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Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev: The over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers

Strikers Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, 38 and 36 years old respectively, have been playing top-tier football for more than a decade. In this Serie A season, they have both recorded more than 20 appearances for their club, Bologna and Genoa. 

This analysis focuses on the tactics and style of play of Palacio and Pandev. Through the use of data and footage, this tactical analysis will unpack their movements and decision-making to point out the unique features that allow them to be difference makers in Serie A.

Overview

Palacio has played 2,043 minutes in 25 Serie A games this season, scoring six goals and recording three assists. In Bologna’s 4-2-3-1, manager Siniša Mihajlović employs him as the number “9,” usually supported by attacking midfielder Roberto Soriano and wingers Andrea Orsolini and Nicola Sansone.

Pandev has scored seven goals in 1,145 minute, often occupying one of the two front positions in Genoa’s 3-5-2. Since taking over the team last December, manager Davide Nicola has regularly employed Pandev next to Antonio Sanabria. Pandev is also the current captain of the North Macedonia national team. 

Palacio and Pandev belong to the list of the six oldest strikers in Serie A, along with SPAL’s Sergio Floccari (38), AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimović (38), Sampdoria’s Fabio Quagliarella (37), and Fiorentina’s Cyril Théréau (37). Despite being veterans, Palacio and Pandev keep performing critical attacking duties when it comes to being decisive in front of goal, attacking the space at the right time, unmarking with double movements and positioning in a way that allows them to consistently be an offensive threat to the opponent’s defence.

Killer instinct

A strong goal-scorer instinct distinguishes Palacio and Pandev. The Bologna striker averages 0.3 goals per 90 minutes, but it is the nature of his goals that particularly displays his qualities as a poacher in the box. 

While defenders often get caught staring at the ball after a strike on target, Palacio has an instinct of following the direction of the shot. That is why he is often first to the ball in case of a goalkeeper’s save. The picture below shows him tapping in the rebound after the shot by midfielder Mattias Svanberg hits the post. In the same fashion, Palacio scored Bologna’s 1-0 goal against Atalanta, that time converting a rebound off the post after a shot by Orsolini.

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Pandev has especially shown his killer instinct in the percentage of shots that he has been able to convert into goals this season. Despite having taken only 22 shots so far (he ranks 142nd in shots per 90 minutes in Serie A), his finishing has proven to be one of the deadliest in the league. 

The chart below measures the conversion rate of the current Serie A top-10 goal scorers against Pandev’s conversion rate, which currently sits at 31.8 percent. In other words, Pandev scores a goal for Genoa every 3.1 shots.  By contrast, Juventus‘s Cristiano Ronaldo, whose conversion rate lays at 16.2 percent, needs twice the number of Pandev’s shots to score a goal (6.2).

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Attacking the space

Palacio is a highly mobile, unselfish striker who is willing to make many runs to create space for himself and his teammates. With 10,366 meters, he ranks third in distance covered among strikers who played at least 2,000 minutes this Serie A season. Only Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Cagliari’s Joao Pedro have covered more ground than him. 

Palacio has the ability to recognize the right moment to attack the space behind the opponent’s defensive line. Specifically, he initiates his run when his teammates pick up their head and are about to execute a pass forward. By recognizing these situations, he often beats his defenders to the ball. 

The picture below shows how Palacio dictates his teammate’s pass with his movements. By the time Bologna midfielder Andrea Poli puts his foot under the ball to deliver the cross, Palacio has already positioned his body sideways for a sprint toward the space behind Lazio’s centre-back. His opponent, in turn, reacts more slowly, as we can see by the fact that his body is still in a flat posture. 

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Pandev is likewise fast at identifying the moments when he should attack the space behind the opponent’s defensive line. In both instances shown below, the timing of his movement makes a difference; despite being outnumbered, he is able to beat the defenders to the ball. In the left image, taken from Genoa’s home game against Sassuolo, Pandev ends up scoring on Andrea Favilli’s pass. Note how the Sassuolo centre-back is so worried about Pandev’s run that he turns his head toward him, taking his eyes away from the position of the ball.

