England’s Euro 2020 campaign ended in heartbreak, as Gareth Southgate’s side suffered an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat by Italy in the final. The wait goes on for England to finally win a second major tournament following their success at the 1966 World Cup more than half a century ago.
The whole country was swept along on the journey as the Three Lions reached the final of the European Championship for the first time ever. For Eberechi Eze, the feeling might have been more bittersweet. His mind must have wandered to alternative realities in which he was playing an active role in the squad’s success. Sadly, though, that potential opportunity was snatched away from him in the cruellest of circumstances. On the same day in May that Eze learned he had been included in Southgate’s preliminary squad for the tournament, the youngster ruptured his Achilles and was ruled out until 2022.
It was a terrible way to end what had been a superb season. The 23-year-old arrived at Selhurst Park in the summer of 2020 for a fee of around £17m. It was an exciting signing for Palace fans, particularly as the club has tended to focus on acquiring more experienced professionals in recent years. Younger talents like Michael Olise and Marc Guehi have since followed Eze through the entrance door, but the former Queens Park Rangers man was the first symbol of Palace’s new recruitment strategy.
Hopes were high – and for good reason. Eze had been excellent for QPR in 2019/20, earning a place in the PFA Team of the Season for the Championship and challenging eventual winner Luke Ayling for the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year prize. A move to the Premier League seemed inevitable, and it was Palace who won the race for his signature.
Eze had to be patient at the start of last term. He was not an obvious fit for a team managed by Roy Hodgson, who tends to favour structure and organisation over free-spirited improvisation. Hodgson had also settled on a 4-4-2 formation in which there was no room for a No.10, the role that Eze is most suited to.
Still, the then-22-year-old was handed his debut on the opening day, entering the fray as an 81st-minute substitute in the 1-0 victory over Southampton. Eze again appeared as a substitute in the 3-1 defeat of Manchester United, before being handed his first Premier League start for the visit of Everton to Selhurst Park in late September.
The right-footed Eze was deployed on the left of midfield in that game. He was given license to drift into central areas when Palace had the ball, and you could already see his desire to take up smart positions between the lines. There were also plenty of chances to link up with Wilfried Zaha, who continued to move out wide despite his role up front in a 4-4-2. When Palace lost the ball, Eze was expected to drop back with the rest of the midfield – a function he fulfilled with discipline and diligence.
The majority of his outings in 2020/21 came in this left-sided role. He made two appearances as a No.10 and six more in central midfield, usually alongside two other players in the engine room. There was also a solitary appearance on the right-hand side of the midfield.
One of Eze’s standout performances of the campaign came in the 4-1 win against Leeds United in November, which was arguably Palace’s most impressive result of the 2020/21 season. Eze’s whipped corner supplied the assist for the opening goal, headed home by Scott Dann, and he then scored the second with a sumptuous free-kick. It was not just about set-pieces, though: Eze’s showing in open play was also excellent, as Palace ran riot against Marcelo Bielsa’s side. Indeed, this was Leeds’ joint-second heaviest defeat of a terrific first season back in the top tier.
Eze also dazzled in the comfortable 2-0 victory over Sheffield United, as Palace began the new calendar year by adding three more points to their tally. He did not actually start the match but was brought on early when Jeff Schlupp was forced off through injury. On the stroke of half-time, Eze picked up the ball inside his own half of the field and embarked on a slaloming run right up to the edge of the Sheffield United box, before calmly passing the ball into the bottom corner of the net. The sensational solo effort later won Palace’s Goal of the Season award.
It was a goal that said a lot about the type of player that Eze is. Although he covered a large amount of ground and weaved past several opponents, the attacking midfielder never broke out into a sprint. Eze looked in full control of the situation as he sauntered up the pitch; there was no sense of him being hurried or letting himself down with a poor touch that would end the move. He ran with his head up, always aware of his surroundings and making numerous split-second decisions in his head. Eze glided across the turf and held his nerve for the most important touch of all: the finish, out of the reach of Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.
Eze’s ball-carrying is one of his most important assets. Palace’s central midfielders in the Hodgson era tended to be destructive rather than constructive. That is not to say that the likes of Luka Milivojevic and Jairo Riedewald are bad in possession, but they are not really creative talents either. Zaha had previously been the man tasked with progressing the ball up the pitch, but his deployment up front kept him closer to the penalty area.
