After Frank de Boer’s utterly disastrous four-game tenure at Crystal Palace back in 2017, the club were left rock bottom of the Premier League.
Former Liverpool and Internazionale manager Roy Hodgson was brought in by the board to rescue the sinking ship from impending doom. The experienced coach did just that and managed to stay on for almost four years.
However, things had turned quite stale and at 74, Hodgson decided to call time on his illustrious career. There was a demand from the fanbase for a younger, more vibrant manager with new ideas.
The hierarchy listened to the calls from the supporters and at the beginning of July, Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira was appointed as the new boss. Vieira was a controversial signing as his records with New York City FC and Nice, respectively, were quite average.
Nonetheless, the fans have been pleasantly surprised by how much Vieira has changed in such a short space of time. The Eagles are now playing a more expansive system and Vieira has refurbished the squad to give it a more energetic and youthful look.
Palace’s tactics have been quite exciting in possession but out of possession, there have been stark contrasts with Hodgson’s style of play. This article will be a tactical analysis of Palace in the defensive phases in the form of a team scout report. It will be an analysis piece comparing the team’s principles under Vieira and last season under Hodgson.
Defensive formation and personnel
In terms of the choice of formation, there has not been too much change at all. Under Hodgson, Palace mainly defended in a 4-4-2 compact shape but were no stranger to utilising more of a 4-1-4-1 with one defensive midfielder as opposed to two players protecting the centre-backs.
The 4-4-2 was used in 61% of Palace’s games while a variation of the 4-1-4-1, including the 4-3-3 and the 4-5-1, was used 23% of the time.
Contrasting this with Vieira’s side, Palace have predominantly used a 4-3-3 out of possession which drops into a 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1. The 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 has been deployed by the French manager in 80% of the Eagles’ games. Palace have set-up in 4-4-2 in 5% of their matches.
There has been a stark contrast in the personnel that both managers have used with Palace, though. An ageing squad desperately needed to be overhauled after last season’s tame display and Vieira did just that.
This image portrays Hodgson’s most used starting lineup from last season. In this campaign, the Eagles had the oldest squad in terms of the average age of each player with 29.9. As can be seen in their most-used starting XI, Hodgson certainly favoured experience over youth to carry out his tactical instructions with players such as Gary Cahill and Patrick van Aanholt being regular starters.
This season, with the help of the recruitment staff, Vieira has managed to lower the average age of the squad to 27.6 by bringing in some highly-talented young players such as Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher on loan as well as Michael Olise, Joachim Andersen, Marc Guéhi, Will Hughes and Odsonne Édouard.
With Palace shipping out several ageing stars including Scott Dann, Gary Cahill, Andros Townsend, van Aanholt, Wayne Hennessey, Mamadou Sakho and James McCarthy, the starting XI now has a much more vibrant look about it while maintaining a strong core of experience.
This is Crystal Palace’s predominant starting lineup this season so far. One of the most important signings made by Vieira was undoubtedly Gallagher. His role will be analysed in further detail throughout this article but the 22-year-old has the second-highest number of pressures made per 90 in the Premier League so far after 11 matches with 25.7 per 90. Only Everton’s Allan has attempted more.
High block phase
One of the starkest contrasts between Vieira’s coaching philosophy to his predecessor comes in the different approach to how Palace have set up while the opposition have the ball in the build-up phase.
When an attacking team is in the build-up phase of the attack, the defending side is also, generally, in the high pressing phase. However, not all managers want their players to press in a high block and so the team out of possession can drop back into shape in the middle third of the pitch, completely bypassing the high-block stage.
Under Hodgson, the now-74-year-old was not so contented to allow his team to commit bodies high up the pitch in a coordinated press, particularly against higher-quality opponents. Palace generally bypassed this phase and sat compact in their defensive shape.
Here is an example of a game against Manchester City towards the end of last season. City, notoriously known for their exemplary build-up play, were given the free run of the first third for the backline to bring the ball deeper.
Fernandinho, in the previous image, has taken the ball from Ederson in goal and has lightly jogged into the middle third of the pitch where Palace have set up in a 4-3-3 medium-level, compact defensive block.
