Palace expectations must be measured
One of the more ignominious 100 percent records is no longer. Crystal Palace had played in four previous Premier League campaigns; each ended with demotion. When the Eagles' first 10 games last season produced a mere three points, it seemed the most humiliating relegation of all beckoned. They seemed destined for the division's hall of shame.
Instead, the campaign concluded with rare success and belated recognition. Twenty-two years into a managerial career of unrelenting graft, Tony Pulis, despite his trademark tracksuit and baseball cap, finally became fashionable. He was named the Premier League manager of the year. He had transformed a team using traditional principles: organisation and determination, set-piece expertise and defensive resolve. It wasn't rocket science. It was hugely effective.
All of which presents Pulis with a problem: How do he and Palace top that? While they may have averaged 1.46 points per game under the Welshman last season -- a marked improvement on his previous best in the top flight, 1.23 -- and while they were conceding less than a goal per game (until they became carefree at the end of the campaign), history suggests they can't and they won't. Palace ended the season 11th, equaling Stoke's best finish under Pulis. Much as the dotted line separating fourth from fifth place represented a glass ceiling for David Moyes, so a top-half finish has consistently eluded Pulis. A study of the past brings a projection of a steady consolidation, rather than another meteoric rise.
The major difference with Pulis' past is that a season's fine results and clean sheets were compressed into two-thirds of a campaign after his November appointment. It is to his credit that they came, in many cases, with inferior players. Some were ill-suited to his style of football, the legacy of Ian Holloway's scattergun recruitment last summer. It exacerbates his achievement in taking a mismatched group to safety.
Now this is more recognisably a Pulis pool of players. He has shed some of those unsuited to his teams, like the diminutive Spanish midfielder Jose Campana. The process of upgrading the squad is a slower affair. Danny Gabbidon, Dean Moxey and Kagisho Dikgacoi made 65 Premier League starts last season between them and performed valiantly for Pulis, but were allowed to leave.
But while Pulis has a track record of signing late in a transfer window, Palace's exploits last season are yet to give them a greater pulling power. Their major arrivals thus far were relegated last season: Brede Hangeland with Fulham and Fraizer Campbell in the colours of Cardiff.
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A tall centre-back and a hard-running striker come straight out of the Pulis handbook. The latter has more significance -- it is almost a given that Palace will have a respectable defensive record. The anomaly last season was that while Pulis was touted for the managerial honours, he presided over what was, until the final fortnight, the lowest-scoring side in the country.
The reality is that no one has managed more than 11 Premier League goals in a season for one of his sides (Ricardo Fuller, in 2009-10, leads the scoring stakes). Campbell, whose work ethic earned him plaudits, mustered six for Cardiff. So did Marouane Chamakh, who was widely applauded for his Palace performances and has been re-signed after his loan spell. The impact substitute Dwight Gayle struck seven times. Without anyone proving more prolific, however, it is hard to see Palace progressing. They have to make comparatively few goals go a long way again.
If the mercurial Jason Puncheon provided the extra ingredient last season, Palace's other advantage lay in their ramshackle ground and its vocal occupants. They took 23 points in 13 home games under Pulis. Once again, Stoke provide a comparison. Home form was long a forte for them: When they first escaped the Championship, every game tended to be an event they savoured vociferously, whereas as they became accustomed to Premier League football, lesser games were no longer as loud. If the Palace fans can sustain the fervour that made Selhurst Park such an intimidating place to visit, it will help them extend their purple patch.
One of Pulis' feats last season was to produce a team that was greater than the sum of its parts. Estimable as Mile Jedinak and Julian Speroni in particular are, and cannily as he has recruited over two transfer windows, the probability is that Palace still rank among the least gifted groups in the division.
It is why too much should not be expected, and why their manager's record of never being relegated is so reassuring. Pulis has had six seasons in the Premier League. Each has ended with his sides placed between 11th and 14th. Should he maintain that remarkable consistency, Palace ought to consider that a success.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.