Until a month ago, it seemed that Sam Allardyce was not the man to steer Crystal Palace to safety. After embarrassing losses, such as a 3-0 drubbing at the Olympic Stadium against West Ham United and a 4-0 capitulation at home against bottom team Sunderland, it seemed that club chairman, Steve Parish, had picked the wrong man to steer Palace to away from relegation.
That 4-0 loss against Sunderland, ironically, proved to be Palace’s turning point. The Eagles reacted with four wins on the bounce, even putting down Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Most recently, the club battled back to earn a point against rejuvenated champions Leicester City and humiliated Arsenal with a 3-0 victory, in which the Allardyce’s outfit dominated the pitch all over.
The change has been a drastic one. Before the South Londoners turned it around they looked hapless. The players seemed scared to play in front of their home crowd, players were wildly devoid of confidence, and Hull and Swansea seemed to be picking up steam, leaving Palace behind.
The resurgent Eagles’ improvement, however, can be best traced to the January signings Sam Allardyce made. Luka Milivojevic and Mamadou Sakho have been revelations at Selhurst park as they’ve solidified the back line giving attacking players like Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye, and Wilfried Zaha freedom and confidence.
It takes about ten minutes of watching Milivojevic play to see the hole in the Palace midfield that he filled – a hole caused by the phasing out of club legend Mile Jedinak under Alan Pardew. His athleticism, aggression, and work rate are very similar to that of the Palace’s ex-captain. James McArthur, for all his ability, was not able to cover the back four in the same way as Jedinak. Milivojevic has done such a good job shielding Palace’s defence that he has replaced McArthur in the starting 11.
The key distinction between Milivojevic and Jedinak is the former’s prowess and dynamism going forward. He has the ability to thread better forward passes, thus releasing wingers or playing Yohan Cabaye into the pocket.
The common criticism for Jedinak as his time at Palace drew to a close was that his passing was sloppy and ineffective. In 2015/2016, after 27 appearances in the Premier League, Mile Jedinak created just eight goal-scoring opportunities, per Squawka. Luka Milivojevic, on the other hand, has created four-goal scoring chances in his seven opening appearances for the Eagles.
Milivojevic, and his ability to screen the back four, have relieved the defensively frail, but creative, Yohan Cabaye, allowing him to play further up the pitch and feed the wingers.
The other significant signing Allardyce made in January, that has helped transform Palace, is none other than Mamadou Sakho. The assertive French centre-back has already established himself as a cult hero at Selhurst Park with his impenetrable defensive displays and enthusiasm for the club.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, the Frenchman said, when asked about staying at Palace, “I’m happy, I feel good here.” That happiness and confidence which has enamored fans are clear on the pitch with the defensive performances of the Liverpool loanee.
Sakho has organized and galvanized strong performances from the Palace defense. The Frenchman had his debut against Middlesbrough, when the Eagles bounced back from their 4-0 embarrassment against Sunderland, with a 1-0 win. In Sakho’s six matches, Palace have won five.
Allardyce’s loan capture of Sakho was a masterstroke it seems. With a point to prove to Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, resentment from ten months out of football after being wrongfully investigated for doping, and a desire to return to the French national team, Sakho has relished his opportunity to play in South London and his mindset has been a perfect match at Palace.
These two signings had a strong effect on the rest of the team. Players who had been under-performing, such as Joel Ward, Yohan Cabaye, and Wayne Hennesey, have found a way to turn around their performances in the presence of new recruits.
Sam Allardyce knows how to avoid relegation with smart investments in the January transfer window, such as when he lured Jermaine Defoe to Sunderland last season to steer the Black Cats to safety. He seems to have done something similar at Palace this season.