It’s often been said that to survive in the Premier League team’s have to make their home a fortress, to do more than just survive however you need to be able to take points on the road. With wins at Selhurst Park proving harder to come by and just one win away from home before Christmas, Palace were staring relegation straight in the face. A three nil defeat away at Manchester City followed by a Boxing Day loss at home to Southampton left The Eagles in the relegation zone and saw manager Neil Warnock sacked. After Keith Millen took interim charge for two goalless draws away at QPR and Aston Villa, Alan Pardew was given the job and sparked an immediate upturn in form particularly on the road.
Pardew lead Crystal Palace into 8 Premier League away matches after his appointment in early January, winning 6 of them. He adopted a more open attacking approach whilst keeping a strong defensive balance – shown with the side conceding just 8 goals in his 8 away matches in charge, half the amount conceded in Warnock’s 9 away matches.
Palace displayed a strong appreciation for the space on a football pitch in their end of season away run; their ability to press as a unit and adapt tactics from game to game were particularly important in this respect. Palace looked to use a high press method, whilst keeping a deep and compact defensive set-up. Utilising the pace and power of their front three along with the versatility and energy of their central midfielders, Palace are able to engage opponents for a short period of time very high up the pitch. The Eagles looked to press man-to-man when central to force opponents towards their own goal whilst often adopting a tight four man system when pressing high and wide. The intended outcome of this pressing style was to force the opposition to either look high and direct towards their forwards (playing into the hands of Palace’s tall back four) or look to get the ball down the sides of the Palace defence which allowed Palace’s full backs to use their impressive one-on-one defensive ability. Pardew’s defensive midfielders played a key role in how they pressed and utilised space last season too. The Ledley/McArthur combination had a tactical flexibility to it that was pivotal in the 2-1 victory away at Stoke: with Ledley able to press left comfortably and McArthur right, they were able to help the side press high and wide, cover their full backs and more importantly close the large space left centrally with their impressive recovery running. Club captain Mile Jedinak came back into the side in the 3-1 victory away at West Ham: playing the anchor man role alongside, at first Mutch then the energetic McArthur. Jedinak used his tactical discipline to stay central and close to his defence against West Ham’s narrow diamond system, whilst using his physical attributes to combat West Ham’s direct, phsyical style. Pardew successfully rotated his midfield combinations to suit the specifications of each opponent, sometimes playing McArthur/Mutch in a more advanced role to add further steel their midfield.
A key to Pardew’s success on the road was his side’s defensive set-up. Palace lined up with a tight four-man unit. All players well balanced physically and with a strong desire to defend, alongside the insurance of a reliable goalkeeper, Palace were turned into a very difficult side to score against. As previously mentioned Palace looked to defend deep; keeping compact and dropping deeper towards their own penalty area when the ball was hit direct at them, Palace defenders would often look to engage with the first challenge but focus on winning the second ball. A very strong component in the Crystal Palace defence come in the form of Ward and Kelly, the full backs. Both players can be accused of needing to do more going forward but defensively, particularly away from home, they are a key part of what made Palace successful. Both players have a clear understanding of their roles within the side: working in tandem with the central defenders and often more the central midfielders than wide players, the Palace full backs have to be well disciplined and ensure they drop with the rest of the defence to protect against exposure in behind. This may sounds simple but acts in direct conflict with another of their key roles – front foot defending. Making sure they stay tight to their respective wingers, Kelly and Ward are tasked with looking to steal the ball as soon as it reaches the opponent, ensuring a quick turnover in possession not allowing the opponent’s support players to become a factor in the attack. To be able to perform both key parts of the full back role in this system requires impeccable timing and a ability to quickly analyse each particular situation.
Palace are also very strong at defending inside of their own penalty area. They have four defenders and a keeper who are very good at dealing with deep high crosses into the box which forces a lot of their opponents to try and penetrate wide and from close to the goal line. This allows Palace to smother the penalty area: defending low balls at the front post as well as defending against the cut back to the penalty spot and the high cross to the far post. The only issue with this is defending so deep into their penalty area can leave space on the edge of the box, presenting an opportunity for an opponent to fire a shot off but with a need to be extremely quick and accurate to score from the opportunity as Enner Valencia did for West Ham. However when comparing against the alternatives, Palace will be happy to use this defensive method as it plays to their strengths and protects against clear cut opportunities.
