Crystal Palace went into this game off the back of a confidence-boosting 2-0 victory over Fulham the weekend before. Roy Hodgson made two changes to that team. Martin Kelly and Wilfred Zaha came back into the starting line up for James Tomkins and Jordan Ayew. This meant a return to slightly less used 4-3-3, with Luka Milivojević as the single pivot at the base of the midfield.
Manuel Pellegrini sent out an unchanged side from the previous week’s heroics vs Liverpool. West Ham should have left the London Stadium with all three points on that occasion. They were hoping to ride the confidence gained from that performance into this weekend. A slight shift in shape saw the highly impressive Declan Rice shift to a single pivot at the base of midfield. This moved club captain Mark Noble forward to partner Robert Snodgrass in a more advanced position.
The start of the game was everything you would hope for in an English, Saturday, 15:00 kick-off. Two teams focused on winning the game having been sent out by their managers with the freedom to do so. Although both sides tried to form variations of a 4-3-3 when in possession, they both had distinct changes off of the ball.
Crystal Palace stayed in a more traditional 4-3-3 even out of possession, whereas Manuel Pellegrini had his team drop into a 4-5-1. This change formed the basis of play in the first half and led to a fascinating tactical battle.
Both sides attempted to build out of the back. Crystal Palace looked to start centrally and then spring their wide players free. This often involved overlapping fullbacks during the first half. Conversely, Pellegrini’s men looked to build with their fullbacks hugging the touchline. From here they would look to combine with their strong sided midfielder to release their own wide players.
During the first 45 minutes, Crystal Palace tried to move the ball forward quickly. As a result, the home side gave up a large amount of space on the counter. West Ham were set up well to take advantage of this, and deservedly took the lead in the 27th minute. Antonio reacted first in the box, then Guaita came bulldozing out and took down the West Ham forward. Mark Noble made no mistake from the spot and gave his side a deserved half time lead.
Crystal Palace and their refusal to manage the counter space
One of the major themes that arose during the first half was the opportunities that Crystal Palace were giving away on the counter. Through an attacking mindset in possession, they often found themselves pushing seven players forwards. This usually included both fullbacks plus five midfielders and attackers.
Through their positioning of Declan Rice, West Ham were able to press in the wing spaces. The ball side fullback and midfielder would close the ball and easiest pass, whilst Rice would step in to double the ball. Throughout the first half, West Ham were able to win the ball and then take advantage of the space left by Crystal Palace.
In this instance, you can see that West Ham were able to press with a double on the ball. Simultaneously, Snodgrass and Javier Hernandez looked to cut off the first two passing options. From here they look to exploit the space left by Wan-Bissaka whilst drawing Milivojević away from the central channel.
Here you can see a clear three vs three with each defensive player becoming man orientated. The lack of coverage in relation to the counter spaces has left Crystal Palace with no additional cover. Due to the attacking use of their fullbacks in the wing space, and their midfield pushing behind the West Ham midfield line, they have left themselves without numerical superiority in the back line.
From here Anderson looks to isolate Kelly one vs one in an aim to square him up and reduce the depth of the defensive line. By looking to horizontally compact the last line, West Ham are able to open up options in behind as well as around.
Anderson manages to achieve this, as Kelly looks to engage the ball carrier. By doing so he sets the defensive line. This creates a new space that is now available in behind. Snodgrass sees this opportunity and makes sure that his run is kept blindside of Milivojević. By staying in a blindside position, two things happen. Milivojević has to run as a reaction to Snodgrass.
As he cannot see him fully, he is unable to perceive the next action and as such must stay reactionary to Snodgrass. Milivojević must also track Snodgrass’ movement horizontally, which provides the option of more space for Anderson to attack. If Snodgrass was to run openside of Milivojević, then he would be able to act accordingly. He could either check his run, bump Kelly onto the underlapping run or double with Kelly as Snodgrass would remain openside and therefore could be easily tracked.
This was an issue that plagued Crystal Palace throughout the first half. As we can see in this separate instance, they are once again caught three vs three at the back.
The management of the counter space became a bit issue during the first half, and Crystal Palace were lucky to only concede once. Their system is built on the fast-paced attacking threat of the fullbacks and wide players, and it is crazy to leave a single cover point.
Milivojević was often left as the sole cover to the two central defenders. This meant that any attacks that started in the wing or half-spaces drew him out of position. This coupled with West Ham’s ability to utilise the speed of Anderson and Antonio caused real issues for the home team.
Two things they could have looked into was either a double pivot or inverting the weak side fullback. The addition of this second defensive minded player would have left them four vs three in the backline. It also would have allowed one player to pressure the ball. This would have still provided cover through the central channel.
