An in depth analysis of Crystal Palace’s struggle to put the ball in the back of the net.
It is no secret that Crystal Palace have struggled in front of goal this season with their tally of eight goals from thirteen games tied for the lowest in the league. This averages out to a dismal .615 goals per game. Additionally, two of the Eagle’s goals came from Luka Milivojević penalty kicks meaning Palace have only scored six times from open play across 13 games. Palace have also been shut out in six games this season including in matches against Wolves, Southampton, and Newcastle who all sit in the bottom half of the table. This ineptitude in scoring has played a large role in the current table placement of the Eagles, sixteenth with only one point separating them and the relegation zone. There are multiple reasons for these struggles all of which will be explored in this article; including but not limited to, lack of quality, struggles with confidence and luck, and schematic issues.
The first and most obvious shortcoming in the goal scoring department comes from the lack of a complete forward, or at this point even an average one. Within the current Palace squad there are four players who are out and out strikers, Christian Benteke, Connor Wickham, Jordan Ayew, and Alexander Sørloth. These players have amassed a grand total of zero goals in the premier league this season.
After a strong first season in a Palace shirt Benteke struggled all last season, and despite his hold up play staying strong, managed only three goals. While his preseason looked encouraging, Benteke’s struggles continued this year as he failed to score in his four appearances before suffering a knee injury that will keep him out until January. Once Benteke returns from injury it would be ideal for him to return to the player he was under Big Sam however there are no assurances of that.
Connor Wickham showed real promise upon his arrival from Sunderland but has yet to fully recover from a long term knee injury along with several smaller setbacks. So far this season Wickham has only made one brief cameo in injury time against Everton and has not started a Premier League match in in more than two years. While there is hope the he can return to fitness and become a contributor, he is still young after all at 25, placing hope of surviving a relegation battle on a player with such an extensive injury history and no guarantee that he will ever be the same player again would be risky at best.
Unfortunately Alexander Sørloth appears to be a bust. The lanky Norwegian arrived for just under ten million pounds last January and has yet to score a league goal while fluffing numerous chances such as the one against Tottenham a few weeks ago. While giving up on a player so young (22 years old) could be hasty, it is clear that he is not currently ready to contribute at a Premier League level. Sørloth has shown flashes of being a real threat, with his game winner in the cup against Swansea City providing a perfect example, but these flashes have been too few and far between.
Jordan Ayew was a loan move that never truly excited me personally as I have never been impressed by his play; however, given the budget restrictions this summer it wasn’t a bad move at the time. The Ghanaian forward has struggled to fit into the system and has managed a measly single assist from his nine appearances while also struggling to provide hold up play. While Ayew is a very different player from the other players at the position as they are prototypical target men for the most part, that has not helped him avoid the struggles that have plagued the position.
Any conversation on forwards should probably also include Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend as Roy Hodgson has deployed them in a top two in recent matches. There is a very good piece on the Back of the Nest website that dives deep into the debate surrounding Zaha’s positioning that I recommend reading, therefore I will not go into much depth on that topic here. Zaha is currently the leading scorer for Palace in the Premier League with three goals however, in my opinion, both he and Townsend are best utilized as wide players rather than as forwards.
While it is true that the forward play as been poor this season the rest of the team is far from blameless. There have not been a great number of chances created as the attacking play has, for the most part, looked disjointed all season. It is also worth mentioning the poor service on set pieces this season as crosses from corner kicks and free kicks have rarely been successful in finding their target in the box. Football is a team sport and it would be unfair to place the weight of the goal drought solely upon the shoulders of the under-performing forwards.
The 4-4-2 formation that Hodgson loves to use has its advantages and disadvantages. This formation created an organized and compact defensive line that makes it very hard for teams to break down. The cost of this defensive stance is often the sacrifice of an attacking bite as the front two of Zaha and Townsend is not consistently successful in creating chances. Both Zaha and Townsend tend to drift wide due to their natural instincts as wingers where their skills are best utilized. Zaha is as his best when cutting in off the dribble and terrorizing full-backs and centre-backs when he can get a head of steam from out wide without having a big centre-back on his back as soon as he receives the ball.
This Palace team also struggles to get any balls into the box and connect crosses. When one of Zaha or Townsend drifts wide to get the ball, they often look to cross and see no friendly shirts making runs into the box or one or two who are massively outnumbered by the opposition. Arguably, Townsend’s greatest skill as a player is his ability to send crosses into the box. This skill is almost entirely negated by the lack of support that the 4-4-2 provides for getting players into the box on the break.
Even before the shift to the 4-4-2 Palace still struggled to score goals. The problem that has haunted the Eagles ever since promotion continues to be an issue this season. Whoever is playing forward for Palace often ends up far to isolated from the rest of the team. A perfect example of this would be a sight that would be familiar to any Palace fan: A goal kick or clearance from the goalkeeper up to Benteke who wins the header but, then loses the ball as there is no one remotely close to deliver the ball to. This is even the case in the front two, as on the counter Zaha or Townsend often end up facing two or three defenders with no option but to play the ball back.
If Palace are to up their goal tally this season they need to attack as a team and not rely on moments of brilliance from players such as Zaha. This starts on the practice pitch and in team meetings. All season long the movement off the ball in attack has not been sufficient and every game we cheaply give away possession as players are not on the same wavelength in passing.
Lack of Confidence and Luck
It is hard to distinguish the difference between the players not having the confidence or skill to finish a goal and simply being unlucky. The likely answer is probably a little bit of both. There were cases of both in last weekend’s draw with Manchester United as Patrick van Aanholt and Andros Townsend both had chances to break the tie that they probably should have done better with. Cheikhou Kouyaté could also consider himself unlucky as he found himself just barely offside when he had a goal disallowed off a headed in free kick. Other instances that come to mind include Sørloth’s missed chance against Tottenham and Sakho’s missed header against Newcastle, both mistakes that potentially cost Palace points. Further examples of bad luck include Kouyaté and Benteke both hitting the crossbar off of corners at points in this season.
With all this in mind the question comes to mind. Why are Palace missing these chances? While bad luck and a lack of quality are part of the equation the greatest reason is a simple lack of confidence. While obviously not as bad as last season’s start of seven games with no points and no goals this current winless run has some of the same elements, particularly a lack of confidence when it comes to scoring goals. This team proved last season that it is inconsistent and prone to runs of form, both good and bad. It is the responsibility of both the manager and players to overcome these issues and placing all the blame on just one of the parties is not correct. If Crystal Palace is to reverse this current run of bad results fixing their confidence issues in front of goal will be the top priority.
This season began with optimism from fans and the club alike as many saw this season as an opportunity to finally push ourselves into the top half of the Premier League. The season did not start the way many expected; however, if last season proved anything it’s that this team can never be ruled out. The key to salvaging this season as anything more than a fight against relegation will be scoring more goals. In order for that to happen the forwards must play better, the team and coaching must improve to support them, and the player must regain the confidence that saw them finish last season on a five game unbeaten run with four wins. I for one have faith that this team will recover and get back to scoring goals, the biggest question may be do they have the same faith in themselves?