Although far from the flashiest team in the Premier League, Roy Hodgson has had Crystal Palace working like a machine these past few years and has made them Roy Hodgson – Crystal Palace Tactical Analysisinto one of the most organized sides across Europe. The systematic way that they play is actually quite simple and although taxing and demanding of the players, it is not overly elaborate. Instead of tactical geniuses and midfield maestros, every single player is an absolute workhorse and understands the role that they play in the team to a tee. This has led to Crystal Palace’s success under Roy Hodgson and now in 2020-21, they’ve won their first two opening Premier League games for the first time in their history. We’d be silly to get carried away and think that they are destined for European football this season, but the Eagles are certainly worth examining for their unique approach to life in the Premier League. Here is a Tactical Analysis all about Roy Hodgson’s resilient Crystal Palace.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2
Like many of the other of the most organized teams around the globe, Crystal Palace play in the standard 4-4-2 formation, without any major tweaks or intricacies worth noting. Through this 4-4-2, they operate in a low block, with two banks of four and the strikers often offering support in defensive situations. They defend as a unit, quite literally, and often have eight men behind the ball when the opposition find their way into Palace’s half. Ayew usually operates as the slightly lower of the two strikers and helps to give the shape a bit of a 4-4-1-1 appearance, particularly when teams are playing out from the back, as he will look to give extra support to the midfield two in shutting down the opposition’s midfielders. Every single player fits into this system and style of play and Roy Hodgson deserves an immense amount of credit for that.
Vicente Guaita is a fairly understated member of the squad and it’s actually a shame he’s already 33-years old as he’s probably been Palace’s best keeper in the last decade. Although brilliant when called upon, he hardly ever needs to make an obscene amount of saves because of the organization of the ten men in front of him. Joel Ward, Cheikhou Kouyate and 21-year old Tyrick Mitchell have started both matches so far; although Van Aanholt and Gary Cahill will likely come back into the mix when they are fit again. Crystal Palace do however have a plethora of centre-back options, including Scott Dann, Mamadou Sakho, Martin Kelly and James Tomkins. Right now, Cheikhou Kouyate may remain as the first choice centre-back alongside one of Scott Dann / Mamadou Sakho, despite Kouyate actually being a defensive midfielder by trade. One of the key reasons why that might be the case for the Senegalese is the fact that James McCarthy and James McArthur have been so astute alongside each other and have a great understanding. The midfield pair have been so brilliant, that their captain Luka Milivojevic has had to play second-fiddle at the start of this season. Jeffrey Schlupp meanwhile has grown into a role on the left, while Andros Townsend has been one of the mainstays of the team over the past five years, almost always operating on the right. The addition of Schlupp into the lineup and Townsend in his natural spot on the wing has allowed a striking partnership to blossom between the hard-working Jordan Ayew and rambunctious Wilfried Zaha.
Other than Zaha, there are no genuine stars in the side. But that doesn’t matter, because of how organized they play without the ball. Every single player is a great Premier League player. So they don’t need that extra cutting edge. They don’t need any flamboyant dribblers or creative playmakers. They’ve got what they need in attack from the likes of Townsend and Zaha and they make it work to exactly the level they need. Nobody’s asking Palace to get into the Europa League, but each and every season they hover between 9th and 14th, and that’s exactly where they belong in the league. More than almost any other team, Crystal Palace play to their strengths, without ever needing to change their game-plan based on their opposition. Now, let’s get into more of the tactics that aid this 4-4-2 system and how they manage to remain so organized.
LOW BLOCK & DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATIONEmbed from Getty Images
One of the integral features to Roy Hodgson’s team, Crystal Palace are incredibly tough to break down. They are incredibly organized with two banks of four that shift and slide with the play and the movement of the ball. Teams like Manchester United that love to have the ball in their own half simply play into the hands of Crystal Palace and it’s one of the reasons why the Eagles have beaten United at Old Trafford the last two seasons in a row. In the 3-1 win over Manchester United last weekend, the Red Devils passed the ball around from one side to the other looking for the right angle to play it forward. But it never came, simply because of how organized Crystal Palace were in defense and how quickly they slid their shape across the middle during switches of play. They did the same thing to Southampton the week before, sitting in their low-block, letting Southampton have the ball in their own half, while defending with their hearts on their sleeves and giving the Saints no route forward. This level of defensive organization requires an immense amount of communication, particularly from the central defenders and central midfielders who will be most responsible at maintaining the team’s compactness. Luckily for Palace, they have several options at their disposal between the two positions, all of whom are good organizers, leaders and very experienced players. Teams like United who keep all of the possession end up playing right into their hands as the level of organization means they have a player in the way at every opportunity and an adequate shot is hard to come by. You might think that playing in a low-block could limit Palace’s ability to go forward and create chances. However, that simply isn’t the case and through classic counter attacking play, they are one of the best around at creating chances relative to their possession of the ball.
