20 Premier League Previews in 20(ish) Days: Crystal Palace

Stadium: Selhurst Park (capacity: 26,255)

Manager: Alan Pardew (2nd season)

Nickname: The Eagles

2014-15 Record: 48 points (13-9-16), 10th place in Barclay’s Premier League

20 Premier League Previews in 20(ish) Days: Crystal Palace

It was truly a season of extraordinary highs and bizarre lows for this South London club that has become used to the latter category.

Tony Pulis, who led Crystal Palace to an incredible 11th place finish in 2013-14, resigned as manager about 48 hours before the season opener at Arsenal. To this day there have been no clear explanations from either side why this happened and there’s very little chance we’ll ever know exactly why.

Regardless of the reason, Palace had to find a manager on short notice with zero preseason who could keep Palace in the Premier League for another year. The best the club could do on short notice was Neil Warnock, Palace’s manager from 2007-10, but by the end of December the Eagles were 18th in the Premier League and Warnock was sent back into retirement.

As safe as a veteran manager like Warnock seemed, his replacement was equally risky and combustible. After all, if you type “Alan Pardew controversy” into a search engine you will get a number of results. Pardew was manager of Newcastle United when they finished 5th in the Premier League in 2011-12, and also took West Ham back to the Premier League in 2005.

But he struggled in his last two seasons at Newcastle, with the club wavering between the relegation zone and middle of the table under his watch. Part of that has to be blamed on Newcastle’s Chairman Mike Ashley, but it was clear that most Newcastle fans were obsessed with removing Pardew by the end of 2014 even with the Magpies sitting 9th in the Premier League table.

At the same time Palace were looking for a shot of excitement and Pardew himself played at Palace from 1987-91 and he is also a Londoner. In fact in Pardew’s final season playing at Palace the Eagles had their best season in their history finishing 3rd in the old First Division.

Yet the Eagles played inspired football after Pardew took over getting wins over Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool while playing with an exciting, attacking style. This high scoring style was new to Eagle fans used to the disorganization of Ian Holloway or the defensive style of Tony Pulis. For the 2nd straight season not only did the Eagles avoid relegation, but they weren’t even in the discussion for relegation by last two or three months of the season. On top of that the 10th place finish was the club’s highest since the formation of the Premier League.

Considering that when the Eagles were promoted to the Premier League in 2013 they were easily the smallest club in the league, the last two seasons have really been remarkable.

New Faces: Yohan Cabaye- central midfielder (Paris St. Germain), Alex McCarthy- goalkeeper (QPR), Patrick Bamford- centre forward (Chelsea- LOAN), Connor Wickham- striker (Sunderland)

French international Cabaye may well be the highest profile transfer in the club’shistory. Cabaye last played in England under Pardew at Newcastle United and was a key part of the Magpies squad that finished in 5th place and earned a Europa League spot in the process. His performances at Newcastle earned a transfer (that Cabaye himself forced) for £19 million to Paris St. Germain.

Cabaye is not a prolific goal scorer, but is rather known more for his passing and quality service to attacking players. He also has 39 senior appearances for the French national team, including starting all five matches he appeared in during the 2014 World Cup. However last season at PSG Cabaye appeared in 36 matches but was not playing at the same high level he played while at Newcastle and LOSC Lille before that.

So while Cabaye may be somewhat damaged goods now, he still is well worth the club record £12 million transfer fee the Eagles paid for his services.

Alex McCarthy only appeared three times last season for QPR as Robert Green’s backup, but was more impressive with Reading beforehand. McCarthy appeared 13 times in the Premier League during the 2012-13 season, including an impressive clean sheet against Liverpool and made 44 appearances in 2013-14 in the Championship.

So while he didn’t feature much last season, McCarthy is only 25 years old and Pardew clearly has an eye on him as the first choice keeper this season with Palace legend Julian Speroni approaching the end of his career.

Much of the transfer rumors were about Palace securing the services of a goal scoring threat and while QPR’s Charlie Austin is probably not a realistic target, they did get one of the most promising young English strikers on loan. Patrick Bamford has been contracted to Chelsea since 2012, although the 21 year old has not yet made an appearance for the Blues’ first team. Instead Bamford has gone on loans to MK Dons (2012-13), Derby County (2014) and Middlesbrough (2014-15). In his last three seasons Bamford has scored 43 goals (in 98 appearances) and last season was named the SkyBet Championship Young Player of the Year for his 17 goals in 39 appearances at Middlesbrough.

The most recent signing, striker Connor Wickham, was joint-top goalscorer for Sunderland last season with six goals in all competitions. That is not an impressive record, but nobody atSunderland last season had an easy time scoring goals and Wickham is only 22 years old.