In Hodgson’s mind, City were a superior team at moving the ball from the build-up phase to the middle third and so instructed his side to drop into a mid-block from the get-go instead of wasting their time going toe-to-toe with the opposition which would likely leave space for City to exploit further up the pitch once the press was broken.
Here is another example of this against Chelsea from last season. Palace have bypassed the high-pressing phase, allowing Chelsea to have possession in their build-up stage of the attack without any pressure while dropping further and further back into their 4-4-2 compact mid-block.
Last season, the Eagles had the third-highest Passes allowed Per Defensive Action in the Premier League on average with 16.8. Only Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United had a higher PPDA.
For those unfamiliar with PPDA, the higher the number, the less a team presses, essentially, as they allow more passes from the opposition before trying to make a defensive action.
This season, there have been clear tactical demands from the new manager that he wants his team to be pressing high, regardless of the opponent. Palace’s PPDA so far in the current league campaign is 12.22, a vast difference from last season’s numbers.
The south London-based club are one of the best in the league regarding challenge intensity which calculates ‘duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession’, according to Wyscout. As of writing, their challenge intensity is 6.1.
Another interesting statistic is that Palace have performed the sixth-highest number of pressing sequences in the league so far with 89.
When defending in a high block under the new head coach, Palace’s shape often looks like 4-2-1-3, or lopsided 4-2-3-1 as Gallagher pushes higher to mark the deepest pivot player from the opposition as he has done in the previous image.
Their press is generally not as intense as a team like Liverpool or Leeds United, hence why Palace boast a higher PPDA, but is still effective when coordinated properly. Their press is man-oriented and the tactical instruction from the manager is to ensure that the nearest passing options are always marked.
The centre-forward, of course, leads the press. Their role is to force the opposition’s centre-backs wide where Palace can use the touchline as an extra defender to try and force a turnover of possession high up the pitch.
This is an example of a well-worked press from Palace’s recent 2-0 victory against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
When the ball is forced out wide after the centre-forward angles their run to do so, Palace shift their players across, maintaining a close distance between each player while ensuring that all of the opposition’s nearest passing options are marked or blocked through a cover shadow.
Vieira’s side are averaging 35.9 pressures in the attacking third per 90 in the Premier League which is the sixth-highest. Contrasting this with last season, Palace were averaging just 26.5 pressures in this section of the pitch, the third-lowest.
Regardless, this season, the Eagles have been successful in just 27.9% of their pressures so there is still a lot to work to do for the 45-year-old French manager. What is encouraging though, is that they have scored twice from successful presses so far this season.
More active further down the pitch
There are two more defensive phases a team must go through when the opposition has a positional attack. These are the mid-block and the low-block phases.
Vieira’s Crystal Palace are far more active in the middle-third of the pitch, looking to regain possession in this area. On the other hand, Hodgson wanted his men to remain compact and disciplined to contain the team in possession and force them to play in predictable areas of the pitch.
Under the experienced coach, Palace deployed a zonal defensive block. The idea was that Palace would remain very narrow and compact, quashing any space between the lines for the opposition.
This image from last season shows an example of Palace’s 4-1-4-1 zonal mid-block. The space between the lines is very compact which makes it tough for the team in possession to find players in this area.
When the ball does reach these players, the distance between each of Palace’s players was minimal and so multiple, players could quickly close the ball-receiver down before he was able to turn and potentially play forward.
This is a prerequisite for a zonal block and is something that Hodgson’s side were well-drilled at. When defending in a zonal defensive unit, if the ball enters inside the block, the players must close the ball-carrier down quickly to either force a turnover of possession or else to force the ball back outside the block.
Interestingly, while Hodgson’s Palace were not as active in this middle third as Vieira’s men, they still boasted 62.6 pressures in this section of the pitch per 90 which was the sixth-highest in the Premier League last season.
Vieira’s Palace, though, are far more active in this phase and set up differently. The Eagles are currently averaging 72.9 pressures in the middle third per 90 this season which is the highest in the Premier League.
With the 4-3-3 as their base formation, Palace generally sit in a 4-5-1 mid-block with the wingers dropping back to create the line of five.
Vieira wants his team to be far more ball-oriented in this phase as opposed to his predecessor’s preferences for a zonal system.
