On the 16th of December, England’s most peculiar derby saw Brighton take on an injury-plagued Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Due to a growing injury list that Roy Hodgson called his “worst ever” in management, Palace was without Gary Cahill, Jeffrey Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt, Joel Ward, and Andros Townsend further forward. This led to a makeshift defence containing Scott Dann and Jairo Riedewald, and the return of Christian Benteke up front. Despite this, and even though Brighton controlled large spells of the match, Crystal Palace were able to scrape a 1-1 draw with a late Wilfried Zaha equaliser.
This tactical analysis is an analysis that specifically investigates the tactical mistakes Palace made for the majority of the match, how Brighton dominated, and how slight changes of tactics by Hodgson brought Palace back into the game.
Crystal Palace lined up in a defensively solid 4-5-1 with Jordan Ayew and Zaha playing as conventional wingers despite both being more comfortable further forward, as they have played most of the season. Graham Potter’s Brighton, however, lined up in an unconventional 4-2-3-1 that saw Aaron Mooy on the right-wing regularly drifting inside and forming a midfield three with Davy Pröpper and Yves Bissouma. Further, Pascal Groß despite starting in the number 10 birth spent much of his interchanging with Leandro Trossard and operating in the half-spaces on the left-hand side. The system was set up heavily to control play and provide passing options by constant movement and unorthodox positioning.
The defensive structure of Palace
After an opening few minutes where they pressed high and heavily, Palace retreated back into a low block and set up an incredibly solid structure. Hodgson is known for his ability to coach players meticulously in defence to create structure, and this was evident in Palace’s performance.
As the above image demonstrates, Palace remained solid throughout the match by holding a compact midfield line. This also meant that if one man went up to press the ball, there was rarely space left behind, as another midfielder could simply shuffle across. Brighton could have all the possession they wanted, but oftentimes they were met with a wall and simply had to turn around and recycle possession unable to find a way through.
It is important also however to note the gap between the midfield and Benteke up front. Benteke has undeniably been a bit of a flop since his move to Palace, but they were simply asking too much of him for large spells of this game. The gap between Benteke and the midfield remained at this distant level for all of the first half, which is nowhere near enough support for a fully fit striker, let alone one low on confidence making their first start since August. Therefore, in the first half especially, when Palace would win back possession they’d look to play long and due to a complete lack of support nothing would come of it and Brighton would maintain possession.
Brighton’s pass and move
Brighton may not have had the wherewithal to see out this victory, but for a team that last year played drab direct football, Potter has gotten this team playing some beautiful possession football this year. A huge aspect of this is one of the most basic fundamentals we are told as kids, pass and move. The movement off the ball of the Brighton players was fantastic and allowed them to constantly have options to pass to and retain possession. The left-hand side was especially impressive in this aspect. Dan Burn, Trossard, and Groß were constantly combining in intricate passing moves and combinations.
Though most of the threat actually came from the right, this was all made possible by the neat possession play on the left. As mentioned above, Mooy tucked inside quite regularly, and thus there appeared to be little width from the Brighton right. This is where arguably Brighton’s most potent attacking threat factored into the game.
Despite not starting the majority of the games this season, Martín Montoya was arguably Brighton’s most integral attacking force in this match.
The intricate passing play of Burn, Trossard, and Groß drew attention away from the right. On top of this Mooy also drifting inside meant that Palace’s left would regularly switch off. This is when Montoya would drive through the gap left with incredible directness.
The perfect example came in the 19th minute in an opportunity that almost led to a Montoya goal. To start the move, nice movement by Groß frees space for Trossard to drive into.
This, however, does not materialise due to Palace’s aforementioned solid midfield. Cheikhou Kouyaté is able to shuffle across to cover Trossard, and the move is shut down. Trossard recycles possession to Burn behind him, the ball is shifted across to Propper and that is when Montoya makes his run.
Brighton were aware that Zaha has not been playing as an out and out winger all season, and that Riedewald has hardly got a game this season being their 3rd, arguably even 4th choice left-back. Therefore by drawing men all the way over to the left-hand side before springing on the right with a directness, they managed to catch Palace off guard. If not for a Riedewald trip in the box denied by VAR, this would have been a definite goal. The goal in the second half did eventually come from that same left to right switch, followed by a cross to Maupay. Brighton excelled at controlling the space and knowing when to move into that.
Despite possessional dominance and the lion’s share of the chances, Brighton was not able to capitalise and win the match. This is in part due to their own sloppiness and unwillingness to take risks. In both the Montoya chance, and the eventual goal, a direct nature, and a risky pass is what found its way through yet Brighton were short of this all game.
After Brighton’s goal, however, a tactical shift from Palace is what effectively decided the game. James McCarthy and Max Meyer were both brought on in the second half, and initially, the midfield seemed to be functioning quite the same as it had in the first half, albeit with the wingers slightly further forward. Around the 70 minute mark Palace significantly stepped up their line (as displayed below) effectively abandoning the low block.
Both McCarthy and Meyer were huge beneficiaries of this. Coming on for the more conservative McCarthur (who moved to left-back to cover an injured Riedewald) and Kouyaté, both were far more forward-thinking and provided more support for Benteke and the wingers. Now if a knock-down was won, or even lost, there was someone there to pounce on the resulting 50-50.
This is obvious in the below image, taken two minutes before Zaha scores from a very similar area. Ayew plays a nice one-two with McCarthy before playing the ball into Benteke in the box. He is tackled, however despite this, the ball makes its way out to Zaha. This would not have happened in their previous 4-5-1 and deep line, but by pushing forward even lost balls are more promising.
The introduction of Meyer and McCarthy gave Palace far more thrust going forward, and by pushing Zaha and Ayew into their more natural forward areas chances like this occurred far more often from the 70th minute onwards. McCarthy then makes a run into the box from deep, his fresh legs taking him straight past several Brighton midfielders. Zaha squares it to him and he very nearly scores.
In conclusion, despite a tactical adaption and showing real attacking intent, Crystal Palace had no right to get anything from this game. Brighton’s superior xG of 1.95 to Palace’s 1.09 shows that they really should have won. Their positional play and ability in and out of possession outshone Palace, yet it was an unwillingness to change their style and capitalise on what was working that cost them. Montoya’s runs that we have pointed out as a real weapon were ignored several times in the game in favour of safer possession play.
Palace, however, started off in a defensively solid set-up that shackled their attacking talents on the wings and prevented them from creating any real momentum. Brighton, however, didn’t put the game to bed when they had the chance, allowing Crystal Palace the chance to adapt and fight their way back.
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