When this season kicked off, with Crystal Palace spending significantly and Tony Pulis bemoaning his own club's lack of investment, Palace fans looked on with some glee. Pulis, a manager who had previously secured an unlikely Premier League reprieve with a Palace side less talented than the current one, walked out of Selhurst Park in a controversial manner just days before the 2014-15 season began. Palace had outspent Pulis' West Bromwich Albion this summer, an indicator to many fans at the time of what a foolish decision that had been.
Move forward to March 2017 however and the tables have significantly turned. Palace languish in the bottom three, needing wins from as many games as possible. Pulis, somewhat surprisingly, leads his eighth-placed West Brom side into the fixture with the possibility of collecting the club's highest points total at this stage of a season and on course to beat their previous top-flight record total of 49 points. Whether by choice or by circumstance, Pulis did at West Brom what Palace arguably failed to do -- build a tight unit of players who all know their roles.
Palace have a talented side. But that side, for all of its quality, lacked the cohesion to dig itself out of problems. With every goal conceded, heads dropped further. With every misplaced pass, the anxiety that started setting in took a further, more suffocating grip. Organisation would have given the players something to fall back on. A structure from which to build.
But under Alan Pardew, that understanding was sacrificed for what was argued to be creative verve. There was little doubt that Palace had an attacking style, but it completely lacked a defensive solidity to rely upon. Whether it was a tactical decision to forgo those duties or not, it set in a rot that could still have damaging consequences.
The appointment of Sam Allardyce, and the implementation of his methods, hasn't been smooth. The narrow defeat to Swansea and heavy capitulation to Sunderland will rankle with the manager for some time. But with the addition of Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic to the side, there are signs of a backbone returning. Last time out, Palace looked more fluid, more in control and less willing to give up time or space to the opposition. They also didn't suffer their typical slow start but pressed high up the field and ensured that they set the agenda. It might only have come against a goal-shy Middlesbrough side, but it was positive.
A solitary win amid a season of defeats is no real indicator of a corner being turned -- the January win over Bournemouth ahead of the Sunderland ransacking being proof enough of that -- but the tactics, and the approach that Palace's players took, was positively different against Boro. And where previously the side might have wilted against the pressure in the second half, this time they stood firm.
Allardyce spoke prior to the Boro game of the difficulty in getting players to adapt to his ideas. Previous results supported that notion. Where Allardyce has previously had a record of success with struggling teams, Palace failed to respond to his introduction. Since his arrival in December, Palace have collected just seven points.
The style with which he has managed previously didn't seem to take hold in the way it did at previous stops Sunderland or West Ham. Palace continued to try to play their own way -- much to his frustration and the club's detriment. Recent performances, bar the Sunderland defeat, have indicated a change in approach among the players. More wins like the Boro one would improve the squad's belief in his tactics and outlook. It might not always be pretty but as his record proves, it's definitely effective.
Palace are unlikely to change their side significantly for Saturday's trip to The Hawthorns. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey will line up with James Tomkins and Sakho in front of him. Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt should feature on the flanks of the defence.
Midfield could be one area where a change might take place. Allardyce might consider the more terrier-like qualities of James McArthur over Jason Puncheon. They would be line up alongside Yohan Cabaye and Milivojevic.
In attack, Palace must persist with the wing pairing of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, both of whom had decent performances against Boro. Striker Christian Benteke will no doubt play the lone striker role. The Belgian has shown frustration in recent weeks at his lack of goals -- lashing out at Townsend on Saturday after the winger failed to pass it to him.
Palace must attempt to build some form in the next few weeks. A trip to the West Midlands is never an easy one, but if Palace are to mount any kind of survival bid, it's games like this that they have to get results from.