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'Evolution not revolution': A theory found useless without patience

A closer look at the failings of Crystal Palace

The Premier League is never short of shocks or surprises; however the news of the first managerial casualty of the season sadly does not fall in to either of those categories. Frank De Boer was relieved of his duties at Crystal Palace after only four league games, a new Premier League record. Succeeding Les Reed of Charlton as the shortest serving Premier League manager of all time, it is not an accolade that the Dutchman will look back on fondly. Despite being without a win or a goal after match day four, De Boer’s sacking is seen as a harsh one, even for the wild and wacky standards of British football. However, it should not be De Boer who should be ashamed over this debacle; it should be those who appointed him. Many clubs such as Crystal Palace are now placing money above any sense of pride when making these vital decisions and De Boer’s dismissal will only be the first of many bizarre decisions across the season.

There is no doubt that Palace were under-performing, with an attacking prowess worth in excess of £50m, their side should be capable of converting their chances within the first month of action. However, with De Boer only in the hot seat for 77 days, how did the board expect a team tuned to a direct and physical approach under Sam Allardyce to progress seamlessly in to a slick possession based side inspired by one of the Dutch footballs favourite sons?

The clubs chairman Steve Parish stated in June that they needed “evolution, not revolution, over a period of time.” By being so public with this suggestion, he is highlighting the fact it is not an overnight job to turn a typical Allardyce side in to one with a foreign ideology. De Boer was the clubs first foreign manager since 1998, and only the second in their history. Although it is now more common than not for foreigners to take the reins for Premier League clubs, it does not disguise the fact that every manager needs time to bed in his new ideas, particularly if they are so contrasting to his predecessor. Palace have championed a direct approach which has helped them stay clear of the drop zone under each of Allardyce, Pardew and Pulis. If this approach is limited to barely surviving, then why is there a lack of willingness to stick out a new and progressive style of play? Palace took the decision to appoint former manager Dougie Freedman as a sporting director in late August, a move to appease De Boer who worked under a similar system at Ajax, yet the decision to bring in a director to oversee this drastic change in approach looks to have been made a couple of months too late.

Parish, despite his stern assessment of the appointment going forward, failed to back De Boer in the transfer market as he had done so popularly with Allardyce and Pardew before him. The chairman may be quick to point out that the clubs net spend has jumped from +£8m to +£31m a year on, however 90% of this summer’s expenditure was used on securing Mamadou Sakho, a player brought in on loan by Allardyce, not De Boer. The defender, who forged himself in to a real fans favourite at the back end of last season, was an important signing, but was it what the manager wanted? Parish was prepared to spend big on recruits both Allardyce and Pardew believed would play to Palace’s strengths, players such as Christian Benteke and Andros Townsend. However, De Boer’s marquee signings were pitched as loan stars Ruben Loftus Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Both are supreme talents, but if it is really evolution over revolution for Parish, then why are these signings only temporary?

Palace tried their hand at a back three for the first few domestic games of the season, a tactic now immensely popular throughout the league thanks to the heroics of title winner Antonio Conte. On paper, this approach made sense for De Boer to try and implement a way to build from the back, something he had done so successfully at Ajax. However, not all the tools were in place for Palace. With balls in behind unsuitable for the lumbering Benteke, and the absence of a player willing to find the pivotal pockets of space easy to see, with their talisman Wilfried Zaha missing through injury. If this issue is so easy for us to identify now, why were they not prepared to address it before the transfer window shut? The board was left scrambling in the closing stages of the window, channeling all their effort, focus and money on Sakho, a player who, despite all his strengths, is known universally for lacking composure when playing out from the back. The failings in strategy are there for all to see at Palace, and with patience running thin across the league; they are unlikely to be alone in such failings in the season ahead.

Statistics can be perhaps overplayed as a significant part of football; however with so many of the key stats in Palace’s favour, it would be fair to say that De Boer had been verging on unlucky rather than uninspiring in many of his opening games. From the outside looking in, it’s bleak for his side - no wins in four and no goals. However, his team has created more chances than eleven other PL sides, and attempted more shots on target than another nine. There was a sense of disbelief for many viewers of yesterday’s televised game at Turf Moor, as Palace came away goalless after numerous good chances on the Burnley goal. Had Scott Dann put away his low drive in the second half, and winger Chung Yong Lee had not allowed Chris Wood in on goal with a horrific back-pass after three minutes, it could have been a very different story for Palace and De Boer. But that’s football.

The Crystal Palace board has hit panic stations. They cannot be seen as relegation favourites after spending so much on another underperforming XI. The biggest fear for clubs such as Palace is now their rising wage bill rather than their decline in to the Championship. The parachute payment at the end of a Premier League season is now seen as the holy-grail for many owners. The club has reportedly lined up Roy Hodgson as their next boss; the former England manager had impressed in the PL previously with WBA and Fulham, however highlighted his tactical weaknesses in England’s Euros embarrassment to Iceland. There is nothing to say Hodgson won’t do a good job, but in his first four games he faces a grueling schedule, including trips to both Manchester clubs and home ties to Southampton and Chelsea. What does Parish do then, if Palace come out of those four games with another fat zero? The only continuity at Palace could be their run of form, with the club undoubtedly the underdogs in each of those fixtures.

There would have been no guarantees that De Boer could have pulled Palace from this rut and steered them clear of the drop zone, but that does not mean that he was worthy of the sack after just four games. He has the credentials to succeed as a manager, with four league titles with Ajax and countless other honours as a player; he is better placed than many other coaches across the league to show us what he’s made of. Yet, the Premier League shows no sympathy, we knew that when Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City fairy tale came crashing down in February, only nine months after winning the title. Although that decision paid dividends in saving the Foxes season, there can’t be the same optimism for Palace, with such a divisive character in charge upstairs. There is much to say about chairmen who take to Twitter, more so after poor results. However, Parish’s comments, only 24 hours ago, have got to leave most football fans totally bewildered in light of today’s news, “Some sense! We are 4 games in, it's a terrible start but we have to stick together.” It is often difficult to sense sarcasm in online messages, but one would guess that the only ironic aspect of this tweet is that the author continues to be in a position to make such decisions.

Published by Lewis McKenzie

11/09/2017