In the end, Roy Hodgson was left on Friday night facing the one thing that makes him bristle more than any other: statistics about Wilfried Zaha and Crystal Palace’s proficiency when left to play without him.
The 2-0 defeat by Newcastle, sealed courtesy of two late sucker punches from Callum Wilson and Joelinton, made it 15 losses from the last 17 Premier League games in which the Ivorian has been missing.
Hard to ignore, but not the root of the problem. Zaha’s ability would be a miss for any side, but it is his confidence Palace miss most when the 28-year-old is unavailable. Hodgson has the talent at his disposal to win without Zaha, most of them just lack the same conviction.
The former England manager put another sluggish start - just as he had witnessed at Burnley on Monday, where an early goal proved a setback Palace could not overcome - down to nerves back at Selhurst Park.
“An awareness that after a negative result we really need to use home advantage against Newcastle to put that right,” said Hodgson. “I'm certain there's a degree of nervousness involved in that but this is part and parcel of football. You play 38 games a year and each one throws up challenges that you have to overcome as a player. You can't use it as an excuse.”
Palace did look nervous early on. Passes were rushed and it took almost half an hour to get some semblance of composure and a spell of possession going, but even then the Eagles were playing within themselves.
Jeffrey Schlupp was working hard to lead the line and stretch the Newcastle defence, but Jordan Ayew - his strike partner - is not suited to such a role and never looks too sure of the right move at the right time when played through the middle.
A plan appears to be lacking, and another stat - sorry, Roy - shows just how uncomfortable Palace can be in their own skin. Opta revealed after the game that Palace have lost each of their last seven Premier League games in which they've had at least 50 per cent possession, scoring only once from 87 shots during that run.
“The first half was poor,” said Hodgson. "I thought it was poor in the sense that the quality of our play wasn't good enough, we didn't move the ball quick enough and we didn't look to get in behind enough.”
Changes in the second half improved things. Hodgson introduced Christian Benteke, reduced to slim pickings from the bench so far this season but with a point to prove, earlier than many expected and the Belgian had an instant impact. Whereas Ayew shies away from leading the line, Benteke is at home.
The former Aston Villa man still struggles to know where the goal is, but those around him are emboldened by his presence - they have someone to play off who can create the space for them to flourish. Benteke’s introduction dragged Palace some 10 yards further forward and sparked their best spell of the game.
Jairo Riedewald was also sent on, far more confident and energetic in possession than either James McArthur or Cheikhou Kouyate. It was maybe - Hodgson conceded - his attempts to win the game which ended up opening the door to lose it, but in the ten minutes before Newcastle’s first goal, it was Palace that looked the more likely.
It was that spell which showed what this side can do when the conviction and will is there, even if Zaha isn’t. 90 minutes, even 45, playing like that and Palace would have got something, likely all three points. But now, off the back of two performances where they’ve realised what they’re capable of far too late, Hodgson sits staring at six points lost.
“We believe there is a lot of quality in our team,” he said. “In the last two games we haven't produced that quality often enough, we haven't asked enough questions of our two opponents, both of whom are in the same ballpark in the League as we are.
“To lose six points, in that way, against these two teams... it would be hard enough if these two defeats had come against Liverpool and Manchester City. To come against two teams that we know are going to be fighting with us to make certain their League status is secured at the end of the season makes it a little harder to take.”
All being well, Zaha will be back again when the Eagles travel to West Brom next weekend and so we’ll have to wait a little longer to see if this week has taught them how to win without him.
Hodgson - who took aim at his players far more directly than usual on Friday night - will have learned a thing or two about those who will line up with the Ivorian next weekend, and ought to stick with those who have the ambition and conviction to match their talisman.
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