Crystal Palace’s identity crisis leaves them unclear of what direction to go in

Sam Allardyce’s resignation from Crystal Palace just two days after the end of the 2016-17 Premier League campaign came as a surprise to everyone, especially as the former England boss had done such a good job at Selhurst Park after taking the reigns just five months previously. Suddenly the Eagles were looking for a ninth permanent manager in eight years.

That statistic certainly places Palace in with the likes of Watford and Leeds United as clubs who have a worryingly quick turnaround of managers. Yet unlike the Hornets and The Whites, this isn’t due to having a trigger happy owner, but seemingly an owner that is difficult to get on with. In addition to Allardyce, Tony Pulis and Ian Holloway have also stepped down of their own accord in South London in the last four years.

The “difficult to get on with” man in question is Steve Parish, who took over a month to name Big Sam’s successor and sifted through a shortlist of 37 names before plumping for the club’s first ever non-British permanent manager as he appointed Dutch legend Frank de Boer. Upon unveiling the 47-year-old coach, Parish commented that “we need an evolution over a period of time” before going on to explain how Palace’s style of play needed to move on and become more technical if they were to stay clear of a relegation battle. There wasn’t a much better candidate to oversee that “evolution” than de Boer, a man born and bred at Ajax where he won nine Eredivisie titles, two KNVB Cups and the Champions League in a combined total of 17 years as a player and then manager.

Frank de Boer and Steve Parish
Frank de Boer and Steve Parish at the Dutchman’s unveiling in July. 77 days later, he was sacked.

The former defender quickly set about implementing this change as best he could. A 3-4-3 system was put in place, but things quickly turned sour as Palace lost each of their first Premier League games without even scoring a goal – not since Preston in 1924/25 has a side in the English top flight started that badly. Chairman Parish, and the club’s American major shareholders David Blitzer and Josh Harris, were in the stands as the fourth of those defeats came at Burnley on Sunday and promptly handed de Boer his P45 the following day – giving the Dutchman the unwanted record of having the shortest managerial reign in Premier League history.

Whilst it is the second successive job that de Boer has failed to hold down for more than three months (he lasted only 14 games at Inter Milan last year), the whole situation reflects worse on Palace as a club as they started a naive experiment without having any idea at all how to carry it out. Pulling the plug on the experiment just 77 days in just emphasises that they don’t know what direction they want to head in whatsoever.

If Steve Parish genuinely thought that just by appointing an Ajax legend the Eagles would instantly become a copy of the Netherlands’ most successful club, pass masters and possession kings, then his expectations were way, way higher than they should have been. The thought is made even more incomprehensible when you add in the fact that the squad had just come off the back of playing for Sam Allardyce for five months, who although not the complete opposite of de Boer, does prefer to deploy a more rough and physical system.

de Boer Ajax
de Boer spent a combined total of 17 years as a player and then manager of Ajax, and has been schooled in the Dutch’s club possession based system.

After watching another former Ajax man, Jaap Stam, transform my own club Reading over the last 12 months, I’ll be one of the first people to urge that implementing that style of football needs a lot of time. Boos would continually ring around the Madejski Stadium at the start of last season as fans became accustomed to the Dutchman’s tactics that are rarely seen on these shores. The players too, took a while to adapt to the change of system. The Royals were convincingly beaten 4-1 by both Newcastle United and Brentford in their opening 10 Championship fixtures and failed to win a game by a margin of more than one goal. But Stam was given time by both supporters and the owners before leading Reading to a third place finish and within a couple of penalty kicks of reaching the Premier League in the play-off final.

I’m convinced that given a few more weeks (granted, Palace meet Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea in their next four league fixtures), de Boer could have turned things around at Selhurst Park. Indeed, despite not getting anything out of the trip to Burnley at the weekend, the Eagles dominated the game and played some relatively impressive football, creating 23 chances to the Clarets’ four . Had it not been for the abysmal finishing of Scott Dann and Lee Chung-yong’s early error to gift Chris Wood a goal, then Palace would have taken all three points back to South London and de Boer would have kept his job.

Going back to Stam at Reading, in addition to being given time to implement his style of play, the former Manchester United defender was sufficiently backed in the transfer market by the club’s owners, bringing in 11 players in the summer window and then a further five in January. This arguably made it easier to put the system into place as Stam signed players that he felt would suit the way he wanted to play. The same, however, cannot be said for Crystal Palace’s transfer activity this summer. Just four players were signed over two months, with half of those being loan buys (Ruben Loftus-Cheek from Chelsea and Timothy Fosu-Mensah from Manchester United). Meanwhile, the £26 million purchase of Mamadou Sakho was clearly driven by the board and would have happened with or without de Boer after the centre-back’s superb impact on loan in the second half of 2016-17. That leaves youngster Jairo Riedewald as, on the surface, the only player that was permanently bought from de Boer’s list of targets. This lack of expenditure is largely down to Palace’s excessive spending in January. Jeffrey Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt and Luka Milivojevic (and of course Sakho on loan) were all brought in for a total of around £30 million, making the Eagles the Premier League’s biggest spenders in the window as they looked to steer clear of the relegation zone. So not only did Steve Parish expect Frank de Boer to make Palace more technical in short space of time, he expected him to do so with an unsuited squad and minimal additions. It gets more bemusing by the minute.

Schlupp Van Aaanholt Palace
Patrick van Aanholt and Jeffrey Schlupp were signed in January as Palace spent the most in the Premier League. As a result, funds were low for de Boer to bring in players suited to his style of play.

The irony is that Eagles didn’t actually play that much ‘technical’ football under de Boer. After the first four league games of the campaign, they rank 12th for pass success rate (76.8%), 12th for average passes made per game (404.5) and eighth for average possession (50.6%). Furthermore, no team has played more long balls per game so far this season than Palace (77). The statistics fit in with the rumours that the squad quickly became disenchanted with de Boer and refused to play his style of play. It is in this way that the 47-year-old didn’t help him himself by playing the likes of Joel Ward and Milivojevic out of position at centre-back as well as reportedly unnecessarily showboating in training by pulling out tricks, flicks and curling in shots from 30 yards out. Only time will tell how many more managerial roles he’ll be able to gain with this attitude and the suggestion that he is difficult to get on with.

But Crystal Palace are now back to square one in their quest for a long-term evolution, but appointing 70-year-old Roy Hodgson who will play a similar style of play to Allardyce stalls that proposed venture and only highlights that Steve Parish is clueless in terms of where he wants his football club to be.

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