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Double movements

Double movements are keys for strikers when they want to create separation between themselves and the defenders marking them. These double movements entail two opposite runs: a deceptive long movement followed by a quick change of direction to show for a short pass, or vice versa. 

As a striker that likes taking up offensive play-making duties, Palacio makes many “long-short” double movements to carve out pockets of space between the defensive and midfield lines. In the picture below, Palacio’s body posture suggests that he is asking for a long ball from Soriano. Afraid that Palacio will exploit the space behind his back, Lazio’s defender Patric reacts by following the run of the Bologna striker.

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Now, Palacio makes a strong cut and shows underneath Patric for a short pass, thus completing the second phase of the double movement. Even though Bologna’s midfielder Soriano ends up choosing a different passing option, the picture below shows how Palacio has created separation between himself and Patric.

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Pandev showcased his double-movement mastery in Genoa’s most recent Serie A game away at AC Milan. As his attacking partner, Sanabria, drives the ball toward the box from the right side, Pandev initiates a movement to get rid of the marking by AC Milan centre-back Matteo Gabbia. Pandev’s double movement begins with a short burst toward the ball. 

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Gabbia reacts to Pandev’s run by shifting his balance to his front leg, an action that shows that he is ready to get tight on the Genoa striker. As Gabbia steps toward Pandev, however, this cuts in the opposite direction. The Genoa striker is now sprinting toward the free space on the far post, where teammate Sanabria is more likely to deliver a cross.Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

When Gabbia reacts to Pandev’s movement, it is too late. A one-meter separation is all that Pandev needs to receive the ball and tap it in for Genoa’s 1-0 lead.Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Positioning

Palacio has shown a tendency to linger behind the defensive line whenever he does not represent a passing option for his teammates. As a striker who relies on mobility more than physical prowess (he is 176-centimetres tall), Palacio knows that his unpredictability depends on eluding tight marking. Staying out of the defenders’ radar is one of the strategies that he frequently employs.

In the left picture, we can see Palacio standing behind Lazio’s defenders while giving directions to his teammates with his left arm. From that perspective, Palacio can scan his surroundings while waiting for the right time to make a sharp movement and surprise the defenders, who are not aware of where he is. Just four seconds later (right picture), we can see him receiving the ball unmarked and going on a 1v1 situation against the goalkeeper. Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

While this allows Palacio to be unpredictable offensively, floating up and down the defensive line has caused him to often fall victim to the offside trap. He currently leads Serie A in total offsides with 21, along with Ronaldo.

Pandev similarly takes advantage of his years of experience to always occupy the most dangerous positions in the box. In both pictures below, which show Genoa’s hosting Brescia and Udinese, Pandev recognizes that the position of his teammates has attracted the opponent’s defensive line into their six-yard box. Although strikers score many goals from that space, it is now too congested for Pandev to run into. 

This is why we see him slowing down the pace of his run and inviting his teammates to deliver a cut-back pass toward the top of the box. Note how Pandev’s smart positioning allows him to stay away from tight defending.

Rodrigo Palacio and Goran Pandev, the over 36-year-old Serie A difference makers tactics

Conclusion

Despite being 38 and 36 years old, Palacio and Pandev keep showing unique finishing abilities, which make them essential players for Bologna and Genoa. Palacio has contributed to nine out of 38 Bologna goals. Pandev has an average of 0.6 goals per 90 minutes, ranking eighth in this category among the Serie A strikers who have played a minimum of 1,000 minutes.

Besides being decisive around the goal, the two veteran strikers regularly display clever decision-making. They know when to attack the space, how to elude tight defending, and where to position themselves in the box to be a consistent threat for the opponent. Since Palacio and Pandev are currently two of the six oldest strikers in the league, maintaining physical form will be key to continue getting significant playing time in Serie A.