Football Features

The unsung heroes behind Crystal Palace’s march into the top six

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 13:03, 13 October 2019

The oldest manager in Premier League history has got life left in him yet.

Despite spending less than £3 million in the summer, losing their Player of the Year and their best player (arguably, ever) handing in a transfer request, Roy Hodgson and Crystal Palace find themselves sixth in the table, level on points with Leicester City and Chelsea and just two behind champions Manchester City.

And it is the man who many dismissed after England’s catastrophic Euro 2016 who has guided them there. Hodgson may be 72 years of age, but he’s still motivating and organising this Palace side just as he would have done 30 years ago.

Their ascent into the top six has seemingly gone unnoticed – much has been said of Chelsea and Leicester, but both sides are currently on a par with Roy’s boys.

In 2019, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal have won more league points than Palace. Away from home, their record is more or less the same as Liverpool. The main concern was their home form last season: this time around, they’re unbeaten at Selhurst Park and have conceded just once.

However, what makes this more remarkable is the key players behind this recent success – they are far from the usual suspects. Despite what some observers believe, Palace offer far more than the individual talent of Wilfried Zaha. Here we take a look at five unsung heroes in Palace’s impressive start.

Vicente Guaita

Guaita has been at Palace for over a year now and no one outside of SE25 seems to realise just how good he is.

The clubs’ remarkable upturn in form at the turn of the year coincided with Guaita becoming a fixture in the Palace side. Of the goalkeepers to have started every game this season, only Kasper Schmeichel and Dean Henderson (7) have conceded fewer goals than Guaita (8). No goalkeeper has kept more clean sheets that the Spaniard (3) this year either. But his influence goes beyond statistics.

He made some outstanding saves against West Ham last weekend to win Palace the game. In fact, it seems that he is pulling out some astonishing stops every week, all of which prove to be vital. Not only this, but his distribution has been invaluable and it was his ball up-field which led to Palace’s opener at Old Trafford.

It is evident the defence totally trusts Guaita and it results in the entire team looking calmer and more relaxed on the ball. Surely it won’t be long before Guaita is touted as one of the best in the English game.

Joel Ward

The biggest compliment that you can pay Joel Ward is that Palace don’t miss Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Ward was signed for just £400k back in 2012 to replace Nathaniel Clyne and has been absolutely outstanding this term. No Palace player has made more appearances in the Premier League (175) but over the last two seasons, his form has wavered and many Palace fans felt his time at the club was coming to an end.

Indeed, the decision not to buy a right-back this summer was baffling to those in south London and beyond. But Ward has justified the faith Hodgson has shown in him. He has made 23 tackles this season with a success rate of 60.87% which, until last weekend, was the best tackle success rate of players outside the ‘big six’.

Steve Parish recently said Ward ‘epitomised’ everything about Palace. A massive fan favourite and a legend at Selhurst Park, Ward has proved a vast number of doubters wrong so far this season.

Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel here.

Martin Kelly

Palace ranked fourth for clean sheets last season. James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho formed an imperious partnership and the arrival of Gary Cahill had many fans asking: “Which of the two will play with him?”. As it’s turned out, the answer is neither.

Kelly only came into the side due to injuries but has been simply brilliant so far this season. He’s only conceded three goals thus far and kept two clean sheets. It was him and Cahill who was instrumental in the victories over Man Utd and West Ham and appear to have forged an excellent understanding along with Guaita.

Kelly has spent almost the whole of his career playing out of position at full-back or playing the role of understudy to so-called superior defenders. He has never failed to deliver, however: during an injury crisis at the back end of 2016/17, Kelly was vital in Palace’s dramatic survival.

Perhaps now the defender can finally start playing week in, week out.

James McArthur

McArthur is among the most underrated players in the Premier League. He is a perfect example of a player who you don’t realise you miss until he doesn’t play. He joined Palace a year after promotion and has often been in and out of the side, but no player has won more Premier League games for the Eagles than him (61).

Hard-working, tactically astute and technically gifted, McArthur is absolutely perfect for Hodgson and has played almost every midfield role to great effect over the past few years. No player got more assists for Palace than him last season (yes, that’s including Zaha and Andros Townsend), yet he sat in front of the back four at the London Stadium last time out and helped the Eagles dominate the midfield.

He has outstanding close control and is an extremely intelligent player: he knows when to foul, when to go down and when to pass it. The fact that some Palace fans still don’t rate him is nothing short of baffling. Perhaps the fact that he is probably the least glamorous player in England doesn’t help.

Jordan Ayew

Ayew became something of a cult hero at Palace after scoring away at Wolves after five months without a goal and subsequently dropped to his knees and burst into tears.

When it was announced that his loan spell became permanent in the summer, the replies of “announce Champions League” were riddled with irony: surely, Ayew wouldn’t be leading the line this season?

However, the Ghanaian has been a sensation. All three of his goals have come in games decided by the odd goal, meaning that his strikes have won Palace six points this season already.

Selhurst Park loves a trier and that is exactly what Ayew is: the one thing he will guarantee you is endless running all game and, this season, he has added a striker’s instinct which few realised even existed within him. Similar to Ward, the biggest compliment you can give him is that Palace don’t seem to miss Michy Batshuayi.

The journeyman is unanimously loved by the Palace faithful and may have finally found a club which he can call home.