Roy Hodgson knew that he had changes to make coming out of the break. He did not disappoint. Although there were no personnel changes made immediately, he imposed a change in shape. Having seen his side give away countless breaks to the visitors he shifted Schlupp in and out of possession.
In the first half they built in a 2-1-4-3, that was leaving major holes for Anderson and Antonio to exploit. As the second half got underway, it was clear that there was a shift in shape in possession. Crystal Palace now looked more like a 2-2-3-3 with Schlupp shifting into the second line to help Milivojević.
This had a number of effects on the way the home team went about defending in the second half. Due to the additional layer of cover, it meant that the front three plus McArthur could now press aggressively. This allowed McArthur to put direct pressure on Declan Rice and Mark Noble. This, in turn, stifled their ability to play quick vertical passes forwards into space.
The second change was that it helps isolate Javier Hernandez from the rest of the West Ham team. Hernandez could no longer drop into the pockets of space left by Milivojević, and as such became detached from his teammates.
The change worked. In the 75th minute, Zaha grabbed an equaliser for the home team. Crystal Palace pushed for a winner but was unable to find it. West Ham dropped into a low block in a 4-5-1 shape and tried to counter at times, but was unable to get a foothold in the second half. As 1-1 draws go, this was a fascinating tactical battle, and one both sides should be proud of. A true showcase of football being ‘a game of two halves’.
Dribbling: Palace with a purpose
Dribbling can be one of the most interesting and frustrating parts of watching football. Those who possess the skill to glide passed opposition with ease light up the game on a weekly basis. There are many types of ball carriers in the game and they range from the effortless skill of Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard to the powerful Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Crystal Palace possess one of the most potent dribbling trios in the Premier League. Zaha, Townsend, and Wan-Bissaka are all gifted with the ball at their feet, and Roy Hodgson knows it. During the first half, Crystal Palace looked to isolate Zaha and Townsend against their fullback one vs one. It provided limited goal-scoring opportunities for the hosts, with Fredericks and Cresswell standing up to the task.
In the second half, however, the plan was altered. They looked to overload the wing spaces and provide the dribbler with short passing options. West Ham, looked to counter the dribble by providing midfield support to the fullbacks when facing Zaha or Townsend.
By creating numerical superiority in the wing and half space, Crystal Palace surrenders the centre of the field. This forces West Ham into a decision and alters their defensive 4-5-1 shape.
West Ham shift over to continue with their defensive plan of providing additional cover against the dribble. Crystal Palace use this underload to their advantage due to their qualitative superiority when dribbling. By drawing in four defenders to only three attackers, they have now created a numerically even situation in their top line.
In this instance, Zaha, Batshuayi, and McArthur, who has joined the top line, now find themselves in a three vs three situations in the attacking third. Naturally, Crystal Palace don’t always succeed when dribbling. When they do, however, they put themselves in golden goal-scoring opportunities.
Late in the game, these situations became more prevalent. As West Ham started to tire, Crystal Palace were able to take advantage of positional shifts to cause confusion.
Here we have another underloaded dribbling situation for the home team. Instead of panicking, they look to play out. By drawing in four West Ham defenders through the dribble and short passes, they now have an opportunity to attack the space.
Townsend has come in from the right wing space to occupy the left central defender. By doing so, he isolates Batshuayi against the other central defender one vs one.
Due to the space Townsend is afforded when receiving the ball, Crystal Palace now have multiple options of how to attack. Unfortunately for the home team, who created numerous opportunities during the second half, but were unable to take advantage.
It is important as a coach to be able to understand your own player’s strengths and utilise these to best help the team. Roy Hodgson has done exactly this with Zaha, Townsend, and Wan-Bissaka. Crystal Palace have created a structured way to allow their dribblers, to dribble. By doing so, they have opened up opportunities for the rest of the players to now receive the ball with time and space. Now they need to start to put away the opportunities at a rate close to the xG created.
This game was exactly how two mid-table teams should play football. Two attacking minded managers utilising tactics to try and get the best out of the players at their disposal. During the first 45, West Ham will feel as though they should have added to their lead and put the game out of the hosts reach. Conversely, Crystal Palace players and fans will have left Saturday, unsure of how they didn’t leave with all three points.
The answer to both is in how clinical they are in the final third. This was a game with over 30 total shots, and here lies the issue. To truly take the next step within the Premier League, you have to be able to take your chances. Hodgson will hope Batshuayi will answer these questions for Crystal Palace. As for West Ham, however, the situation remains the same. Until they get a striker capable of 20+ league goals a season, they will remain on the outside looking in.
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