COUNTER ATTACKINGEmbed from Getty Images
Crystal Palace are one of the best counter attacking outfits around. One of the reasons for their insanely low possession statistics is the fact that whenever they have the ball, they look to go forward and go on the attack right away. So even when they have the ball, they look to get rid of it…and by get rid of it, we mean score. They don’t just pass it around for the sake of it and even when settling things down they look for moments to play it long and play it forward for their pacey front four. The pace and power that the front four have allow Crystal Palace to counter attack to extraordinary effect. When you add in the creativity, movement and intelligence of players like Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, you’ve got a great recipe for scoring goals on the break. It doesn’t even matter that players like Zaha, Ayew and Schlupp have averaged under 20 passes per game so far in 2020-21. They’re not in the team to keep possession. They simply look to drive forward with the ball at every opportunity.
Jordan Ayew in particular is a player who, by Premier League standards, has very little quality on the ball. In fact, last season was the first in which he won more take-on’s than the number of times he was dispossessed taking players on. He’s simply in the team to be a nuisance to the opposition. To rattle them about and stop them from having any fun. He’s got a decent eye for goal, he’s decent in the air, but what he really does well is play an integral role in Crystal Palace’s counter attacking play with his movement off the ball, his body strength, and his defensive ability. These elements to his game combined together work perfectly for Palace’s ability to win possession higher up the field (which they rarely do in their low-block), and go on the attack. Jeffrey Schlupp and Wilfried Zaha have also found a reasonable degree of chemistry as of late and absolutely terrorized Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Victor Lindelof last time out with their raw running power, dribbling ability, silky skills and willingness to go forward at every opportunity. Andros Townsend and Jordan Ayew on the other side easily found space on the break vacated by Luke Shaw, who was playing very high, and Harry Maguire, who had one of his worst games in a United shirt thanks to the presence of Palace’s front men.
Again, it’s not pretty, but it’s effective. More than anything at the weekend, Manchester United lacked a plan B. They lacked a player who they could go long to and try to find in behind Palace’s defense. For all their possession and many, many touches on the ball, Palace somehow still completed more long ball passes (51 to 49). That demonstrates just how much Hodgson’s team were willing to go on the attack and make the risky pass; in hopes that it would come off. Palace are better suited to that game, having not only powerful runners in behind, but also taller, stronger ones. Maguire and Lindelof simply could not handle it and two players who are supposedly very big and muscular, looked anything but as they were bullied around by Ayew and Zaha. They don’t play the long-ball game to the extent of a team like Burnley or Newcastle, but it is certainly still a feature to their game. This may become even more important when a player like Christian Benteke is in the lineup, as he is brilliant in the air and links up well with other players through this approach. Although most of their aerial duels come at the back, Crystal Palace have one of the best records in terms of winning balls in the air, which suits the long-ball game well should they opt to play it more this season.
FAVOURING THE LEFT SIDEEmbed from Getty Images
Something that has long been a feature of Crystal Palace’s play, even before Roy Hodgson, is the reliance on the left side. Joel Ward is an excellent fullback and Andros Townsend is a highly capable ball carrier. But even in the one season that Ward fell out of favour to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Palace still preferred the left. This is the side that is normally occupied by Patrick Van Aanholt and Wilfried Zaha, two extremely important players to Palace’s attack. In more recent times, Jeffrey Schlupp has grown into his role on the left and Zaha’s been pushed further forward, doing more of his damage closer to goal. But it is still strange to think about just how lopsided a Crystal Palace heatmap would be. You would think that by being defensively organized and always having two banks of four in defense, that Palace would win the ball back equally across all areas of the field. But when they win it on the right, they often look to try and switch it over to the left. If they are able to carry it forward into space on the right, it usually isn’t long before Schlupp and Zaha will be seen in the picture, galloping forward on the left.
This approach allows Palace to get Wilfried Zaha more engaged in the attack and with Zaha more engaged, Palace are always going to be more dangerous. Schlupp meanwhile hugs his touchline more than practically any other winger in the league and is actually quite old-fashioned in that regard, while McArthur can also be found far more wide in possession than his counterpart McCarthy. Townsend and Ward also engage less frequently in the attack than their left-sided partners and often look for switches of play that can get the left-sided players and strikers more involved down that side. Against Manchester United, 52% of their attacks came down the left, as opposed to 26% down the middle and 22% down the right. 21% of their shots came from the left, as opposed to 0% on the right. Against Southampton, 54% of their attacks came down the left, 13% in the middle and a slightly more reasonable 33% down the right wing. Jordan Ayew, who was technically the right-sided striker, was even more to the left than Wilfried Zaha, often coming deeper to try and flick the ball on for the Ivorian. So quite crucially, although they play compact and organized and force their opposition into mistakes in the middle of the pitch, they simultaneously play with loads of width in their 4-4-2 shape, which gives them plenty of moments to stretch the opposition immediately after winning the ball.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
Crystal Palace are not the prettiest, most elegant team. But they are a highly effective one and Roy Hodgson, at 73-years old, has them working like a machine. Despite their impressive defensive organization, the Eagles often go understated as a very effective Premier League team year after year. If they continue on at the rate they’ve done to start this season, they could end with their lowest possession statistics ever, and simultaneously their highest finish. Whether or not this wonderful form can continue remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Roy Hodgson deserves an immense amount of credit for the way he has Crystal Palace playing.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, including our examination of Sean Dyche’s Burnley and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United! Also be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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