems to be working in Hodgson’s favour, too.
The former England boss is renowned for his loyalty, preferring to work with dedicated players who buy into the team ethic than selfish players with talent.
“When you have the trust of the manager it does make you want to go the extra mile to make things happen,” Ayew said recently, when discussing his improvement this season.
Talent-wise, Ayew, along with players like Wayne Hennessey, Joel Ward and Martin Kelly, probably belongs towards the bottom of the Premier League or even in the Championship.
Not only has Hodgson helped his lesser players to find a new level, but he has sold the vision of a team-orientated, pragmatic approach to players like Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, who could play for more expansive sides.
Outshining younger managers
In a league where young, progressive coaches are in fashion, Hodgson has managed to stay relevant and successful.
The 72-year-old has coached in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, UAE, Norway and Finland, showing that he has a broad mind, is willing to update his methods and understands the habits of modern players.
While other managers of his generation can only find employment on Alan Brazil Sports Breakfast, that Hodgson is successfully taking on managers nearly half his age shows a Sir Alex Ferguson-like ability to evolve.
Not that this is a case of a manager completely adapting his system to keep up.
Palace represent a Roy Hodgson team for the ages, but he has produced it at a time when it is least fashionable.
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