With arguably the best performance of the season, Town succumbed to a seasoned, slightly cynical Crystal Palace side buoyed by their talisman Zaha, who appears to be the difference between comfort and struggle. Other than the Ivorian, the South East Londoners look very ordinary and the home side should have buried them in a game they largely dominated.
It is, however, becoming an immutable law that if the Terriers don’t open the scoring, points are not accrued.
These two theories, Palace’s inevitable defeats without their Wilf, and Town’s huge vulnerability to going behind gathered more momentum at the end of a feisty affair with the home side bemoaning their luck as, once again, they fell on the wrong side of wafer thin margins.
Playing with greater intensity and pace than has been seen for some time, Town found their wingbacks with refreshing regularity – Lössl’s distribution was excellent at times and Kongolo’s range was just as impressive – though it was down their left, with Löwe and Van La Parra that they created most threat. The right side had similar service but largely failed to deliver.
Kachunga’s inclusion at the expense of Diakhaby was presumably to negate the threat of Zaha, but along with Hadergjonaj, they allowed Palace far too much freedom down the left and all of the visitors’ threat came down their flank, and this wasn’t limited to Palace’s main man.
The back three coped with Palace incursions reasonably comfortably however and Town were largely ascendant in a decent first half hour and should have been ahead 17 minutes in when a sublime cross field ball found the impressive Löwe. The German, progressive and combative throughout, delivered a perfect ball which left Hennessey in no man’s land and defenders caught ball watching but Mounié headed over when a goal looked inevitable.
Strikers are allowed to miss chances, of course, but at the elite level at which Town are trying to compete, misses like this one are cruelly punished. A goal at that stage would have transformed the outcome – as Palace were to prove, getting the first goal allows you to adapt to circumstances far more easily than when behind.
The defining ten minutes came close to the half hour mark. Schindler made a rare mistake which left his central defensive partner Zanka in trouble. Zaha nipped in to intercept the pass which had fallen short, prompting the Dane to instinctively bring down the winger with a poor challenge which deservedly brought a booking. This was not enough for his opponent who proceeded to throw a ridiculous tantrum, beating the floor in frustration, and carrying a visible red mist around for the next few minutes.
The subsequent free kick was weakly wasted, going straight through to Lössl, and Town worked their way down the right to Hadergjonaj who was upended by a late Zaha tackle which drew another deserved booking and the Palace bench demonstrating to their only hope to calm down.
Shaking off his strop for a few minutes, Zaha then demonstrated his immense quality with a run which seemed to mesmerise Hadergjonaj and Kachunga, neither of whom put in a challenge. Their dithering encouraged Zaha in to the area, where he couldn’t be touched, and he curled an excellent finish past Lössl for the all important lead.
For ten minutes, Town disintegrated. Their shape was lost, their passing became negligent and within minutes Zaha should have put the result beyond doubt rather than shooting tamely to enable Lössl to make a routine save.
As they settled down, Town finished the half strongly but the lack of composure and instinctive finishing in decent positions let them down, as it usually does. One excellent incursion saw the impressive Löwe find Van La Parra free on the left of the area only for the Dutchman to kill all momentum by receiving the ball stood still and destroying the chance to create an opportunity.
Van La Parra had a good first half – if anything, he had far more reason to complain about rough treatment than Zaha – but most of his good work disintegrates on contact with the penalty area.
Billing was also subject to persistent fouling – one particularly egregious, late challenge was far worse than Zanka’s – but he was influential, composed and effective. Alongside Mooy, who played well but made a couple of potentially costly errors in the second half, he is growing in stature and maturity.
A frantic second half saw Town relentlessly pressing for the equaliser and increasingly threatened by Palace counter attacks. Dominating possession and, on the whole, using it with intent rather than having it for its own sake, the hosts battered on the door for long periods and delivery in to the box improved substantially over the first half.
On the hour, a brilliantly contrived attempt by Mooy, brimming with technique, hit the inside of the post but bounced out. It rather summed up Town’s fortunes during the game – whatever good fortune was available seemed to favour the visitors, though they could point to several dangerous counter attacks which could have sealed the points. One of them saw Kongolo being given the benefit of the doubt as his telescopic legs wrapped around Ayew to stop him in the area.
Town created several moments of bagatelle in the Palace area which brought Hennessey in to action and a late Billing effort cannoned off a defender for a corner when it could have gone anywhere. The same player found the net but play had been halted for a foul in the area.
In and amongst the waves of offensive play, Palace infringements – by the unpunished Milivojevic in particular, who committed two fouls in the space of 30 seconds at one point – started to mount along with some fairly crude time wasting. It would be hypocritical to complain about the latter – we are rather good at it ourselves when needs be – but the addition of only 3 minutes injury time was baffling and the leniency of an indecisive and rather weak referee is a different matter. McArthur piled up a dive in the area and a couple of fouls before finally making it in to the referee’s book, and all of this was completely overlooked in favour of Zaha’s self pitying interview after the game.
Diakhaby replaced the energetic but rather limited Kachunga after 70 minutes and again showed that there is raw talent and pace to be polished over time – if anything, his introduction was 10 minutes too late. The brief cameo by Mbenza on the other side – Van La Parra having faded as the game went on – provided rather less comfort. He looked a little lost in possession and has yet to demonstrate he is ready to challenge on the left.
The baffling substitution, however, was to pair Depoitre and Mounié as Town went to a back four for the last 10 minutes. The ploy has never worked – to be fair, this latest attempt to defy experience wasn’t as starkly useless – and it left the more subtle skills of Pritchard again unused. After the performance of the team at Everton – and Pritchard’s unsuitability for Wagner’s formation of 3 at the back – it was no surprise to see him on the bench, but his ability to unpick mass defences was surely a better option than another battering ram?
Overall, however, there were reasonable grounds for some optimism in defeat. Several players performed very well, there was significantly more pace and purpose in attack and despite being exposed more than usual, the defence coped well – particularly Kongolo.
We lost because of moments not going our way. Mounié’s miss, the Mooy effort and the general run of the ball in the area in the second half, but Wagner has to find a way to inject clinical action in to his team – the lack of goals from open play is now at crisis point, if it wasn’t before now. With Spurs and Liverpool up next at home, the drought in front of their own supporters looks likely to continue.