Guardian writers’ predicted position: 16th (NB: this is not necessarily Dominic Fifield’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 12th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1
The season is a little over a week away and Crystal Palace find themselves in an all too familiar position. A disruptive summer has been spent deflecting interest in Wilfried Zaha, as well as negotiating and, eventually, accepting the loss of last year’s stellar performer, Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Intrigue surrounds the ownership and, with an onerous wage bill demanding an imaginative approach to strengthening, management and fans wait with bated breath for the customary late trolley dash to bolster first team and squad.
The bulk of the transfer spending has yet to come before an unprecedented seventh successive year in the top flight, but, with the deadline looming, it has been possible to chart mounting concern through Roy Hodgson’s post-match comments. At the friendly with Barnet, where a youthful second string had been humiliated in mid-July, the talk had been of a squad down to the “bare bones” and the desire for “more players” but also that faith was retained in the recruitment team to add depth. Fast forward to Ashton Gate last Saturday, after Bristol City had been ruthlessly dismantled by Max Meyer, and the tone had subtly shifted.
“I thought we were all pretty much on the same page: we definitely need players, we definitely need bodies because our squad is very small,” said Hodgson, the Zaha issue having been ushered into touch. “But I’m afraid at the moment we are still there with the ones that started pre-season training. Doug Freedman, our sporting director, and our chairman Steve Parish … I know they are working hard to find the right people to bring in. So I’m confident that, before the start of the season, this squad will look bigger in terms of numbers and hopefully stronger in terms of the quality of player.”
From a manager normally so diplomatic, that was a warning. Plenty has to happen in the last week of the window to ensure Palace, a mid-table side whose worst showing over the past six years has been 15th, retain the aura of a team unlikely to be fretting over their Premier League status. Theirs is an ageing squad in need of succession planning, particularly given Wan-Bissaka – such an eye-catching talent over his first full season in senior football – has been lured to Manchester United. There had been no great desire to sell but a deal worth up to £50m was too good to turn down. Hodgson wants additions in both full-back positions, as well as more pace and invention in the final third. He will also be keen to see his captain, Luka Milivojevic, secured to new terms. The Serb, like the manager, has entered the final year of his contract.
Palace should have the means to satisfy Hodgson, even if the wage bill is already hefty, though the anticipated late flurry of incomings means the arrivals will have to integrate on the hoof. Other aspects of an unsettling summer have arguably been out of the chairman’s control. Proper progress on and off the pitch – the redevelopment of Selhurst Park’s main stand remains on ice – appears to have stalled with Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the club’s American major shareholders, seeking to sell their stakes having no doubt reassessed the appeal of investment in Premier League football. Some interested parties have apparently emerged, though the whole process continues to drag.
Parish, who has no desire to dilute his stake in the club whose growth he has overseen since 2010, has also had to contend with the agitation of Zaha’s entourage. The Ivory Coast winger is ostensibly represented by Unique Sports Management, with whom Palace have a close relationship, and had made clear an openness to leave in each of the past two summers only to sign new lucrative five-year contracts. This time, with the forward at the Africa Cup of Nations, his eagerness to move to taste European football, specifically with Arsenal, was expressed rather more forcibly by his family.
The subsequent saga has been tiresome, a daily drip-feed of alleged unrest while suitors concocted ever more wildly fanciful deals that might land their man. Yet none came close to meeting Palace’s valuation of a player upon whom they lean so heavily. Whether Arsenal deemed him to be worth little more than £40m or were willing to chuck in the odd outcast as a sweetener – quite how the involvement of Shkodran Mustafi and Carl Jenkinson was supposed to make a deal more appealing is anyone’s guess – was irrelevant. To Palace, Zaha is arguably the difference between a Premier League place and relegation. In that context, he would be cheap at £100m. The 26-year-old is not due back at Beckenham until next week. His body language at training will be intriguing, but he will be welcomed back eagerly.
It might be helpful not to have to pitch him straight into early season toil, but this team tend to start slowly. Last year was no exception. Christian Benteke’s knee injury denied them a focal point and, with no natural goalscorer until Michy Batshuayi arrived on loan in January, their form over the first half of the campaign was desperately stodgy. Only once in their six-year stint back among the elite have they mustered more than 15 points from their first 16 games. They won only two league games before December last term before the customary upturn. The campaign will be remembered for the highs of those stunning 3-2 wins at Manchester City and Arsenal, rather than the dreadful losses to Brighton, home and away.
Hodgson needs to improve the home form – Palace won only five times at Selhurst Park last season and averaged well under a goal a game until a generous Bournemouth were prised apart five times on the final afternoon – and will hope Meyer’s encouraging pre-season form is indicative of a player better equipped to thrive amid the rigours of the Premier League. The German has the class to excel but was too peripheral last time round. Perhaps, too, the team will supply Benteke, a striker who has four league goals in two seasons, with more crosses to attack. The Belgian has scored twice over the summer and Palace can ill afford to let his talent go untapped. If this is to be his last year at the club, with his contract up in 2020, he will be anxious to go out with a bang.
The same will apply to Hodgson. The 71-year-old has work to do and will not be considering the future just yet, but this could prove to be the final season of an illustrious coaching career. He may draw criticism at times for being stuck in his ways, but hoisting this club to 11th in 2018 after the team were pointless and goalless after seven matches remains one of his finest achievements. Last season he led them to their best points tally in the revamped Premier League. His presence at Palace is a source of reassurance in an increasingly tempestuous division.