Roy Hodgson's ideas sticking, yielding impressive results at Crystal Palace
Roy Hodgson inherited a mess. When he arrived at Crystal Palace in September, this was not so much a struggling football team as a club engaged in an existential crisis.
Frank de Boer's ill-conceived tenure had lasted just four games, Palace had no points, no goals and were about to face both Manchester clubs. By the time those fixtures were negotiated, they were bottom of the Premier League after seven games, with nothing tangible to show for 630 minutes of football.
Only one other team in Premier League history had lost their first seven games of a season: Portsmouth's 2009-10 campaign was filled with turmoil both on and off the pitch, and they never rose off the bottom of the table. In short, things didn't look good. But now they're 14th in the table: not safe by any means, but on the way to it.
You could point to the game after that pair of Manchester fixtures as the turning point, when they brilliantly beat defending champions Chelsea 2-1. "I don't think there are season starting moments," said Hodgson afterwards. "I think it's very important that we don't start thinking that there are epiphany moments."
Perhaps not, but a crucial element to consider, when one knows a little about Hodgson's methods, was that it came immediately after an international break. That left Hodgson with the better part of two weeks to work with his squad --minus six senior players away with their country's national teams -- to instil his methods and way of playing. This has been the key to Hodgson's success throughout his career.
Brian McBride was part of the Fulham team that Hodgson took over in 2008, when they were similarly floundering and heading for relegation. "The style and his ideas he had to implement right away," McBride tells ESPN. "The problem that he had was that he didn't know any of us, but he had to implement his ideas, so training was very regimented, very tactical, not many games played. It was all about getting his ideas across.
"In the beginning, we thought 'this is monotonous', but we didn't really understand he was trying to get us to all understand each other."
Palace didn't start shooting up the table immediately after the Chelsea win -- indeed, they didn't win any of their next five games, including a 4-1 defeat to Bristol City in the Carabao Cup -- so perhaps in one respect Hodgson was right. But the improvement since has been stark
"Mine is a simple message," Hodgson said recently. "If you work hard on the training field and take that very seriously, the chances are that will transfer to the pitch. I didn't have any trouble persuading the players of that."
That chimes with McBride's experience. "He rarely over-thinks things," the former U.S. striker says. "For him to succeed, he needs the full backing of the players --not just verbally, but everything. He had that with us, he had that at West Brom, I'm not so sure at Liverpool. His knowledge of the game is superb."
Of course, a big reason for their recent success might be that they weren't actually that bad in the first place. Those that watched the early games under De Boer will tell you that Palace weren't quite as awful as results suggested.
But Hodgson's impact has been clear, and his methods have very much taken hold by now. They've lost just one of their last 11, and that was to Arsenal, and they came as close as any domestic team to beating Manchester City. In the 15 games from the Chelsea win, they've collected 22 points: extrapolated over 38 games, that would have been enough to finish eighth last season.
Arguably the most impressive of those wins was away to Southampton, which came two days after the City game. In the first half, Palace looked exactly like a team who had gone 12 rounds with the best side in Europe 48 hours earlier, but after the break they recovered and were superb, constant waves of attacking threat, naturally spearheaded by Wilfried Zaha.
Hodgson has sometimes used Zaha in a more central role, particularly when playing on the counterattack, giving him more opportunities to create chaos. Zaha is one of those attackers who you can almost see defenders flinching when he runs at them. His liberation in the last couple of seasons has been exhilarating: this is very much the player Manchester United thought they were buying in 2013.
"The big question for me," said Hodgson recently, discussing Zaha's fine form, "is how long can he keep this going? Keep giving performances like that, week-after-week, with very little break in between, it amazes me. I can only hope he can keep it going."
Arguably the most impressive achievement of Hodgson's tenure has been getting a tune out of Bakary Sako. In his previous two seasons at Palace, Sako was primarily known for running quite quickly in straight lines and kicking the ball very hard, often not in the right direction, but he's now scored three times in his last six games. At the very least, he has at least become a viable option rather than a liability.
It's also worth noting that Palace are succeeding without an effective centre-forward: since returning from injury in November Christian Benteke has looked nothing like the player he can be, utterly bereft of confidence and snatching at chances. That was presumably why he demanded that penalty against Bournemouth, a sort of act of bravado designed to shock himself back into form. Top of the list for recruits this month must be another striker.
That might be made more tricky by the state of everything else. Injuries have cut deep into a shallow Palace squad: Jason Puncheon and Scott Dann are both out for the season, Andros Townsend and Jeffrey Schlupp limped away from the FA Cup tie against Brighton, while Joel Ward, Mamadou Sakho, Connor Wickham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are also injured.
That raises the question of whether this revival can continue. This is only a job half-done, but it's a job that Roy Hodgson has half-done very well.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.