This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
With Gareth Bale’s future still as yet unresolved, Tottenham’s curtain raiser away to Crystal Palace on Sunday would have to be a nine-goal thriller to live up to the extended preamble – and with the famously cavalier Ian Holloway in charge of the Selhurst Park outfit, anything is possible.
Palace’s promotion season was full of ups and downs. Much like the promotions of Burnley and Blackpool in 2008-09 and 2009-10, going up wasn’t really on the cards at the start of the season but a single run of unbelievable results – one defeat in twenty games – made a mockery of relative financial weakness and the Eagles’ promotion pipe dream became a reality.
Budget aside, the biggest obstacle standing in their way was the unexpected midseason departure of manager, club legend, and serial ship-jumper Dougie Freedman, who threw himself overboard in October (read: moved to Bolton Wanderers) and was eventually replaced by Sky Sports News icon Ian Holloway.
Quite how Crystal Palace went from being so broke they had to appoint a former player from the coaching staff to signing a veritable Championship A-lister in under two years is a matter for another day, but Holloway was the perfect man to take charge of such a youthful and attacking outfit.
Palace’s second half of the season never came close to matching the first – they recorded just one win in their final ten games – but playoff final victory over Watford at Wembley erased all memories of their collapse and earned them an estimated £120 million.
In terms of personnel, thirty-goal Glenn Murray and dazzling winger Wilfried Zaha were the star men at Selhurst Park last season and will be conspicuous by their absence as the new campaign gets underway. Murray is recovering from a cruciate knee injury sustained in April while Zaha has, of course, moved to Manchester United, for whom he signed while wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of Ryan Giggs’ best-ever friend-with-benefits, Imogen Thomas.
While strong enough to put together the aforementioned run of one defeat in twenty, the spine of Palace’s team was inconsistent. They lost more than a quarter of their forty-six league games and conceded sixty-two goals – the highest tally for a promoted team since 1989-90. They changed tack in the playoffs, keeping three clean sheets in as many matches, but Palace’s was a promotion based on gung-ho tactics, and we can expect to see more of the same in 2013-14.
As you’d expect, the squad has been upgraded in the off-season but given the apparent inevitability of the Eagles returning to the second tier, the club’s outlay has not been colossal. Stephen Dobbie joined for £500k, Spain U20 captain José Campaña followed for £2m and the club broke its transfer record to spend £4.5m on Dwight Gayle, but more typical have been the signings of Jerome Thomas, Elliot Grandin, Neil Alexander and Florian Marange, who all arrived on free transfers.
Walking punchline Marouane Chamakh has also joined on a free but has only been offered a one-year deal – further evidence of both Palace’s financial prudence and the unbelievable decline that Chamakh’s career has taken in the last couple of years.
There has been some suggestion that Palace could go back down with a lower points total than the eleven points won by Derby in 2007/08 but that seems harsh. The squad’s level is admittedly similar to Derby’s but their manager’s tactical positivity and sheer optimism should motivate them to pick up a few wins at home, at least.
Despite appearances to the contrary, there is a chance that the Eagles could get three points on the board on Sunday. While boasting nowhere near the level of quality that Spurs have in abundance, Palace’s side is relatively settled and familiar both with each other and with their instructions.
Accurately predicting the lineups of the first game of the season is obviously bloody difficult, but due to injuries we can name ten of Spurs’ eleven with something approaching certainty: the question mark over Sandro’s match fitness means he may not start in the expected 4-3-3, so presumably Gylfi Sigurðsson would come into his favoured central attacking midfield role and the shape would revert to last season’s 4-2-3-1.
The logic behind André Villas-Boas’ proposed move to 4-3-3 is obvious: with Sandro holding, either Paulinho or Moussa Dembélé can move forward to support Roberto Soldado, theoretically giving Spurs consistent coverage both in midfield and in the final third. If Gareth Bale sticks around, he can come in from the right in the same manner that his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo, cuts in from the left.
Even with Sigurðsson ahead of Paulinho and Dembélé in a 4-2-3-1 the basic idea would remain the same, but with much less in the way of fluidity. Personally, I’d choose this option on Sunday for two reasons: firstly, not to risk Sandro as he recovers from a serious injury; secondly, Sigurðsson’s goal threat, as shown in this role for Swansea, coupled with his passes to Soldado, could prove decisive in what will be an open game.
In either case, Sunday’s midfield battle will surely be won by Tottenham but there will doubtless be a few sticky moments due to the combination of the aforementioned lack of familiarity in Spurs’ XI and Palace’s tendency to lob a plethora of kitchen sinks at the opposition over the course of ninety minutes.
While it must be said that Palace will need Lady Luck to look more than favourably upon them to keep a clean sheet, Spurs’ back four is hardly going to be watertight.
Kyle Walker’s midweek showing for England once again left a lot to be desired; while Michael Dawson plays very well as part of a settled unit, in a back four as makeshift as this he regularly comes unstuck; Younès Kaboul is set to return after a year out, taking the place of the injured Jan Vertonghen; with Benoît Assou-Ekotto out of favour with AVB, Danny Rose will play at left-back.
Spurs are by far the more dynamic side and the bursts forward of Aaron Lennon and Nacer Chadli are certain to be dangerous given that Palace will be wide open at transitions. With chances likely to be more plentiful for the away side, the decisive difference is likely to be the quality of Roberto Soldado’s finishing.
Simply put, the gulf in class in terms of strikers is huge. Marouane Chamakh is not to be written off but he has not played in preseason at all and his replacements, Aaron Wilbraham and Dwight Gayle, are utterly hopeless and inexperienced respectively. By contrast, Spurs have an experienced and proven goalscorer and their system seems set up to get the best out of him. That should be enough to secure three points.