Familiar Faces: Jason Puncheon- central midfielder/winger (6 goals in 39 appearances), Scott Dann- centre back (4 goals in 37 appearances), Joel Ward- left back (40 appearances), Glenn Murray- striker (7 goals in 20 appearances), Wilfried Zaha- winger (4 goals in 35 appearances)

The strength of this Palace squad clearly lies in a midfield group that came into its own by the second half of last season. Jason Puncheon has shown the talent to be a Premier League quality player at Palace and at his previous club Southampton but was prone to errors and inconsistency. Pardew showed more confidence in Puncheon than any previous manager, playing him as the Eagles’ primary “creator” behind attacking players. In addition Puncheon was one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League at free kicks, scoring goals off screamers like this one against Manchester United.

James MacArthur, a Scottish international central midfielder, played the role of gritty holding midfielder to perfection last season from the moment he arrived from Wigan Athletic. MacArthur only scored 2 goals in 33 total appearances but was the most consistent performer among all the midfielders. Joe Ledley (2 goals in 36 total appearances) is a similarly styled gritty central midfielder, but has also shown flexibility to play up front as an attacking midfielder and as a wing defender.

Interestingly enough, club captain Mile Jedinak also plays in the central midfield and may find his place in the team under threat with the performances of Puncheon and McArthur and the arrival of Cabaye. And this is despite Jedinak coming off a year where he captained his native Australia to an Asian Cup title and at the 2014 World Cup.

Two positions that are not under dispute are those of blisteringly quick wingers Wilfied Zaha and Yannick Bolasie. After enduring an awful spell at Manchester United, Zaha rejoined Palace on loan to start last season and the club eventually permanently signed him in February. Bolasie has made 65 appearances in the last two seasons for Palace and while he’s still far from a consistent goal scoring threat, he is capable of making even the league’s better defenders look foolish. The biggest advantage Palace have in the Premier League week in and week out is that there are very few defenders who can deal with the athleticism and ability of Zaha and Bolasie when playing well (no that this is always the case).

Scott Dann has been the best defender on the field for the Eagles since he was signed by Tony Pulis in the 2014 January transfer window. Dann is the typical tall, well-built centre back who is an occasional goal scoring threat from corner kicks and set pieces. He also filled in as the club captain while Jedinak was away on international duty and suspended subsequently for violent conduct. Joel Ward has also started as a left or right back in 73 of the Eagle’s 76 Premier League matches in the last two seasons.

The one thing the Eagle’s lacked was a consistent goal scoring striker. Glenn Murray did have a very good 2nd half, scoring 7 goals in 20 total appearances after spending the first half of last season on loan at Reading in the Championship. Murray scored 30 goals in Palace’s Championship promotion season in 201-13, but has also spent much of the last two years recovering from a devastating knee injury.

Dwight Gayle led all Palace players in scoring across all competitions with 10 goals (in 29 total appearances), but he has never been consistent enough to feature every match under any manager since he arrived in 2013.

Finally the Eagles do have questions to answer about who their first choice goalkeeper will be this coming season. Julian Speroni has been the Eagles’ regular keeper since 2007 and has looked surprisingly effective the last two years despite being currently 36 years old. Still Pardew probably did not bring in Alex McCarthy to warm the bench and he also has Welsh international Wayne Hennessey to choose from as well (although many rumors have Hennessey re-joining with Pulis at West Brom).

Completely Unscientific, Somewhat Unbiased Predicted Finish: 12th place

If in fact Palace do end up guaranteeing a 3rd straight mid-table finish Eagles supporters should be thrilled. After all this is a club that has spent much of its history in the Championship or in previous incarnations of 2nd tier English football.

There are many talented players  this squad, but there are still a fair number of question marks. Is there really a forward who can score consistently in the Premier League among this current group of players? Glenn Murray has shown flashes, but he is 31 years old and not getting any quicker. I think Dwight Gayle will be playing for another club soon and will tantalize them or perhaps even realize his ability.

The thought of a player of Yohan Cabaye’s class playing for the Eagles is somewhat unbelievable, but what if he doesn’t fit with his teammates? Cabaye did not play well for PSG and wouldn’t be the first talented player to not respond well to the pressure of being a club’s highest profile signing ever.

Also, Pardew has at least four or five different choices to make for two or three starting central midfield positions. Now competition is always a good thing, but players have egos and selection drama is never a good thing for a club like Palace that’s known for their chemistry and teamwork.

There’s also the matter of there being no decent centre back other than Scott Dann currently in the squad. Damien Delaney and Brede Hangeland are past their prime and Martin Kelly still hasn’t proven he’s a first choice centre back yet.

Oh and nobody has any real idea who is going to be the goalkeeper on the opening day against Norwich City either.

But Palace now have the belief of surviving in the Premier League comfortably three seasons in a row and, with an improved squad, of at least equalling last season’s mid-table finish.

(Hat tip to Patrick for the photo)