If there’s anything that Sam Allardyce knows how to pull off routinely, apart from having breakfast and answering the nature’s call, it’s avoiding the drop zone of the Premier League.
So much so, that numerous floundering clubs have often resorted to hiring the former Limerick City boss in recent times.
But he had nowhere to hide on Sunday as his struggling Crystal Palace slumped to a fourth consecutive Premier League defeat.
The controversial Seamus Coleman goal left Palace reeling in the relegation zone, just one point off rock bottom Sunderland.
There was little that Big Sam could do to address the late blow, but it has left the Eagles in the thick of things down at the bottom of the league.
The downfall probably came much before ‘Big Sam’ took over the reins at Selhurst Park. From reaching the FA Cup final last season, to having accumulated the least amount of points in all of the four tiers of English football, the decline has been a rather substantial one.
Alan Pardew’s sacking three days before Christmas wasn’t too big a surprise, but their tally of just a single win in eleven outings was more than just disappointing for chairman Steve Parish.
Although Parish’s statement following Pardew’s dismissal did talk about “wind the dial back the other way”, as things stand the ‘dial’ remains set in the same position.
The promise that Sam brings with him upon joining a club that is lurking in the quagmire of dropping out is the one of shoring up the leaky defence.
Most notably at Sunderland he achieved this along with creating a tactical identity of defending deep and playing on the break, making the most of the pace that Wahbi Khazri and Yann M’Vila brought and allowing Jermaine Defoe more room to run into channels up front.
It was in this manner that the Black Cats had managed to overcome Chelsea, Everton and Norwich late in the season, not losing a single game in the last six outings.
Things though haven’t gone according to plan at Selhurst Park so far. Five games in, Palace have conceded nine goals. Apart from not winning a single Premier League game, the reason for Allardyce’s appointment hasn’t been fulfilled to any extent.
Under Pardew Palace had let in 34 in 17 games and the leaky defense had been a major cause for concern. Games such as those against Hull and Swansea were entertaining, but brought out the frailties at the back for a side that had conceded only one more goal than Liverpool last season.
Things have changed to some extent since then, but the departure of former skipper Mile Jedinak has meant that Big Sam doesn’t have a player in the mould of Lee Cattermole to shield the backline.
The Englishman had become a vital aspect of Sunderland’s survival last season, alongside winter signing Jan Kirchhoff. The duo sat deep, recovered balls in the heart of the park and distributed it forward.
It was the influence of Cattermole that, above all, always seemed to rally the players on and listen to the prominent voice that he has. Jedinak had played a similar role at Palace during his five year stay at the club before sealing a rather surprising move to the relegated Aston Villa.
The Aussie had the imposing presence to organize the backline, if not just the players around him.
The possessor of a calm head and a pair of well-sorted feet, Jedinak’s departure has probably affected them in a manner that no one had even realised, until now. He broke up play, allowed the likes of Wilf Zaha, Bakary Sako and Jason Puncheon the room to fly forward with purpose.
James McArthur may have racked up five goals from that position, but neither he, nor Yohan Cabaye or Joe Ledley have donned the role that Jedinak played.
Scott Dann, who had probably become Palace’s most important player over the past two seasons, has faded into mediocrity this season. And with that, talks of the Liverpool-born defender have subsided considerably and his drop in form has affected Palace rather substantially.
Not just him, but summer signing James Tomkins has underperformed too. Another one of those who have often been tipped to earn an England call-up, Tomkins has endured an injury stricken stint so far and they have had an impact on how he has fared.
The recent shift to a back-three that saw Damien Delaney start alongside both Tomkins and Dann didn’t work out too well.
Everton had nineteen shots on target in their 1-0 win and the Toffees probably deserved the late goal more than anything else.
New acquisition Jeffrey Schlupp made a debut at left-wingback, after ‘The Eagles’ had to make do with a makeshift backline in almost every alternate game, if not every single one.
The manager has already highlighted the need to address the defensive problems in press-conferences, with the apparent capture of Arsenal right-back Carl Jenkinson beckoning. And there is an immediate need to bring in reinforcements.
Sunderland’s Patrick van Aanholt is another one of those who is being tipped to seal a switch to Selhurst Park, but it’s probably at centre-back that they need a bit more of depth.
Sunderland would well have been in the Championship right now, if not for Lamine Kone’s impressive performances at centre-back. No one has, at Palace, shown the similar amount of energy and hunger at the back.
Andros Townsend is one of those who is being linked with a move away. While Newcastle are quite keen on signing the former Tottenham man, but the sale could be disastrous for the men in red and blue.
Apart from Zaha, who is on AFCON duties, there is hardly anyone in there who brings the electric pace and directness to compliment the imposing Christian Benteke.
The big Belgian could play an important role in survival when the end of the campaign approaches and the former Liverpool man could do the same job that Defoe did for the Black Cats.
While attack is a secondary priority, the top drawer one pertains to the defence. It has been the most important feature of Allardyce’s sides that have avoided relegation.
One point in five games and a replay win over Bolton in the FA Cup isn’t too gratifying if you’re an Eagles fan. And Big Sam has a gargantuan job on its hands at South-East London, probably the toughest one he has faced in his career.