Palace Pursuit of James McCarthy Drives at Heart of Tactical Issues

Written by Robert Sutherland

Crystal Palace have secured a new defensive midfielder. Rob takes a look at why that might be.


One of the overriding themes of last season appeared to be Palace's inability to create opportunities for Wilfried Zaha, Andros Townsend and the team's other attackers to take advantage of.Palace have a lot of attacking flair and skill but, last season, showed an inability to really take advantage of it.

The simple solution was to just play Max Meyer in that advanced midfield role; the complex question that followed however was how Palace would make that strong spine work when one of the key elements of it was being sacrificed for more adventurous forays forward. It was ultimately a decision Roy Hodgson was unwilling to take.

What Palace missed for most of last season wasn't really creativity, but tenacity. All too often Palace would flounder as opponents passed the ball around them. Even against Bournemouth, Brighton and Watford, sides equal in strength to Hodgson's team, that lack of driving power in the centre of the pitch showed.

While James McArthur is a highly capable ball carrier, he lacks that aggressive, snarling, hounding quality that a midfield terrier should have. It's all well and good having creative midfielders, but they become toothless if they don't get the ball. And in Meyer's case, the art of winning possession isn't his speciality.

In Luka Milivojevic, Palace have a midfielder who comes with a reputation for being a hard-man but his ability really lies in joining the defence to the midfield. Like McArthur and Meyer, that tenacity isn't really there. The fact also remains that for the club to really get the best out of the Serbian midfielder, depth is needed to ensure he gets rest at times when it matters. When performances weren't coming in the early stages of last season, it showed. Palace lacked options to pull him out of the firing line.

The answer appeared to be Cheikh Kouyate, who arrived at the start of last season, but the Senegal midfielder failed to make that kind of impact. In the more intense midfield battles, he often went missing. It was hoped that his signing would see Palace win the ball in central areas and for the team to drive forward with it. That vision wasn't realised however, and Kouyate very often slowed play down rather than sped it up.

The new hope is James McCarthy. The Everton midfielder ticks that tenacity box. He's unafraid of challenges, drives his team forward and controls the pace of the game. Palace haven't had that since Yohan Cabaye left so abruptly. Everton fans are both disappointed at his departure but willing him to do well at Palace.

That terrier-like quality doesn't come without dangers however, and McCarthy's injury record -- which has seen him feature in a very limited number of matches over the last two and a half years -- are a concern. The Ireland midfielder had looked like he'd made a full recovery from a nagging muscular injury -- apparently the result of poor management at international level -- only to have his leg broken by Salomon Rondon in a freak incident in his return to the Everton side in late in 2018.

It became clear over the course of last season that Hodgson's side lacked something in their midfield. The key to McCarthy succeeding isn't just his fitness but the necessity that he does what others have struggled to. To win the ball, keep it, and move it forward. A ball-winner doesn't just give the team a defensive quality, but an offensive one too. If the club really want to see what Meyer is capable of, he'll need more opportunities on the ball.

Some bite where it matters might just make Palace a more vicious opponent.