The Tactics Board Of: Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace

Guillaume
8 min readAug 25, 2018
Holmesdale Road Stand, Selhurst Park.

Although the infrastructure of the building isn’t that great and all, Selhurst Park’s atmosphere arguably goes unrivalled alongside the other Premier League’s mid-table stadiums. The same goes true for the football. Ever since the appointment of Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace improved on various fronts, and now they’re one of those aspiring teams in Europe playing expansive football. It is true that results do not always go along style in football, but the contrary is true for Roy, whose men narrowly missed out on a top ten finish after sitting bottom with zero goals after seven games.

I can confidently say that it’s worth watching. It’s worth analysing. Which is why I enjoy doing both. Here is where I’ll be trying to inform as many people as possible about this exciting team playing near Croydon. Let’s start off by mentioning some of my favourite players managed by Roy Hodgson.

Mamadou Sakho, 27.

A French footballer with experience in Paris and Merseyside who ended up in a ground near Thornton Heath. Of course that speaks volumes, but it’s fair to say Mamadou is on a mission to reedeem himself. After a couple of solid seasons in London the man with Senegalese roots is itching closer to regaining that reputation of being one of the best on his level. Positionally very smart, if he gets caught out of position, his tackling will make up for that rare feat. He doesn’t mess around either. He’s pretty calm and suits Hodgson’s men.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka, 20.

Who doesn’t admire a succesful academy graduate? Aaron grew up at the club he loves and has now secured his place in the first team after outplaying Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Joel Ward. An excentric, young and exciting right-back who’s not afraid to show a piece of skill, has good control of the ball and looks to be a very good 1v1 defender. He’s a brilliant find, but unfortunately for him his breakout comes at a time in which England don’t have a shortage in his position. No matter how good he is, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker will be around for a while.

Wilfried Zaha, 25.

Where to start? Wilfried Zaha. The star of Crystal Palace. Their Eagle. Their ace. After a difficult start to professional life at Old Trafford, a permanent move to Selhurst Park saw the Ivorian improve step by step. Now, he’s arguably the best Premier League player to not be at one of the ‘Big Six’, and could be considered similar to Eden Hazard in a multitude of ways. Wilf is of high importance to his team, helps them win, but maybe doesn’t deliver as many goals and assists to back up the narrative. No matter how you look at it, he will stay in the Premier League for years and will be one of the best soon.

Onto the real stuff. What exactly makes Crystal Palace so succesful? Roy Hodgson? His tactics? Absolutely. First off, let’s start by looking at how Palace fares against bigger teams who tend to dominate a football game. Liverpool, perhaps.

Liverpool players celebrate Mané’s goal to confirm the win on the turf of Selhurst Park.

Woah, this must be coincidence. Crystal Palace and Liverpool clashed on the 20th of August. I’ll analyse them, using certain phases of the game. Here we go.

DEFENSIVE PHASE

Besides their ability to please viewers with their expansive brand of football, Crystal Palace can also even defend and transition phases like it’s nothing. In fact, they are one of the best at it; even remotely similar to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. I’m not going to sum up all the parallels — you’ll recognise them when I start.

Crystal Palace play a 4–4–2 with a partnership of Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha. These two leave much more space behind them vertically than others, which means the shape of the team in a defensive phase (*in theory*, no press involved) resembles this draft.

Fun fact: Wayne Hennesey is a very underrated goalkeeper. Good shot-stopping, decent at dominating his box.

I arranged it like this on purpose; the vertical spacing between the centre-forwards and midfielders is obviously greater than between the defensive lines. This is down to their style; Crystal Palace are capable of hurting when transitioning phases. Hence Hodgson’s desire to keep a target man in Christian Benteke close to the opposition’s goal and near brilliant creators like Townsend and Zaha. The latter also tends to roam around his own box when defending corners and set-pieces as his dribbling and creating can create organised chaos if he does receive the ball. Also his fast, space-creating runs and final third decision making make for a good transitioning player. Also when not having the ball Palace tend to deploy a traditional diagonal press, with smart covering of potential receiver in between lines. For example, this is how they’d defend an opposing right-back in possession:

The right-back wishes to pass to his CM in between the lines, but is put under pressure by an exterior midfielder (Schlupp) and a CF. The DM of its respective flank presses the potential receiver. Easy as. Of course, the likelihood of this failing due to the receiver turning exquisitely, like Keïta or Pogba is bigger and then two lines have been passed. The opposing midfielder has a choice of multiple passes forwards. However, tactical analysis should take moments of individual brilliance into account.

