Jason Puncheon becomes Crystal Palace leader in relegation scrap
As Crystal Palace approach Sunday's crunch match against Hull City, the focus for Sam Allardyce will be for his players to keep their composure and their temperament throughout what will be a highly pressured occasion.
Assuming Swansea win at relegated Sunderland, Palace need at least a point to ensure their Premier League status next season. Hull would prefer a win to bring themselves closer to safety, but need at least a point to ensure their battle for Premier League survival goes to the final day. Depending on circumstances, Sunday's fixture could be challenging. It will need Palace's senior players to take a stand.
There is arguably no better player to do that than South Londoner Jason Puncheon. The midfielder, who grew up just a few minutes' walk from Selhurst Park, was made captain shortly after Allardyce's arrival, helping to guide the side through the tumultuous spell of wins against the division's top sides.
Puncheon's role at the club hasn't just changed with his captaincy. His playing position, which initially saw him signed by Ian Holloway as a winger, has gradually moved more central and into a contemporary midfield role. That move has been a gradual process and one which has led to some confusion about what his contribution should be.
While under Tony Pulis he often played on the wing and in a No.10 role, scoring a number of goals to keep Palace up, under Alan Pardew that responsibility gradually changed into one where he was often seen rotating in and out of the advanced attacking positions with fellow midfielder James McArthur. Although he scored two of Palace's most memorable goals last season, the winner against Norwich to confirm safety and the goal which put the club ahead in the FA Cup final at Wembley, his contribution in the quantity of goals scored could probably have been greater.
Allardyce's arrival has seen him take much less attacking responsibility, with the manager instead choosing to play him as an interceptor rather than a creator. His instructions appear to be to help Palace regain possession and to then transition it to some of the attacking players.
Yohan Cabaye, who under Pardew was considered a defensive midfielder, has been freed up to play a more advanced, box-to-box position, with Puncheon often dropping in deep to cover. It means that he doesn't get into as many offensive positions as fans are typically used to.
He hasn't scored a goal this season but his contribution as a leader in the side can't be underestimated. Puncheon is a communicative individual, guiding and instructing teammates throughout the match. Much of Palace's improved organisation has been tactical but Puncheon has clearly played a role in ensuring players know their positions and their responsibilities. It might not be as pretty a responsibility to have, but Puncheon is effective at it.
It's hoped the new leader will feature alongside Cabaye in midfield against Hull. The Frenchman has been out of the side through injury in recent weeks, leaving an obvious gap in Palace's midfield play.
Another player Allardyce will hope is fit is James Tomkins, who hasn't featured for Palace since the win over Liverpool due to an ankle injury. The defender's return would give Palace some much-needed reinforcement at centre-back following the brief experimentation with playing a left-back alongside Martin Kelly.
Meanwhile, Allardyce's remaining player selections are unlikely to be too challenging. He'll stick with Wayne Hennessey in goal, while it's likely that Patrick van Aanholt will take the left-back spot and Joel Ward will continue at right-back.
Palace's midfield will continue to be reinforced by Luka Milivojevic in a defensive role, while the attacking responsibilities will again fall upon Christian Benteke, Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha.
Guided by Puncheon, Palace must keep their shape, composure and critically their cool. Doing so should give the players a greater hope of securing survival.
Robert Sutherland is ESPN FC's Crystal Palace blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @RoDuSu.