Crystal Palace: The Premier League Team Who Are Better Away From Home
When commentators describe Selhurst Park as “a fortress”, Crystal Palace fans start trembling. Lifelong fan, comedian and writer Kevin Day sums it up thus: “These days when people refer to ‘Fortress Selhurst’, you don’t know whether they are being ironic or not – there aren’t many fans who pray for an away draw in the FA Cup.” The ground may look like a fortress – it was built in 1925 and is crumbling like a medieval castle in places – but, unlike any other team in the Premier League this season, Palace picked up more points on their travels.
The raucous and united crowd at Palace played into the fortress analogy, but that has dissipated in the last few years as expectations have grown with each successive season in the top flight. Perhaps the club are victims of their own success, with a sense of ennui in the crowd creating an air of negativity at home games.
The difference between their results at home and away this season could hardly have been more stark. Palace won more games, scored more goals and picked up more points on their travels. Only Huddersfield, who lost 14 of their 19 games at the John Smith’s Stadium, picked up fewer points at home than Palace. At times it was difficult to watch at Selhurst Park. Palace didn’t score a goal in front of their own fans until the end of October and they didn’t win at home until December. They only scored 19 goals in their own ground all season – one per game – and five of them (26%) came in their 5-3 win over Bournemouth on the final day of the season.
Meanwhile, they were exceptional on their travels. They won nine of their away matches (as many as third-placed Chelsea) and scored 32 goals away from home (eight more than Chelsea). They were the only team to take a point at the Etihad – they took all three with a 3-2 win in December, embellished by Andros Townsend’s sumptuous strike – and they also won by the same scoreline at the Emirates, halting Arsenal’s run of 10 successive wins. Palace were the only team to score three at Anfield and, but for an uncharacteristically sloppy display by veteran keeper Julian Speroni, they would have won that game rather than losing it 4-3. By scoring nine goals at those three grounds, Palace account for 24% of the 38 goals Arsenal, City and Liverpool conceded at home this season.
This is not a new thing for Palace. They have finished higher in the away form table than in the home form table for the last five seasons. In fact, in three of the last four campaigns – 2015-16, 2016-17 and again this season – their home form has put them in the bottom three but their away displays have kept them up. The trend has continued under five managers – Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Frank de Boer (who didn’t win at home or away) and now Hodgson.
Palace are set up to excel in away games, with a vibrant counter-attacking style that works best when home sides attack them and leave spaces at the back. With Wilfried Zaha on one flank and Yannick Bolasie initially and latterly Andros Townsend on the other, there is plenty of dynamic pace combined with ball-carrying skills to exploit the spaces created. However, at Selhurst Park most opponents sit back and stay compact in defense, denying Palace space to exploit on the counter.
Palace were chronically goal-shy in front of their own fans this season. Luka Milivojevic was their top scorer at home with seven goals and five of them were penalties. Zaha scored nine in away games but just one at Selhurst Park, where he is often double marked. Michy Batshuayi didn’t score at home until the final day of the season and the other strikers at the club – Christian Benteke, Conor Wickham and Jordan Ayew – did not score a solitary league goal at Selhurst between them.
When Hodgson took over last season after the calamitous but mercifully brief De Boer experiment, Palace took a few games to get going before sparking into life at Selhurst with a victory over reigning champions Chelsea. When they did click at home it was usually due to the combination of Yohan Cabaye, who could pick a pass, and loan signing Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose forceful, strong running propelled the team forward.
However, Palace faltered at home this season partly due to Hodgson’s cautious pragmatism, which does not give the team an element of surprise or a high enough tempo when they are in possession. The midfield is a solid, compact unit blessed with ball-winners but it lacks a genuine creative force. Without a classic No 10, who can play between the lines and create chances, it is increasingly difficult to unpick opponents who set up two banks of defensive lines.
Of course, this criticism should be set against the success of securing another season in the Premier League. The club are now preparing for their seventh consecutive season in the top flight, their longest spell in the top tier in their history. That this great run has been achieved with such a poor home record is remarkable. Although, if Selhurst Park is to become “a difficult place to go” and a more enjoyable place to go for their own fans, Palace need a change of attitude, a change of approach and a new creative midfielder. The odd goal would not go amiss either.