I’ve mentioned the fact that Roy Hodgson duplicated multiple tactics of Diego Simeone; using that logic, Pep Guardiola must’ve also been one of his idols. Improved or not, the former Three Lions coach reprinted Joseph’s “six-second rule”. After losing possession of the football, Pep’s Barça tended to press the opposition for five to six seconds. During that period the foes have no time to organise and keep the ball; for those precious six seconds the likelihood of regaining the ball is higher than any other time in a football match. If not won, the team would go back into its original defensive shape. Now and again Roy’s eleven does this but shorter, to suit their level.

SET-PIECES

You may think all mid-table clubs in the Premier League rely on attacking set-pieces or just dead ball situations in general to score like teams of Pulis, Allardyce and many others did, but not really. Thanks to Ashwin Raman, a.k.a. @futebolist on Twitter I can use his tweets to back up my point here: follow him if you haven’t already.

Crystal Palace take advantage of set-pieces like no other team in the league, as seen here.

Arsenal and Manchester United in particular don’t seem to care too much about them, despite for example United’s average height.

As visible on the x-axis and the y-axis, Crystal Palace average a 16-esque percentage of their shots through set-pieces, the league’s second highest. Also, they have the highest shots per set-piece ratio, telling us that Roy Hodgson trains his players on chance creation from set-pieces in training. Teams who create in other ways than headers from set-pieces like Bournemouth, are not amongst the higher rated teams.

STRUCTURING BUILD-UPS

Playing out of the back is not revolutionary, or new; it’s a trend*. Crystal Palace follows it, using the traditional sample. Generically speaking, this should be their average positioning in their own half:

* Keep in mind that I admire building attacks starting by your goalkeeper, but I believe it’s being overused by teams for whom it wouldn’t even fit.

This is the basic pattern of it, usual positioning to stretch and every player who would hypothetically be in possession could have a multitude of passing options with various ranges. The centre-halves split to cover the chunks of space left by the highly advanced full-backs; but also to receive easier if the ‘keeper has the ball, and stretch the press. When either of the deepest players control the ball, it’s the goalkeeper providing the numerical advantage by stepping in and offering another option. In order to contribute to the build-up, the CM’s in the 4–4–2 drop deeper to receive and create space in behind. At times in possession, Milivojevic drops between the centre-backs to carry the ball or prevent an overload if the opposition is to start a counter-attack.

Say Patrick Van Aanholt possesses the ball. He has the multiple options: pass backwards, forwards for Zaha to turn, or dribble past a direct opponent. In this particular situation, the ball has been engulfed upon, the left flank is overloaded with players. Townsend then decides to partner Benteke to maintain a duo up front, as Zaha dropped deep to receive and potentially turn.

FINAL THIRD

I’ve been raving about their attacking style throughout this piece, so I’ll back up my point. Doing that, I’d like to use advanced statistical info, i.d. xG and a few tweets of Ashwin Raman (again). Let’s kick off with the real deal.

This bar chart shows us how Crystal Palace sit top of the ‘dribbles into the final 18 yards’ table. Obviously, this speaks volumes about the likes of especially Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend. Other lower situated teams would’ve relied on static attacking systems/defending without a serious offensive intent, or an off-the-ball-moving attacking force. Roamers within the squad don’t really dribble as much, they primarily use the half-spaces like Schlupp.

But of course dribbles don’t represent the quality on the pitch for most teams. That’s why I decided to mix in the xPoints of Crystal Palace, measured by Understat. Make sure to check out their website as well.

The xPoints table of the 2017/2018 Premier League season.

This table shows a lot. West Brom may have not deserved to be finishing 20th last season. Manchester United may have not deserved their 2nd place, and on the contrary, Liverpool should’ve finished higher up the table. Under the radar though, is Crystal Palace. Again, they didn’t score in their first seven league games, but ended up 7th in the xPoints table. They had the highest xPoints of any non-top-six club, highest xG of any mid-table club, nearly equalling United’s and Chelsea’s. A good xGA also helped them finish in a well-respected position on here and eventually eleventh in the Premier League table itself.

But that will be all I’ve got time for I’m afraid. I spent a few hours a day for half a week writing this, and I enjoyed it. I’m proud of it, it’s my first big piece, but most importantly I hope you enjoyed reading this. I hope you’ll be excited to watch Crystal Palace as much as I do. Let’s keep a close eye on them and see what they achieve this season. This was @lowblockenigma, thanks for reading!

Special thanks to everyone who taught me a lot about football, including @thefutebolist, who gave me permission to use some of his collected info, Stratabet and everyone who took 10 mins out of their day to read this piece.

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Guillaume

UEFA-Licensed Football Coach, writer, PFSA-licensed Analyst and Fan. Account belonging to @guillaumevdwege on Twitter.