Football News

Explained: The tactical changes that helped Crystal Palace conquer Manchester

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 13:15, 25 August 2019

Crystal Palace are a side that does everything the wrong way around.

Despite playing at ‘fortress Selhurst’ only Huddersfield Town scored fewer goals and amassed fewer points at home than Palace last season. Yet, their away form was top six standard.

They failed to beat Southampton at all last season, Cardiff City held them at home and Brighton completed a famous double over the Eagles, yet they went to Arsenal and won and were the only team to take any points off Man City at the Etihad last season when they beat them 3-2.

And it seems they plan to carrying on in exactly the same vein this season: they were awful at Bramall Lane last Sunday as they lost 1-0 but ended a 30-year top-flight hoodoo at Old Trafford on matchday three.

In fact, Palace are now the last away team to pick up all three points at Old Trafford, the Etihad, Emirates and Anfield. Quite a remarkable stat.

The main reason for this is that they are a side that is perfectly suited to playing on the back foot. They’ve got a squad that is ready-made to hit sides on the counter-attack – for them to succeed, they must be put under pressure.

At home and against lesser teams, Palace tend to play a narrow 4-4-2, with Wilfried Zaha being partnered by either Christian Benteke or Andros Townsend. The four in midfield play very narrowly – their job is more industrious than creative, meaning a lot of the creative responsibility falls on the attacking players.

In a lot of ways, it is a bizarre system: Zaha, a winger, up front; Benteke, who thrives on crosses, playing in a system with no wingers; Meyer, a No 10, playing on the left-hand side. It worked when they beat Chelsea in 2017, but the system has often flattered to deceive since.

In fact, it has been a different tactical set-up that has given them so much success in Manchester: 4-5-1. Off the ball, the midfield five sit in almost a perfectly horizontal line, cutting off passing lanes to the fluid attackers such as Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne.

The lone striker is crucial – his job is to be the goal threat, the outlet and target man simultaneously. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. The forward must be prepared to spend the majority of the game almost totally isolated, press for the full 90 minutes and feed off scraps. The wingers must get through a huge amount of leg work; they must help both the striker and their full-back at both ends of the pitch.

At the Etihad last season, Jeffrey Schlupp played in central midfield with Meyer outside him. Townsend was down the right-hand side and Zaha was up front. Despite not scoring or assisting, Zaha was instrumental in all three goals. Of course, Palace got a little help along the way via Kyle Walker (who gave away a penalty) and Andros Townsend’s Puskas Award-nominated volley.

On Saturday, the system changed: Zaha moved to the right-hand side to put him up against Luke Shaw, who is defensively inferior to former Palace full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka; Schlupp’s legs were employed down the left to help out the adventurous Patrick van Aanholt and Jordan Ayew was the man up top.

The key behind the system is the remarkable discipline and organisation shown by this Palace side. The average positions map below shows the Eagles in almost a perfect 4-3-3 formation. Roy Hodgson prides himself on setting his teams up to be tough to break down and this image will be Roy’s pride and joy. Utd, on the other hand, are all over the place.

Man Utd and Palace average positions. CREDIT: Opta Match Centre

Everyone is aware of the blistering pace of Daniel James, Rashford and Martial, so Palace simply allowed Utd no space in behind. Much of the Red Devils’ possession consisted of sideways passing down the flanks as they probed for a gap that never came.

It worked a treat. Schlupp and Ayew gave Wan-Bissaka a torrid time down the right: he completed just one tackle all game, whilst failing to make an interception and being dispossessed twice, as well as inadvertently assisting the winner. Zaha grew into the game playing out wide. However, Ayew, in particular, was outstanding. He held the ball up brilliantly and brought his teammates into play when needed. Costing just £3m, he could prove to be one of the bargains of the summer.

As you would expect, Utd dominated the game when you look at the stats: 71.4 per cent possession, 22 shots and over triple the amount of completed passes, as well as a missed penalty, suggesting Utd were hard done by. But just three of those shots were on target (the same as Palace) and Vicente Guaita only made two saves. In the 3-2 win over City, Pep Guardiola’s side managed just five shots on target. Hodgson simply sets his sides up to deny clear-cut opportunities, which is exactly what they did again on Saturday.

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However, the common theme between the two Manchester triumphs is something which Palace can rarely boast – ruthless efficiency. Six shots on target led to five goals across both games.

Palace’s first goal at Old Trafford came from a simple route one pass: Guaita smashed it up to Schlupp who flicked on for Ayew to stroll through and score. It was £125m worth of defenders – Harry Maguire and ex-Palace full-back Wan-Bissaka – who left Ayew a clear path to goal and Ghanian finished calmly for a player who scored just twice last season.

Many Utd fans were left bemoaning Palace’s ‘negative’ tactics, but it’s hard to see what else Hodgson should have done. Of course, Utd are far superior technically and if Palace were to try and take them on in an attacking contest, there would only be one winner. Besides, the Eagles’ injury-time winner was scored by their marauding left-back Van Aanholt. Not many teams would allow their full-back that far up the pitch at Old Trafford with the score at 1-1.

The Eagles have now beaten Arsenal, Man City and Man Utd in the space of a year. After his tenure with England ended in disaster, many view Hodgson as a man who shouldn’t still be managing a top-flight team. Another tactical masterclass suggests he deserves far more respect.