ANALYSIS: Over-elaborate Eagles miss their chance again

Alan O’Brien 

As soon as news of Wilfried Zaha’s absence filtered through, this result had fait accompli written all over it. Crystal Palace have lost the last 11 Premier League games Zaha has missed, after all. But Tottenham Hotspur were anything but fluent in victory here; again. And Palace, if they were not so insistent upon playing into their visitors’ hands, could well have made them pay.

CRYTOT_1819

That’s a grimly familiar story for long-suffering Eagles fans, who have watched their nearly-men fall to five mostly unfortunate defeats in the last six games. The 2-2 draw with Arsenal, too, could easily have ended in victory for Roy Hodgson’s ill-starred side.

Last weekend’s 3-1 defeat at Chelsea ensued, throughout which Palace’s front-two again showed occasional signs of troubling a top-six defence unaccustomed to facing such an anachronistic threat. Maurizio Sarri’s side, like Arsenal before them, encouraged both full-backs forward, leaving acres of channel-space into which both Zaha and Andros Townsend could forage.

Over-elaborate Eagles

If only their teammates were instructed to pick them out. Hodgson has often been accused of over-favouring the long ball during his long and storied managerial career. But after three consecutive games against the heavy-hitters, all primed to press and counterpress, the 71-year-old actually stands guilty of over-elaboration.

Ten Premier League sides play more long balls than Palace; a status quo that, admittedly may be magnified by Christian Benteke’s continued absence. And, in the first-half here, the Eagles actually attempted fewer than Tottenham, who rubbed their hands with glee at the sight of Palace defenders trying vainly to play their way out of trouble.

So, for the third game running, Palace fell victim to pressure. Against Arsenal, it was Luka Milivojevic who looked most discomfited, resulting in the foul that set the scene for Granit Xhaka’s free-kick equaliser. And the Serbian erred again here on the half-hour mark, losing possession in the defensive-third once more. With both Townsend and Zaha’s replacement Jordan Ayew champing at the channel-running bit, Palace instead elected to pass sideways. Milivojevic slipped under pressure, allowing the otherwise woeful Harry Kane to exact his only shot on target.

Central congestion

To describe Kane as cutting a peripheral figure — during the opening quarter in particular — would stand as the understatement of the century. The England captain effected just three touches in the first 22 minutes, as Palace’s customarily compact 4-4-2 denied Tottenham space in central positions.

Given that Mauricio Pochettino again plumped for his appropriately seasonal 4-3-2-1 system, that was a big problem for Spurs. The Argentinian’s narrow attack, in which both Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela were instructed to play close to Kane, played very much into Hodgson’s hands. Tottenham’s only shot on goal of the opening quarter resulted from Moussa Sissoko using sheer force of will to bundle past four Palace defenders, turning a seemingly benign throw-in into a vital Mamadou Sakho block.

Palace were definitely in the ascendancy during those early exchanges, and their first genuine chance underlined the folly of Hodgson’s short-passing approach. Townsend ran off Toby Alderweireld, in behind match-winner Juan Foyth, to collect a Sakho long ball. The forward’s resultant effort hit the side-netting, but the close-shave stood as a lesson to Hodgson; a lesson he refused to heed.

Spurs look wide

As the half wore on, Tottenham gradually adjusted to Palace’s defensive shape, looking wide for progress instead. Both Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier’s early replacement Serge Aurier began to assume extremely high starting positions on the touchlines, at the edge of Palace’s defensive third. Sissoko and Dele Alli duly spread wide to compensate and guard against Palace counterattacks.

Within the five minutes prior to Kane’s aforementioned effort, Davies delivered two delectably whipped crosses that both bamboozled the Palace defence. And Aurier was not to be denied on the other flank either, chipping the back-post cross from which Moura should have headed the opener. That chance, incidentally, resulted from James McArthur coughing up possession in a dangerous area after Palace — you guessed it — tried and failed to play through Spurs’ press again.

By half-time, the Eagles’ early upper-hand was but a distant memory, and Hodgson’s guile-free side were merely hanging on. The hosts, who have yet to score an open-play goal at Selhurst Park this season, attempted no shots on Hugo Lloris’ goal from minutes 16 to 45. With Max Meyer crowded out by the central midfield congestion, Palace were bereft of creativity. And, given their insistence upon eschewing the direct approach, only some high-pressing of their own hinted at potential joy.

Palace press

As seen against Arsenal and Chelsea, Palace again pressed high at restarts and when Lloris possessed the football. The French goalkeeper looked particularly discommoded, as did Foyth who directed one backpass straight out for a corner, but the hosts just could not capitalise on the indecision their tireless running engendered. Ayew, who ran his heart out against Arsenal too, put in another brilliant shift, covering more distance than any other player.

The beginning of the second-half brought with it no real tactical tweaks. Although Kane did spend much of the second stanza manning the inside-left role in a desperate attempt to find his mojo. Ten touches by game’s end suggests his cause was a futile one.

But the striker did conjure a decisive penalty-area connection, after his set-piece marker James Tomkins departed injured. Tomkins’ replacement Martin Kelly lost Kane at a Lamela corner, allowing the striker to head the ball off a Palace defender and straight into Foyth’s grateful path. Davies, a near-permanent fixture at the byline by this point, had initially won the corner, after the excellent Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked the full-back’s attempted cross behind.

Flying Dutchman

Both Wan-Bissaka and Patrick van Aanholt spent a decent chunk of time in the opposition half too, as neither Moura nor Lamela were minded to follow them. The Dutchman saw particular joy, becoming Palace’s most prominent player as the hosts sought to successfully chase a deficit for only the second time in nine attempts. Quite why Pochettino refused to switch to a more reserved system is anyone’s guess, and the Argentinian was fortunate when van Aanholt’s blocked effort was fluffed by Townsend on the ricochet.

There was worse to come for Tottenham, however, as Pochettino’s loose defensive shape offered Milivojevic a long-range shooting opportunity in injury-time. Foyth blocked the Serbian’s effort, but the ball bounced through fortuitously for the substitute Alexander Sorloth…who, predictably, fluffed his lines. The lumbering Norwegian’s wait for a maiden Palace goal goes on, as does Hodgson’s search for a half-decent striker to share Zaha’s considerable burden.

Conclusion

Tottenham escaped an unconvincing road showing with three points then, and not for the first time this season. Palace, meanwhile, must reflect on yet another defeat to which they were damned by their now chronic profligacy. Hodgson’s side are underachieving their expected-points total by a margin of nearly six, a division high.

Benteke, injured since September, missed four big chances in the defeat to Southampton alone. Ayew has never scored more than seven Premier League goals, Connor Wickham is a permanent treatment-table fixture, and Sorloth will never be of the required standard. For those weary Eagles fans, many of whom will foolishly demand Hodgson’s head on a platter after this one, January can’t come soon enough.

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