Success at the highest levels of professional sport is invariably not so much about the big details, the ones everyone can see, but the small ones that often go unnoticed by the casual observer.
When British Cycling, almost out of nowhere, emerged to dominate the sport’s many Olympic events—starting with small breakthroughs at the Sydney Games in 2000, before reaching a breathtaking peak in near-domination eight years later in Beijing—much was made of how they had got there.
While the building of a state-of-the-art velodrome in Manchester, coupled with a huge boost in National Lottery funding, undoubtedly created a platform for success and an environment where competitive athletes could be produced, it was widely accepted that it was the focus on small details (typified best by the role of a director whose job title was literally “Head of Marginal Gains”) that turned Sir Chris Hoy, Laura Trott et al into the world’s best.
In football, the attraction to the big details—the managerial changes, the blockbuster signings—is so large that, understandably, they tend to overshadow everything else. But invariably it is the supposed ‘lesser’ aspects, from tactics and team spirit to preparation and organisation, that separate teams of otherwise comparable talent over the course of a season.
Newly-promoted Crystal Palace entered the Premier League this season at a significant disadvantage—both in terms of the quality at their disposal, and the time in which they had to improve it.
They were already resigned to the loss of Wilfried Zaha, the most talented player of their successful Championship campaign, as he finally joined up with Manchester United after they bought him in January, and, having beaten Watford in the final game of the English domestic season to reach the promised land, they also had a shorter time than any of their rivals to prepare for the challenge they have now faced.
Much was made of the need to reinforce the squad but deals did not come initially, with the record-breaking acquisition of Dwight Gayle from Peterborough overshadowing the general lack of spending elsewhere.
The way the club’s hierarchy tells it, however, their approach actually solidified into something quite logical after those first few weeks of trial by fire.
"What we realised two thirds of the way through the window was if we had a team that would terrify the Championship we'd have a team with a decent chance of survival in the Premier League,” Palace co-chairman Steve Parish told a local radio station, HOL Radio, this week.
“And if we get relegated—which isn't something we want to do or are planning for, we want to try and stay up—but if we did we would have a team that's going to stay.”
If this was the approach, it kicked into overdrive as the deadline approached. By the time the window shut on Monday, Palace had signed more players (15) than any other Premier League club managed in the window.
Most fitted the description outlined by Parish—proven to be effective at Championship or equivalent level, but generally patchy evidence that they possessed true top-flight pedigree.
Nevertheless, it soon became clear the approach was not brilliantly executed. By the time manager Ian Holloway announced his official 25-man squad (as per Premier League rules) 48 hours later, two players that had only been signed only weeks prior (full-back Florian Marange and forward Stephen Dobbie—although Dobbie technically signing his deal just before the play-off final) were left out.
With Palace already out of the Capital One Cup after a defeat to Bristol City, neither player will now be able to play a competitive game for the club until January (the same goes for squad longer-term club members Aaron Wilbraham and Owen Garvan—who did not take his omission well).
Considering Palace’s chequered financial history, fans should surely be somewhat aggrieved to see the nonsensical way a chunk of money (although hopefully not a future-damaging amount) has been wasted.
Dobbie—whose recent career has been defined by managers deeming him not up to the required standard of the Premier League—should surely never have been signed with Palace on the verge of that nirvana, while it is almost nonsensical that 27-year-old Marange (brought in on the day of Palace’s first league game) will be paid to spend over four months with nothing to do at weekends.
Considering Palace bought another full-back, Jack Hunt, days before the window closed and subsequently included him among their 25, it is hard to escape the impression there was little forward-thinking when it came to signing players.
One player was signed to fill a need, then a better one in the same position was found … so he was also signed, even though it rendered the first signing obsolete (the late nature of Palace’s deals—five came in the final 24 hours, adds to this interpretation).
“It was all a little bit last minute and a bit mad … but I’m delighted with the players we’ve brought in,” Holloway’s assistant, Keith Millen, told Five Year Plan, the Crystal Palace fanzine.
“We’ve added some quality to the squad, as there was more competition needed in the squad."
He added, "The trouble is you’ve got to work with the 25 man squad until January. Of course players will be disappointed as they have worked hard to get into the team but you can only name 25. That’s the reality of it and unfortunately some will miss out."
Holloway’s Premier League pedigree is very much in the eye of the beholder; do you point excitedly to his sparkling start to Blackpool’s solitary top-flight campaign three years ago, or do you fret over the terrible second half of the campaign that saw them relegated on the last day?
The interpretation is relevant, because Holloway has seemingly not erred far from the formula he used in that 2010-11 foray. Palace’s defence looks as threadbare as Blackpool’s options of that year (Adrian Mariappa, signed from Reading on Monday, instantly became the Eagles' best centre-back), while the attacking ranks are stocked with players who have been inconsistent when playing at higher levels.
The club, too, seem without obvious star quality. Despite their rampant summer activity Palace’s best players remain Mile Jedinak and Joel Ward, two men signed under Holloway’s predecessor, Dougie Freedman, for a relative pittance.
While Freedman’s name is mud around Selhurst Park these days due to the perception the club hero “betrayed” the Eagles to move to Bolton (a version of events disputed in some quarters), it is tempting to wonder what invention the Scot (who also signed Yannick Bolasie and Andre Moritz, both productive in Palace’s promotion campaign) might have shown in the transfer market, with Premier League football as a particularly large carrot to dangle.
Holloway has never traded on his transfer market prowess, however—his stock-in-trade during his top-flight adventure with Blackpool was as an inspiration, building a spirit and unity that could take a team further than one talented individual.
Now he says he is also better tactically, having learned from that experience.
"I think every year of your life you should learn and think about what you have learnt over and over again to improve yourself," he told Sky Sports on the eve of the new season.
"I have got a different group of players at a different club but hopefully my experience in this can help everyone around me.
"I need to give them tactics that I have picked up along the way that might stop some of these teams who have got technically better players."
These are the small details. These are the ones that will likely decide whether Palace will finally stay longer than one season in the Premier League—having been relegated on all four previous visits.
If Holloway manages it, he will rightfully be lauded as a mastermind.
But if he doesn't, it will be tempting to wonder if the hectic summer transfer activity was only symptomatic of deeper problems with organisation and preparation.