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Rather surprisingly for a club lying bottom of the Premier League table, Crystal Palace have a selection headache to settle. The return of Christian Benteke from injury is, on the face of it, a good thing. He was the team’s top scorer last season and is their natural first-choice line-leader. However, he is no longer guaranteed a place in the line-up.
While the Belgian target man has been out, a lot has changed. Roy Hodgson’s appointment has led to a slight improvement in fortunes, with performances and results experiencing a moderate upturn. And much of the increasing positivity has been down to a new-look attacking setup.
The former England national team boss decided to mix things up after the 4-0 defeat away to Manchester United, starting Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend up front for the visit of reigning champions Chelsea. Crystal Palace secured their first win of the campaign that day, and the new strike duet have kept their places since.
Hodgson confirmed that Benteke is closing in on full fitness recently, saying:
“Yeah. I spoke to (Belgium manager) Roberto (Martinez) the other night, we were at the (Tottenham) game together on Wednesday. This is a medial ligament damage and it's a six to eight week injury, it's now about six or seven weeks since (Benteke) actually did it and we are…hoping that he will be able to train almost fully with us during the international break.”
Benteke’s availability would, theoretically, substantially boost Crystal Palace’s scoring chances. But with Zaha and Townsend playing so well together of late, does he deserve to start?
Benteke enjoyed a successful first season at Selhurst Park after joining from Liverpool in a £27million deal in August 2016. His power and aerial ability, traits that were not appreciated quite so much at Anfield due to stylistic issues, were maximised under the management of Sam Allardyce.
Ultimately his 15 Premier League goals played a huge part in the club’s survival, helping them to a 14th-place finish after a torrid beginning to the campaign. However, he struggled to find his best form following the appointment of Frank de Boer in the summer.
The Dutch manager wanted to bring in a completely different playing style, and Benteke wasn’t ideally suited. He lost his scoring touch, failing to find the net in his six league appearances this term. Meanwhile, his key offensive stats – shots, chances created and dribbles per game – all decreased.
In each of Benteke’s six outings Palace failed to score a single goal, losing each match. While he alone was not to blame for those results, his specialised style may have been limiting the sort of tactical experimentation the team needed to undertake to get out of such a dismal run of form.
THE ZAHA/TOWNSEND EXPERIMENT
Hodgson’s decision to opt for a strike partnership of Zaha and Townsend in Benteke’s absence paid instant dividends. The former scored in the 2-1 win over Chelsea, sealing the team’s first – and, so far, only – win of the season in the process.
The tactical switch was brought about as much through a sheer lack of alternatives to Benteke than any long-term vision, but it has led to a more dynamic, unpredictable and dangerous Crystal Palace attack.
Having failed to score in seven league games prior to the change, Palace have since found the net four times in four matches – twice each against Chelsea and West Ham United. And, having previously won no points from a possible 21, they have picked up four from a possible 12.
The potency of the new front two is clear from those numbers. This is perhaps down to the fact that, while neither is considered a natural No.9, the movement, pace and skill of Zaha and Townsend gives the team options.
Against opponents who dominate possession, Crystal Palace now have a twin counter-attacking threat. The speed of both players means that they are viable outlets for direct balls over the top or in behind opposition defences, and it also makes them difficult to dispossess in attacking transitions.
Meanwhile, should they face up to a deeper defensive block, their aggressive dribbling, ability to take on and willingness to drop deep or wide to help progress attacks makes them tough to mark and stifle.
Zaha and Townsend have both attempted more shots per game than Benteke this season. They have also averaged more key passes, dribbles and have higher pass success percentages. In short, their all-round games are of a higher level.
If Crystal Palace are to survive in the Premier League once again, they may need to persist with their new-look strike pairing, even if it means leaving out last season’s top scorer.