Offensively the Crystal Palace approach is very simple but effective. Using a front three of players with good positional intelligence and strong physical attributes, Pardew’s side were very direct with their attacking approach – looking to go from back to front as quickly as possible. Palace often hit high to Murray’s head or chest and get Bolasie and Zaha running in behind, looking to latch onto any flick ons from Murray. Pardew’s adaptation of what some people would call ‘route one football’ is very bold however, looking to keep 3 players high up the pitch for as long as possible so they can penetrate when the ball turns over despite often leaving large vacuums of space either wide or centrally depending on the opponent. This sort of open attacking approach is allowed to work because of the strength in the side as a unit (to be able to create a strong defensive foundation which allows Bolasie and Zaha to remain so high) and the off the ball running of the two wide men which needs to be fully committed and well timed.
This tactic proved most successful in the 4-1 victory away at Sunderland: Pardew’s men scored 4 times inside a 15 minute spell early in the 2nd half, using the direct route to overpower and overwhelm the shaky Sunderland defence. In the build up to all 4 goals (1 scored by Murray and 3 by Bolasie) Palace played a long ball, often aimed at Murray, with Bolasie and Zaha immediately supporting from either beyond the striker or from a little deeper. The match was a perfect display of how Crystal Palace look to use their physical capabilities and direct approach to isolate defenders. This match also displayed the positional flexibility of Palace’s frontmen; Pardew rotated the front 3 throughout the game but in particular looked at any opportunity to switch Bolasie and Murray. This allowed Murray to be challenging Sunderland’s full backs in the air as opposed to Sunderland’s two 6 foot, 3 inch centre backs as well as meaning that Bolasie could play on the shoulder of Vergini/O’Shea in the Sunderland defence, utilising his incredible speed advantage which was key in his first two goals. Another game which displayed Palace’s effective direct route was the 2-1 victory at Stoke City; the Palace equaliser came after Murray had rotated with Bolasie, allowing Bolasie to use his pace to drive passed Shawcross and win a penalty out of goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. The win was sealed just a few minutes later, Murray with the flick on and this time it was Zaha racing in behind to slot home.
Another key to the Palace attack is the support the forwards receive. In midfield and at full back, the team are very good at arriving in good areas and offering options on the ball if the forwards get closed out. The support from deep is particularly important in allowing Zaha and Bolasie in particular to isolate and look to beat their opposing defenders. The wingers love to penetrate quickly using pace and skill to beat players but without support players to distract other defenders, it would be easy for opponents to double up or even triple up on the Palace wingers. Jason Puncheon’s role as the main support and approach player is very underrated. Puncheon operates in the hole in between midfield and attack: this position is often seen as a playmaker role, taken up by players who continuously look to get on the ball and dictate play. Puncheon however is asked to play the role a different way: looking to get close to the forwards in front of him to provide support, picking up any loose balls and feeding the players ahead of him as early as possible. Puncheon’s positioning in offensive transitions is key in helping Palace push high up the pitch and his ability to pick up second balls is even more key in helping the team keep sustained pressure in the opposition’s final third.
Set-pieces are another strong part of the Palace game. Due to the height of the players throughout the Crystal Palace team as well as having several players who are strong at dead ball situations, it’s not a surprise to see just how good The Eagles are at set-pieces. Both defensively and offensively, Palace are more often than not able to be dominant against most opponents when it comes to corners and free kicks. Away from home in particular, Pardew’s side are intelligent: they know how to earn or concede free kicks and corners (depending on the situation) in order to release pressure. With forwards like Bolasie, Puncheon and Zaha able to manoeuvre themselves and the ball into a position where a foul is inevitable would lead to free kicks in good areas and even 2 penalties. When it comes down to the set-pieces themselves: in Puncheon and Jedinak in particular, Palace have players with very strong deliveries in both quality and variation as well as being able to go straight for goal from the right position. Puncheon was able to completely change the flow of the game at Anfield with a perfectly dispatched free-kick, levelling a game Palace went on to win 3-1. It was Puncheon again who was the key in the 3-1 win away at West Ham, the variation on his delivery lead to all 3 goals: the first being a corner stood up to the penalty spot, the second and deep in-swinging corner that was met by Scott Dann at the far post and finally a low in-swinging free-kick which Murray was able to stoop to and head home. Being able to use set-pieces to not only break up play away from home but also score goals is a very valuable attribute in the Premier League; the league is physical that being able to win the set piece battle is a strong mental advantage as well as technical.
