Premier League: Three tactical talking points from Matchday 18

Alan O’Brien 

1) Pacy Palace playing to their strengths under Hodgson

Turning Crystal Palace into a tiki-taka media darling is a long-held goal of chairman Steve Parish. Hence his summer decision to hire Frank de Boer, against the alleged protestations of the club’s American paymasters.

The Dutchman was tasked with bringing Total Football to Selhurst Park. Instead, his four-game tenure ended in total failure, with no goals and no points.

Fresh from standing under the Sam Allardyce learning tree, the Palace squad looked ill-suited to a possession-based, Cruyffian approach. Enter Roy Hodgson, who has quickly got them playing to their strengths again.

Surprisingly, despite sitting bottom of the league upon Hodgson’s arrival, the Eagles were out-dribbling all 19 of their Premier peers. With pace to burn, and a physical-but-limited defence behind, Palace’s forward line was crying out for a counter-attacking outlook. Hodgson provided it.

Central to this successful change-of-tack is the compactness the ex-England manager has already engendered. Configured in the 4-4-2 he helped to popularise in Scandinavia many moons ago, the gaps between Hodgson’s troops are minimal.

Wide midfielders Andros Townsend and Ruben Loftus-Cheek play very narrowly in the defensive phase, as do the back-four. In that way, the opposition is frustrated, and forced wide by the lack of space between the lines. Palace’s well-drilled defensive unit duly shuttles laterally to meet them.

LEICRY

Leicester City 0-3 Crystal Palace: Both sides focused their play down the left, with spectacular results for the visitors.

Benefits also accrue to Palace’s attacking transitions. Playing so close together, and drilled to move as a unit, the players combine more frequently, and easily, on the break.

Already unbeaten in six prior to meeting Leicester City on Saturday, it all came together in spectacular fashion at the King Power Stadium. Claude Puel’s side were made to look incredibly loose by the speed of Palace’s counter-attacks. And, in scenes reminiscent of the Foxes recent win at Newcastle, Wes Morgan was again exposed up against two strikers.

With his central midfield often distanced by Palace’s fleet-footed forwards, Morgan was frequently forced to leave his defensive line — usually to confront Christian Benteke. This created space for strike partner Wilfried Zaha, and others, to gleefully invade.

Zaha’s understanding with Loftus-Cheek is already fearsome. Aided and abetted by Jeffrey Schlupp’s overlaps, the latter regularly drifted inside, creating space for the former to do the opposite. Both they, and Townsend, stand among the division’s top six dribblers too.

Benteke scored one goal from Townsend’s right-wing crosses, and should have had three. Leicester are no physical slouches themselves, but even they must have blanched at the number of Palace bodies in their box to meet each and every wide delivery.

Running tirelessly together, with the ball and without, the Eagles continue to excel in a style to which they are accustomed.

2) The Marco Silva myth?

Perhaps the ‘proper football men’ of this world were right, after all. Gripes about Marco Silva’s appointment at Hull City from that quarter preceded more grumblings at his front-running to succeed Ronald Koeman at Everton. One of their own, the deceptively progressive ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce, eventually got the gig in the Portuguese’s stead.

But maybe that was the right call from Farhad Moshiri. Since succeeding Walter Mazzarri, Silva has certainly ramped up the entertainment quotient at Vicarage Road. But murmurs are rightly growing about the young manager’s defensive deficiencies.

Saturday’s 4-1 home defeat to newly-promoted Huddersfield Town was extremely disquieting, particularly the manner of Elias Kachunga’s opener. For the seventh time this season, Silva’s zonal system failed to prevent a corner-kick from bearing fruit. In total, Watford have already shipped ten goals from indirect set-pieces.

The last five games, including four defeats, have also laid bare the appalling defensive structure Silva presides over. Manchester United punished the Hornets on the break time and time again throughout November’s 4-2 triumph. Burnley’s winner also owed much to an AWOL central midfield.

And Palace’s late, late comeback win saw Silva leave Abdoulaye Doucouré alone in a 5-3-1 after Tom Cleverley’s dismissal. James McArthur popped up unmarked in the box to grab an injury-time winner. A winner that was teed up by Zaha, who both Daryl Janmaat and substitute Kiko Femenia failed embarrassingly to quell.

Doucouré’s six-goal contribution, many mid-rangers from the ‘D’, speaks to the kind of midfielder he really is; not a holder anyway, that’s for sure. An early season 4-2-3-1, when Nathaniel Chalobah was fit, masked his and Cleverley’s shared indiscipline. The current 3-4-2-1 system does not.

At least it’s getting the best out of South American sensation Richarlison. The on-fire left-winger has had a direct hand in nine of Watford’s 27 league goals. Only Leicester funnel more of their attacking play down the left-flank than Silva’s side. Maybe that post-Mazzarri excitement has more to do with the Brazilian than it does Silva. And that’s before you consider the plethora of big chances the wide forward hasn’t taken.

Opponents are certainly taking their chances at the moment, however. And the manner of Huddersfield’s second goal on Saturday made for particularly grim viewing. Collin Quaner ran off José Holebas, as he did for the third goal too. After Adrian Mariappa kicked air on the goal-line from Quaner’s resultant cross, Aaron Mooy bagged the tap-in. Mooy’s marker, Doucouré, lost his man yet again.

Watford are second only to Stoke City in the goals conceded stakes, despite their top-half status. But if Silva fails to get a handle on his side’s defensive structure, and defence of set-pieces, that status won’t last very long.

3) Bournemouth revert to type at the worst possible time

In 2015/16, the Cherries’ first Premier League season, Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth shipped 67 goals. Only relegated pair Aston Villa and Norwich City outstripped that undesirable tally.

Howe was lauded for his side’s progressive, attractive style of play, nonetheless. Indeed, outside the traditional top six, no side pressed more frequently in the opposition-half. Bournemouth won a lot of admirers, and some big scalps, with their positivity. But there’s a fine line between optimism and naivety. And Howe crossed it on Sunday.

Howe’s high-pressing tendencies have moderated over the last two seasons. According to understat.com, the Cherries were only the 11th most aggressive pressers last season. This season they have retreated further, employing a deeper block on average than all but two sides — Brighton and Stoke, for those taking notes!

The goals-conceded column looks healthier, but results have gone in the opposite direction. Effective counter-attacking looks beyond a group of players who still appear encouraged to practice a possession-based game. Poacher Jermaine Defoe has not profited from this paucity of verticality.

BOUWHOSCORED

Marvel at Bournemouth’s ultra-tentative defence.

A defence unused to playing so deep looks very tentative too. Bournemouth have allowed far more passes within 20 yards of their goal than any other club. They have also completed fewer tackles and interceptions than their peers. And they sit bottom in the offside-trap stakes too, further underlining how reluctant Howe’s defence is to push out and confront the opposition.

All of which contributed to the hiding Liverpool meted out last weekend. In which Howe bizarrely returned to a high block against one of the league’s most fearsome counter-attacking sides. Liverpool easily played through the Cherries’ broken press, most notably for Philippe Coutinho’s opener. The gap between forwards Defoe and Josh King, and Howe’s resolutely deep back four, was truly staggering.

The hype surrounding the 40-year-old Howe has waned in recent months. If tactical flubs like this persist, that trend will only continue, as will the alarming pace of Bournemouth’s downwardly-mobile trajectory.

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