Crystal Palace have not been entertaining this season. Like an Eastern European tower block or brutalist architecture, the house that Roy Hodgson has built -- all straight-edged and set like concrete -- is accomodating only to the purpose it is intended to serve -- it's not meant to look nice, it's just meant to stay up. And in this case, the bare minimum has been to achieve safety. Palace, with their strong foundations and their ugly simplicity, have been utilitarian in the extreme, but the manager will say with justification that this was the goal he was set, and he has met it.
There is however a case to be made that, in being so very focused on securing the points by limiting what opponents can do, Palace haven't made the most of what they have in attack. Yesterday's forward play, driven by the guile of Eberechi Eze and the verve of Wilfried Zaha, was a rare highlight in an a mostly forgettable season of attacking performances. Palace drove forward with pace and intent, showing a directness towards Everton's goal that has, on so many occasions, been disrupted by meandering play in the middle of the pitch.
Much of the argument in favour of Hodgson's tactics this season has been grounded in the lack of options for the manager to choose from -- Palace can't possibly play on the front foot because they don't have a capable staff. But yesterday's draw showed that putting a little more faith in the players signed to score goals can and should pay dividends. It also doesn't ring entirely true that Palace are limited -- some of the problems faced this season have come down to the manager's inflexibility in his approach.
As a striker, Zaha has been effective this season, as emphasised by the nine goals he has scored in a side that doesn't really create a significant number of chances. But in playing Zaha in such a central attacking role, rather than one of freedom across a front three, it negates one of the other key elements of his game, and his previous contributions to Palace. For so many past seasons, Zaha has been the most creative player in the side.
His quality over the course of his Palace career isn't just grounded in his goalscoring ability -- he was never just a goalscorer prior to this season -- but that he can create chances too. As a winger, or a drifting attacking player, Zaha's creativity and unpredictability has made him a huge threat for opponents. A threat which, in a number of games this season, has been snuffed out with some tight marking and aggressive tackling.
Zaha's inclusion as a striker also limits who he prefers to play alongside or around him. Christian Benteke has had a much-improved season, but his inclusion is often predicated on whether Zaha is in the side with him. There's been some talk of them forming a partnership of sorts, but the statistics suggest that isn't the case -- neither really create goals for each other, nor has the inclusion of one alongside the other been indicative of a resoundingly-positive attacking performance.
This is where, in Michy Batshuayi's case, he has some grounds for frustration. The manager doesn't trust him to play alongside Zaha in attacking pairing, but he also won't change the line-up to accomodate or make the most of the qualities Batshuayi exhibits.
The Belgian striker, on loan from Chelsea, has made just seven starts for the side, with the majority of his appearances coming as a substitute, with an average of 15-minutes per substitute appearance. No player is likely to really make the case for further inclusion with such limited time on the pitch, in a side which doesn't truly accommodate that player's needs.
The frustration for Batshuayi will also be amplified by the fact that, in his first loan spell, the manager utilised tactics that better suited his talent, often as a central striker in a front three. The outcome was that he scored six goals in 12 appearances for the side.
Jean-Philippe Mateta is likely to also face similar difficulty for the remainder of this season. Palace have secured the Mainz striker on an 18-month loan deal, in the hope that he will do enough to warrant his permanent signing either during or at the end of that spell. But he will be expected to play a role that is unlikely to really create the kind of opportunities he can make the most of.
Palace haven't been a creative side this season. They average just 8.8 shots per game, with only Sheffield United and West Brom performing worse. Of those shots, an average of 3.2 are on target per game, again putting Palace among relegation-threatened sides. Palace are also the team that spends the least amount of time in the opposition's third, with just 24% of the team's play taking place there.
These statistics support the case that Palace aren't as effective in attack as they perhaps should be, given the attacking talent they have. Hodgson's tactics have put a lot of burden on strikers to create opportunities out of nothing, and while Zaha is capable of this, there have been times this season where playing him as a winger or as one of three attacking players, and allowing another striker to take that central role, might have been more fruitful and crucially more entertaining.
The manager's conundrum is that he has to do what he sees fit in order to achieve the goals he is set. Hodgson is never going to approach matches with a gung-ho style, but Palace's performance yesterday proves there is more to football than just squeezing the life out of opponents and hoping you make the most of the limited chances you have. Palace have the players to be more aggressive -- the manager just needs to find a way to accomodate them.