When Sky Sports put up the statistic that Palace had conceded fourteen goals in the last 15 minutes, the joint most in the Premier League this season alongside Liverpool, during Monday night’s game against Leicester there was a horrible inevitability about what would happen next. Sure enough within five minutes Kelechi Iheanacho had belted the ball past Vicente Guaita for the fifteenth such concession in the last sixth of a match, which works out at roughly one every two matches. Palace were now out on their own at the head of a table no team wants to be heading.
It is no coincidence that Palace also top the charts for having the oldest average starting XI in the Premier League this season. On seven occasions this season a team has had an average age of over thirty and Palace were the club on each of those occasions. Indeed of the thirty oldest starting line-ups Palace have 23 and the only other team to feature is Burnley who occupy the other seven places. The fable of the tortoise and the hare emphasises it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that is the determining factor; the problem for The Eagles is unlike the parable that their tortoises are struggling to get to the finish line ahead of the hares.
One look at the line-up against Leicester confirmed that there needs to be some new blood injected. The keeper Guaita is 34 and there was nobody under 30 in the four lining up directly ahead of him. The rest of the team are not exactly spring chickens either, with only two players – Eberechi Eze and Jairo Riedewald – under 25. 28-year-old Wilfried Zaha was the next youngest in the entire team. Even the notion of injecting fresh legs from the bench does not really work when the three substitutes employed – Andros Townsend, Jeffrey Schlupp and James McCarthy are 29, 28 and 30 respectively. The fact that Tottenham’s current manager is younger than the vast majority of this team is a strong indication of things needing to change.
So it should be of no surprise that this team runs out of steam towards the end of games and are susceptible to younger, more energetic opposition. Before Monday’s game Palace had had a 16-day break since their last match whereas Leicester had played two games since, their most recent being only four days beforehand. With the congested nature of this season many had pointed out that teams look more fatigued than would normally be the case. Added to this, because of the Europa League and their run to the FA Cup Final, Leicester were playing their 47th game of the season, whereas Palace their 34th but despite all these factors it was the home side who were making the running in the latter stages of the match.
The irony behind this ageing squad is that Palace’s heartland, South London is considered a hotbed of football talent bursting to the seams with promising young players. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay wrote a piece in 2016, entitled ‘All hail the concrete Catalonia! South London’s golden square of talent’, which highlighted the conveyor belt of young players that the region had produced. “Currently 14% of English footballers in the Premier League are from that 10 mile golden square of south London,” Ronay wrote.
While Palace have benefited over the years from seeing the likes of Zaha and Aaron Wan-Bissaka emerging into the first team they also recognise that there are plenty who they have missed out on, such as Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman, and that is something that has to be rectified. To address this the club have invested over £20 million into their academy, which gained category One status last year, massively improving the facilities and infrastructure with the hope that they will attract more of that reservoir of youthful talent. This investment will only bear fruit a few years down the line.
The other burning question is who should be the manager to oversee this transition. Roy Hodgson has undoubtedly brought stability to a club that previously rode the football rollercoaster with the abandon of a thrill-seeking youngster. The club are currently enjoying their longest continuous spell in the top flight in their history so Hodgson deserves respect. But he will be 74 before the start of next season and although he looks like he could continue for a few years yet, with the best will in the world, he is not the man to bring on the next generation. It is anybody’s guess who that might be but one thing is for sure that the average age needs to be brought down below thirty and sooner rather than later.