It seems deeply unlikely that Roy Hodgson will last much longer as Crystal Palace manager. He has saved the club from relegation twice, solidified their place in the Premier League and has earned the gratitude and respect of every supporter inside Selhurst Park, but that doesn’t change the facts – his Palace side have won just one of their last 12 matches and are starting to slide dangerously towards the relegation zone. A second shot at retirement beckons before long.
Just as bad as their form, however, is the creeping sensation that Palace are failing to build on the promise of a clutch of young and exciting players. In Marc Guéhi and Michael Olise, they have two of the brightest talents in the top flight, while Eberechi Eze and Tyrick Mitchell should be coming into their prime years having served their apprenticeship in this team. But instead of becoming the basis for a dynamic side which is capable of better things than an annual flirtation with the drop, they seem like little more than cogs in a distinctly mediocre machine.
Eze, for instance, is a brilliant playmaker who can create havoc around the edge of the area with his sharp dribbling, but is currently cutting an isolated figure out on the left flank, barely averaging 50 touches of the ball per game. Now 25 and on the fringes of the England squad, he should be at the heart of the Palace attack, especially with Olise out injured.
The feeling is of a squad with a few bright sparks who are being slowed down by a stodgy system which doesn’t let them off the leash often enough. It would be wrong to say that the talent of these players is being wasted – on an individual level, they are doing just fine, with Guéhi firmly established as an international and Olise wanted by Manchester United and Liverpool, but Hodgson has not found a way to use them to level up the team.
It doesn’t help that younger breakthrough players like Naouirou Ahamada, Matheus França, Malcolm Ebiowei and David Ozoh, all of whom are highly regarded, have largely been limited to cameo appearances from the bench this season while some frankly mediocre players get the minutes ahead of them. Palace have the seeds of a strong team, but seem to be going nowhere – and after being thrashed 5-0 by Arsenal on Saturday, it feels as though they’re going there faster and faster.
So – what next? The Daily Mail has reported that Palace chairman Steve Parish is already drawing up a list of potential replacements for Hodgson, with former Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper at the forefront. Julen Lopetegui, Mainz head coach Bo Svensson and Ipswich Town’s Kieran McKenna are also options. All of then are fine head coaches with strong track records, but that’s true of Hodgson as well – what they need isn’t just a competent coach, but somebody who can build the team around their best and brightest players.
That may well not be Cooper, who did a superb job getting Forest up and keeping them in the Premier League but whose relatively direct and rambunctious style of play at the City Ground, effective as it was, did not offer obvious starring roles to attacking playmakers like Eze and Olise and focussed on producing attacking output from wide forwards and powerful central strikers. That does not line up well with Palace’s playing staff, although it is of course reductive to assume that Cooper is only capable of executing one gameplan.
Instead, Palace need a manager who likes to focus his attacking strategy on quick, short passes and on creating space around the edge of the area, the kind of space in which Palace’s best young attacking players could thrive. They also need a manager who has a track record of developing young talent, because they cannot afford to waste the resources they have spent on bringing quality youth players in.
Of the four managers suggested by The Mail, McKenna might be the most natural fit for what Palace need. At just 37, he is a very young head coach indeed, but what he has achieved in a short space of time at Ipswich is nothing short of remarkable, bringing them up from League One and immediately surging into a race for automatic promotion to the Premier League at the first attempt.
Like Cooper, he favours a direct style with plenty of organised pressing, but his methods are different. For McKenna’s Ipswich, the focus is on quick balls to a fluid attacking three which looks for half-spaces behind and around a target man striker who looks to play his team-mates rather than score himself. Ipswich’s equivalents of Eze and Olise have flourished – Conor Chaplin, for instance, has been outstanding in the number ten role with 15 goal contributions so far this season. He knows how to play compact, aggressive and efficient football but also how to build a squad around gifted attacking midfielders, making them the focal point.
He also has an impressive track record with young players, too, squeezing a tune out of plenty of relatively inexperienced members of his team and in some cases greatly improving them – his regular central striker, for instance, is George Hirst, a Leicester City academy graduate whose first introduction to Championship football was on loan at Blackburn Rovers last season. He was awful at Ewood Park, but looks like a player transformed at Ipswich.
McKenna then, has a philosophy and coaching record which looks like it should complement Palace very well – and get allow them to make the best use of the talent they’ve invested so heavily in. And getting the best out of their current crop of recruits will be crucial if they want to take a long overdue step forward.
It may pain Palace to admit it, but given the way they’ve spent their money in recent years, they may need to learn some lessons from the way their rivals Brighton & Hove Albion operate. The work they’ve done in bringing talented youngsters to the Amex Stadium, shining a spotlight on their qualities and selling them on at an immense profit while continuing to improve the squad has been exemplary. Palace have taken the first step – getting quality young players on board – but they need to make sure that they use that as a springboard. The current crop offer a strong starting point, but no more as yet.
Whatever direction they go in the dugout, however, it probably is time to draw an end to the Hodgson era. Palace have so much potential that is not being realised, and should be capable of playing more dynamic, dangerous football than they are right now. The 76-year-old has done a brilliant job of ending the yo-yo years and cementing a place in the Premier League, but the capitulation against Arsenal feels like it needs to be the end of a chapter. Palace are capable of so much more.