How Crystal Palace’s mavericks can disrupt Pep Guardiola’s uber-organised Man City to extend unlikely run

·3-min read
Crystal Palace have enjoyed a fine start to the season  (Getty Images)
Crystal Palace have enjoyed a fine start to the season (Getty Images)

In an alternate universe, where Steve Parish decided to fuse his south London football club with a US sports franchise, the Palace Mavericks would have a nice ring to it.

A proliferation of pure ballers has long been central to the Eagles’ identity, carriers of chaos, swagger and flair that offer some connection - perceived or genuine - to the pitches and cages now so regularly recognised as the proverbial hotbed of footballing talent in the club’s catchment area.

It is not a new phenomenon (think back to the days of Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha operating in tandem under Ian Holloway) but it is certainly one Patrick Vieira has embraced, the Frenchman’s transformation of Palace’s playing style since his appointment last year heavily reliant on the thrilling skill and energy of of Zaha, Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise and Conor Gallagher.

Olise made his first start of this season in the midweek Carabao Cup victory over Oxford United after a foot injury, while neither Parish nor Vieira have quite given up hope of luring Chelsea midfielder Gallagher back to Selhurst Park before next week’s transfer deadline.

But in the absence of that pair, Eze and Zaha have each been magnificent in turning what looked a daunting start to the new campaign into a hugely encouraging one for the Eagles, playing starring roles in the draw at Anfield and dominant victory over Aston Villa that followed the opening night defeat to Arsenal.

That is bad news for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, who host Palace on Saturday afternoon in a fixture they have won just once in the last four seasons.

How much the perennial presence of such maverick talents has, over the years, contributed to making the Eagles such a consistent thorn in Manchester City’s side is difficult to quantify, but watching Alain Saint-Maximin - perhaps the Premier League’s most Palace player not already playing for Palace - run riot for Newcastle last weekend, it was not difficult to imagine Eze and Zaha wreaking similar havoc.

It is well established that Guardiola is a coach who, for all his era-shaping devotion to progressive football, places extraordinary value on system and control. It is fair to wonder, for instance, whether Zaha could ever have been allowed the freedom to flourish in a Guardiola side. Certainly, Jack Grealish, cut from similar cloth, has not yet.

Former loanee Conor Gallagher spearheaded Palace’s win at Man City last season (Getty Images)
Former loanee Conor Gallagher spearheaded Palace’s win at Man City last season (Getty Images)

Unpredictability is Guardiola’s kryptonite and games devoid of structure almost invariably showcase the vulnerabilities in his all-conquering sides.

The caveat, as seems to be the case with every existing City weaknesses, is the arrival of Erling Haaland, whose unmatchable running and ruthlessness in transition makes the champions better suited to exploiting the type of hectic, basketball-style passages that almost proved their undoing at St James’ Park.

As the Mavericks head to what has been a strangely happy hunting ground, they, like all-comers this season, will have to beware the threat of the home team’s power forward - but can do so knowing they carry plenty of their own.