In the season’s first seven weeks, rampant Leicester City and dragon-slaying West Ham — with wins at Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City — have shined brightest among the Premier League’s middle-class clubs, but picking up where it left off in the second half of last season (albeit somewhat quietly), Crystal Palace is lurking. The under-the-radar Eagles are in seventh place, and may be better equipped than any other small-budget side to upset the established Premier League order.
For the South London upstarts, gate-crashing the Europa League seems imminently more likely than relegation, which is an astonishing statement given how Palace started the previous two seasons. In 2013–14, a badly overmatched Ian Holloway led the Eagles to three points from their first 10 games before the shrewd midseason appointment of Tony Pulis saved Palace from what appeared to be certain relegation. Last year, Pulis resigned just two days before the season's first match, leaving the club in disarray. Caretaker manager Keith Millen opened with two defeats before Neil Warnock stepped in to try to stabilize the team. He hardly fared better, and Palace found itself mired in the relegation zone at the turn of the year, with just 17 points from 20 games.
Enter Alan Pardew. Poached from Newcastle on Jan. 2, the endlessly controversial manager immediately set to work reviving Palace’s season, beginning with a 2–1 win over Tottenham in his first game in charge. A 3–2 win at Burnley followed, and Palace finished in 10th place. Overall, Pardew guided the Eagles to 10 wins, seven losses, and a lone draw.
That 18-game performance was noteworthy for its quality; the 1.72 points per game the Eagles picked up during that stretch would have left them in fifth place if extrapolated out for an entire season. But it may be even more remarkable for the distribution of points along home-away splits. Under Pardew, Palace picked up four wins, five losses, and a draw (with a -2 goal differential) while playing in the friendly confines of Selhurst Park. On the road, though, Pardew’s Palace played like certifiable title winners, tallying six wins in eight games and racking up a gaudy plus-8 goal difference.
This season, it’s been more of the same. The Eagles again have been outstanding on the road, winning three of their four away matches, including a stunning — but deserved — win at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.
Meanwhile, the team’s three home matches — admittedly against difficult opposition — have yielded just three points.
The first question worth asking is how this modestly financed club is so good away from home. In recent Premier League history, the occasional small-budget side has managed to excel disproportionately at home, with Pulis’s Stoke City coming to mind, as well as last season’s Southampton side. But until Pardew’s Palace last spring, road dominance had been a feat reserved almost exclusively for England’s biggest clubs.
For nearly a full calendar year, the Eagles have been breaking that pattern. Much of that stems from Palace’s lethal counterattacking style, exemplified by the club’s armada of speedy wingers: Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon and the newly-signed Bakary Sako.
To maximize the strengths of these four wingers, Pardew has eschewed possession and overall shot totals in favor of breakaways and high-percentage scoring chances. It is a tactical lean that tends to work better on the road than at home, and was demonstrated perfectly in Palace’s impressive wins at Norwich City and Chelsea.
Note the emphasis on high-percentage shots from dangerous areas in and around the box, rather than lower percentage efforts farther away from goal. (In Michael Caley’s terrific expected goals maps, larger shot squares correspond with higher percentage shots.)
This is the Palace formula: Sit deep and defend, then break with pace and numbers to generate high-quality looks in the center of the box. The club has managed a meager 41% possession rate this year, third lowest in the league. On the road, that drops to 39.2%, which is second-lowest. But despite these anemic figures — or rather, because of it — no team has racked up more Opta-defined “big chances” on the road than Palace. And where there are big chances, there are often goals.
Watch how this played out in Palace’s 2–1 win at Chelsea in late August. Running at a retreating Chelsea defense, left back Pape Souare slides in Bolasie, who then crosses to a surging Sako in an extremely dangerous area. Despite Cesar Azpilicueta’s best efforts, Sako fires home, striking the vital first blow on the way to a season-defining win.
Palace’s road performances are littered with these sorts of goals. Home teams invariably send players forward, and Palace’s wingers gleefully punish them. But this approach doesn’t work as well at home. The reason: Road teams sit deeper than their home counterparts, minimizing the space for the likes of Bolasie, Zaha, and Sako to run wild. These more compact defenses proved especially difficult for the Eagles to break down last season.
This time around, however, Pardew may have the perfect solution to Palace’s home mediocrity: Yohan Cabaye, signed for a club-record $16 million in July. Rather than Palace simply splashing cash on the best available player within its price range, it seems the French midfielder was purchased specifically to undo the more compact defenses the Eagles will encounter at Selhurst. Cabaye has all the attributes the squad previously lacked: wicked set-piece delivery, dangerous long shooting, and the ability to pick out an incisive pass to cut through a compact backline.
Interestingly, the Eagles don’t necessarily need to be good at home to put together a great season. In light of their uncanny ability to steal games on the road, simply finishing as, say, the ninth-best home team in the league could be sufficient to get Palace into Europe. Palace's hope is that Cabaye has enough in the tank to inspire more consistency at home, while the team’s superb wingers and Pardew’s clever tactics will assure its road prowess continues apace.
We’ll learn a lot more about Palace’s credentials as a potential top-six team in the next two matches, against West Bromwich Albion and West Ham (both at home). Pre-Cabaye Palace may have crumbled in these sorts of games — in fact, they lost by two goals in both of the corresponding fixtures last season. But with the experienced Frenchman around to add his Champions League flare to Palace’s home recipe, these matches could end much differently. Gain six points from these very winnable home fixtures, and there’s no telling what the limit is for the already soaring Eagles.
All statistics courtesy of Opta.