Eze took up the mantle last season; without him, Palace would have struggled for goals even more than they did. Eze scored four and provided assists for six more, but his contribution went beyond that. The former QPR creator helped Palace transition from defence to attack. He frequently played accurate, incisive passes that gave team-mates the ball in good positions. His poise, guile and dribbling skills gave Palace an outlet when they came under pressure.
No player in the Eagles squad made more key passes per game than Eze. Of those who made at least five appearances in the Premier League, only Riedewald ended the campaign with a higher pass completion rate, while only Andros Townsend averaged more crosses per match. Zaha and Christian Benteke, who often played up top together, were the only Palace players to average more shots per game. No one in the squad dribbled as often as Eze.
In the reverse fixture against Sheffield United, a 2-0 win for Palace in May, Eze showed off the breadth of his talents. Granted, the opposition was not up to much. The Blades had already been relegated and were limping towards the finish line, their manager temporary and their players demoralised. Even so, Eze was magnificent in what might become his regular position under Patrick Vieira: a central midfielder in a trio.
At Bramall Lane that day, Eze was used to the right of Milivojevic and Schlupp. He might have preferred to operate on the left side instead, but that did not affect his performance in the slightest. Eze made an impact almost instantly, collecting the ball on the halfway line, taking three Sheffield United players out of the game and teeing up Benteke, whose deflected shot found the net before two minutes were on the clock.
He and Schlupp later swapped sides, and Eze continued to wreak havoc. He guided a shot narrowly wide after again collecting possession on halfway and carrying the ball to the edge of the area. Eze was not to be denied his goal, though. Late in the game, he got the ball inside his own half and left John Lundstram for dead. Patiently waiting for the right moment, Eze carried the ball past Chis Basham and John Egan, then saw his shot deflected in off a third Sheffield United defender. None of them could stop him.
That was one of five dribbles Eze produced at Bramall Lane – all of them successful. He also took three shots, and was a thorn in the side of the Blades all game long. Hodgson was full of praise for the attacking midfielder after the final whistle. But while everyone watching had seen Eze’s technical ability on display, Hodgson chose to praise the player’s mentality instead.
“I don’t have any fears with regard to Eberechi himself at all. I think he’ll handle it even if it goes over the top. He’ll handle it, I’m not worried about that at all, because he’s such a level-headed person,” Hodgson said.
“He knows what he’s got to do and knows that a pat on the back one day becomes the kick up the backside the day after.
“But during a long career I’ve seen a lot of situations where a player has burst onto the scene and got enormous praise and then all of a sudden they haven’t been able to handle it.
“That won’t be the case for Eberechi. He’s getting a lot of praise for his performance against Sheffield United but we’ve played 34 games this season, he’s played nearly every one, so there have been plenty of games where he’s seen the other side of the coin.”
Hodgson, of course, has now been replaced by Vieira. The Frenchman will have to do without Eze for up to half of the season, provided he does not suffer any setbacks in his recovery. An Achilles tear is one of the worst injuries a footballer can suffer, and Palace fans are not the only ones who hope that Eze will not be prevented from getting back to his best.
His absence will leave a huge hole in the side. Eze was Palace’s creator-in-chief last term. Olise will be expected to be pick up some of the slack, but he could miss the start of the season with a back injury. If Vieira moves to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, we could see Zaha moved back to the left wing where he will be tasked with setting up goals as well as scoring them.
It is still early days in the transfer window, with signings permitted until the end of August. Palace’s business has been exciting so far, with the club having clearly decided that the average age of the squad needs to come down. Olise, Guehi and Eze are all players with room to grow and time to improve, and each of them has arrived at Selhurst Park with resale potential.
In the meantime, of course, Palace will hope that all three players can contribute to the club’s mission to establish themselves in the Premier League. Some would say they have already done so, having been in the top flight since 2013 without a break. But like many mid-table sides, Palace cannot afford to rest on their laurels. One bad season can end in disaster.
Many neutrals are already tipping Palace for the drop. Vieira is unproven as a Premier League manager, and the departure of several experienced players after the expiration of their contracts has brought headlines. This summer is an opportunity for Palace, though. Working with sporting director Dougie Freedman, Vieira has the chance to wipe the slate clean and remodel the squad with a greater focus on youth and vibrancy.
After his excellent debut campaign in south London, Eze is a model for Palace’s recruiters to follow. The Selhurst Park faithful will now be crossing their fingers and hoping that the 23-year-old is back on the pitch as soon as possible.