This essentially means that Palace shift their entire defensive block in unison with where the ball is, picking up the closest passing options to the ball-carrier instead of having set players defend zonally or in a man-marking style.
When in their 4-5-1 shape, Gallagher is always tasked with pushing up next to the centre-forward to create a two-man first line of pressure which creates a temporary 4-4-2 shape.
Gallagher is energetic and hard-working and is vital for Palace in the defensive phases. He is constantly causing the opposition problems and his defensive efforts in one of the Eagles’ recent games even managed to contribute to the opening goal which was subsequently the winner.
In the first image, Palace had dropped into the 4-5-1 mid-block, closing passing lanes between the lines, leaving only the wide areas open for the next pass.
Gallagher stepped up out of his position to press the ball-carrier who mistakenly tried to play into the congested central spaces. While doing so, the wingers tuck in closer to the two central midfielders, ensuring that the passing lanes to the space between the lines are still blocked.
The Chelsea loanee nicks the ball and Wilfried Zaha is set through on goal to slot past Ederson.
What is extremely interesting when comparing Vieira’s defensive principles with those of Hodgson, is that the Frenchman wants his team to press closer to the goal at all times. If Palace can’t win the ball in the high-press, then they will try again in the mid-block phase, with the low block being the final line of duty, of course.
The defensive third of the pitch is where Hodgson liked his side to win the ball and hit the opponent on the break, in transition, with rapid attacks — in theory at least.
His thought process was that the team can soak up the pressure, invite the opponents deep into Palace’s half which would leave oceans of space behind their backline to exploit on the counterattack.
Palace boasted the second-highest pressures attempted in the first third of the pitch per 90 in the 2020/21 campaign with 60.9. This is more than the current season’s numbers which stand at 54.9 per 90. However, Palace are pressuring the opponent higher up the pitch under Vieira, as explicitly stated throughout this article, which explains the numerical difference.
An important principle under Hodgson was that his side would hold their position at the edge of the box for as long as possible.
Here, Mohamed Elneny has entered into the final third, with the ball. The Egyptian international is about to play in behind but Palace are holding their position at the edge of the penalty area for as long as possible.
This is because dropping into the box is a collapsed state of defending and it can be really difficult to transition from there. By holding their shape at the edge of the box in games, Hodgson believed there was a better chance of turning over the ball and hitting the opponent on the break.
It is also worthy to note how deep the centre-forward is in the previous image. Hodgson wanted all ten outfield players back defending in this section of the field.
The rest of the principles that Hodgson implemented in this phase was to contain the opposition. The experienced manager wanted his players to keep forcing the team to play into predictable areas and out wide. Once a backwards pass to the backline occurred, then the block would push up the field in unison.
Vieira’s side are not too dissimilar when defending in a low block. Interestingly though, they are far more susceptible to collapsing their low block into the box than under Hodgson despite Vieira’s emphasis on constantly applying pressure to the opposition.
Perhaps this is a trait that the new manager wants to train out of his players but at the moment, it looks like a tactical ploy. When in this defensive state, the backline stays very narrow.
In this example, the fullbacks are extremely narrow while the ball-near winger is pressing Jack Grealish on the left flank which allows the right-back to tuck inside.
Zaha has also come back into the defensive third which is similar to Hodgson’s Palace side. The issue with doing this is that transitioning from defence to attack efficiently is difficult as all of the outfielders are in the first third of the pitch.
Nonetheless, the Eagles’ defensive record this season has been incredible. Their expected goals against (xGA) from open play over the course of the campaign so far stands at 6.2 which is the second-lowest in the league next to Man City.
Their overall xGA per game after the first eleven matches of the season is 1.36 while they are conceding just 1.17 per 90 on average. Last season, Palace’s xGA per game was 1.84 but in reality the Eagles conceded 1.62 goals per 90.
Palace have been far more secure from a defensive standpoint this season, conceding fewer shots and fewer high-quality chances despite being far riskier with their set-up in a high and mid-block.
The Eagles are soaring and have seen some fantastic performances so far under Vieira, playing football the fans can be proud of. While Hodgson did an admirable job in charge at Selhurst Park, seeing Palace pressing high against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium and Liverpool at Anfield is a beautiful sight to behold.