Crystal Palace were in trouble – they were without a win in 2023, and that ultimately cost manager Patrick Vieira his job.
The main reason? Inconsistent team selection, all too often picking the wrong players or the correct players in the wrong positions.
Palace sat 12th in the Premier League when Vieira was sacked, but that provides false security on the surface as they were just four points above bottom club Southampton.
So what went wrong for Vieira, and how can his successor, the returning Roy Hodgson, steer the Eagles clear of relegation?
The front four – the right players, but wrong positions?
The Eagles have an impressive calibre of attacking talent in their ranks, with a particular quartet the subject of much fan clamour.
Statistically, the front four of Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise, and Odsonne Edouard helped Palace to more points, more chances created and more goals scored this season under Vieira.
The team won six games under Vieira all season, three in five when all four started, and three in 23 when at least one did not.
Palace scored six goals in those five games, averaging 1.2 goals per game, compared to 16 in the other 23, at 0.7 per game.
Vieira’s team lost 11 of the other 23, leaving them securing just 18 points – 0.8 per game.
With a front four of Zaha, Eze, Olise and Edouard, Palace have a perfect attacking quartet.
Zaha on the left would see the responsibility that so often burdens him eased from his shoulders, with Eze in the middle as the playmaker.
Olise, drifting infield, would supply dangerous, in-swinging crosses towards Edouard, who, in turn, would be granted better service as a result.
Well-known Tik Tok creator and Palace fan Ollie Thomas (@talkcrystalpalace) was stunned, but hardly surprised, when presented with the statistical evidence.
He said: “The numbers are crazy.
“Everyone has been crying out for that front four. I completely agree, and any Palace fan would too.
“A lot of it is because Vieira didn’t think Eze is what we need in that position, perhaps he doesn’t work hard enough compared to Conor Gallagher.
“Perhaps he wants someone similar to Gallagher, and hence he plays Jeff Schlupp instead, who I’ve actually got a bigger problem with.
“Vieira backed Schlupp and Jordan Ayew’s defensive output, and worried that without them, we concede too many goals.
“I completely disagree with that. Ayew is a good team player who works hard and tracks back, but in reality, he doesn’t offer much at either end.
“But even a lot of the time, when three of the four are playing, they’re all in different positions and you then think that he’s playing all the right players, just in the wrong positions.
“It was like Vieira was overthinking things too much and it smacked of a lack of trust in a lot of the players.
“There appeared to be agendas and opinions that he refused to budge on.
“It all boils down to simple stuff. If one berth is a player’s best position, play them there!”
The right wing – Ayew or Olise?
The stats also indicate that playing Ayew on the right side hindered Palace.
Ayew has scored just once in the league this season, and that came at Bournemouth playing as a striker.
Olise, meanwhile, has scored one of his two league goals off the right, chipping in with four assists to Ayew’s one from that position.
The underlying numbers reinforce that, as Ayew has created 12 chances in that position, registering more touches and passes, but Olise has created 28 opportunities, even taking nearly triple the number of shots from similar positions to the Ghanaian.
Thomas said: “That is shocking from Ayew. It’s incredible that he’s only had eight shots playing off the right.
“I remember him scoring against Bournemouth, and it was his third goal in 100 games. He played up top for a lot of those.
“I get what Ayew brings to a team, and he’s really good to bring on at the end of the game to hold the ball up and win fouls.
“But when you’re chasing a game, he is completely pointless. It’s astonishing.
“I remember his one assist, against Chelsea, and it was an unbelievable cross. I thought, ‘Where the hell has that come from?’. He’s never come close to recreating that in ages.”
Last weekend saw Hodgson win the first game of his Selhurst return 2-1 against Leicester City.
After concern from the fanbase around his playstyle, Hodgson caused real surprise with his attacking intent, lining up with the favoured front four, and reaping the rewards.
Palace had 31 shots to Leicester’s three, 10 corners to one, and picked up their seventh win of the season.
Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel after all.