These highlights of the 3-1 victory against West Ham show how key set-pieces were in that particular game:
One thing Pardew has instilled into the Palace side is great mental strength. Crystal Palace have become a side that are very consistent throughout the game; the level of their play rarely dips or increases during the game and this makes them a very difficult opponent. It’s noticeable too how little the team react to external factors; away at Stoke down by a goal to nil, Palace could have easily crumbled like so others have due mostly to the atmosphere and in your face style of Stoke as a club. The 2-1 victory at Stoke was one of three extremely impressive come-from-behind victories away from home for Pardew’s side: one being the 3-2 win away at battling Burnley, this time coming from 2 goals down. The 3-1 victory at Anfield was possibly the most impressive however, battling against the emotion of the game being Steven Gerrard’s last Liverpool match at Anfield to not just win but completely outplay the opposition. This sort of mental ability can have it’s problems when playing at home as Palace sometimes struggle to really get up for the task of breaking down resilient teams (shown with defeats at home to West Brom and Hull). Away from home however Palace’s mental approach cannot be knocked: they take risks, aren’t affected by external factors like fans or media buzz and are able to keep a consistent level of performance throughout the ninety minutes ensuring that the opposition can’t overwhelm them with a spell of serious attacking pressure.
It’s been a fantastic start to life under Alan Pardew for Crystal Palace but improvements need to be made to ensure progression. The signing of Yohan Cabaye already shows the type of ambition that Palace need to press on and compete for a European place; adding further depth to a very strong central midfield area, Cabaye adds a range of passing and a fluidity that no player in the Palace squad can compete with. The signing of Cabaye adds something to the Palace attack that they could really do with – dynamism. The Palace attacking approach is effective but can be easily neutralised if not updated and upgraded; I think a lot of Palace fans will agree that although Glenn Murray was a very good fit for the side for the second part of last season, a younger player with more quality on the ball and in goalscoring areas is much needed. The club has been linked with Loic Remy, Joel Campbell and Charlie Austin in recent weeks, all forwards who would add extra quality to Palace’s attacking approach. A less popular opinion with Palace fans would probably say that they would do well to sign a winger of higher quality than both Bolasie and Zaha. Both wingers had good seasons (Bolasie in particular) but if Palace are to climb the Premie League table then they need forwards with strong definition in the final third and both players are very unreliable. Bolasie in particular is a winger of great talent, physical ability and can be unplayable at times, his touch however is often loose and he lacks real consistency. Both are fans favourites and real impact players so I wouldn’t sell either but instead look to sign a more reliable, consistent forward and look to rotate the three depending on the situation. This would create a more unpredictable and dynamic attacking set-up that could really help Palace push on. The team elsewhere shows real balance and depth, Pardew should just look at adding extra quality and experience where he can. In defence the links to Newcastle’s Fabrizio Coloccini are very encouraging for Palace fans: a very high quality, experienced defender with great leadership skills and again show the club’s ambition even if the transfer doesn’t take place. Further forward the singing of Cabaye I think for now completes a very impressive set of central midfielders but Pardew could look at improving on Jason Puncheon; a versatile and very talented player who is a great asset for the side but again doesn’t quite offer the consistency and final third definition necessary to make Palace a top 7 or 8 side.
Make no mistake, Crystal Palace are a club on the up and if they can retain such strong away form whilst developing their approach to make them less predictable at Selhurst Park then they could definitely push teams like Southampton, Swansea and Stoke for a place in the top 8.