By Naveen Maliakkal
While Tony Pulis no longer manages Crystal Palace, Alan Pardew will probably have his side play a reactive style against Arsenal, this Saturday. However, it may not prove wise for them to go with the 4-4-2 set-up that led to so many problems against Liverpool.
In that FA Cup match, Crystal Palace set up in a 4-4-2, with the front two, particularly Marouane Chamakh, keen to drop into midfield, in an effort to better cope with Liverpool’s 3-4-2-1. However, with Chamakh trying to stay tight to Joe Allen, who Palace probably identified as a player they needed to mark to disrupt Liverpool’s possession, and Frazier Campbell trying to position himself as high up the pitch as he could, to maximize his effectiveness on counters, there existed an asymmetry in Palace’s shape. Their lack of defensive resources on the right-side of the pitch allowed the likes of Emre Can and Jordan Henderson plenty of freedom to move forward¹. With Liverpool pushing their wingbacks high up, Palace’s wide players, Yannick Bolasie and Dwight Gayle, were level with the back line more than Pardew probably wanted. With sometimes six at the back and Chamakh attached to Joe Allen, Palace called for Joel Ward and Joe Ledley to cover a large amount of space.
Liverpool had an easy time keeping possession, due to Palace’s inability to cover the spaces occupied by their opponent’s midfielders. With Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool could outnumber Palace in various zones, with ease. It also meant that Jordan Henderson could play a more vertical, which better suited his attributes. And if Chamakh did not stay with Joe Allen, Allen could receive the ball and look to play in one of Liverpool’s deeper-lying runners or play an uncontested pass through Palace’s lines. While Palace did have two center-backs keeping an eye on Sturridge, the introduction of Mario Balotelli allowed the English striker more freedom from his markers, which played a key role in the goal he scored.
But what may have proved most shocking, when watching that match, was Crystal Palace’s passivity, out of possession. When defending deep, the team looks to limit the amount of offside space they need to control. At the same time, they concede quite a bit of on-side space. This means that the team must have a stranglehold on the space the actual team shape occupies, particularly central areas. Failure to control these areas represents a huge problem. Since the team is defending so close to their own goal, such failure leads to the opponent gaining control of a rather dangerous area of the pitch. Therefore, passivity represents a perilous path for Palace.
Stretch Out the Build-Up
While Francis Coquelin has provided a substantial upgrade over Mathieu Flamini, he has shown a lack of ability to provide what Arsenal need, when the team has possession. That is not to say that Coquelin plays like Denilson. Coquelin’s issues do not stem from a lack of verticality in his passing game, but a poor understanding of passing lanes and space, so to make himself available to the man on the ball or create space for his teammates. As Sergio Busquets has shown for Barcelona (note the critique of Song), having a player that understands what to do when his team has the ball, regardless of whether he has the ball, is essential for a side who want to control the ball and space, simultaneously.
Without this player, in matches where Arsenal wish to/end up controlling possession, successful build-up will probably require a less vertical midfield arrangement. Instead of having the holder draw defenders to open up passing lanes to the more advanced central midfielders, Arsenal will probably have to rely on the likes of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil dropping deeper to provide passing options for Arsenal’s center backs. A way of doing this could involve both Ozil and Cazorla dropping into the space between Palace’s front two and the midfield line. In the wide areas, Arsenal could use the fullbacks or a fullback and Coquelin to stretch the pitch horizontally. This method of horizontal expansiveness, in the build-up, could aid in Arsenal’s ability to retain possession, as well as increasing the points of entry into the space behind the front two. This could be particularly beneficial, if Crystal Palace attempt to defend in a mid-block, as opposed to a low block.
Keep It Compact in the Final Third
Against a deep defending side that plays in a compact shape, it is important to move the opposition from side-to-side. Obviously, forcing the opponent to work harder out of possession has the benefit of tiring the opposition. In addition to that, the team should take advantage of their technical ability by making the ball move faster than their opposition.
However, the positioning of the team plays an important role. While calls for greater width are common commentary during EPL matches, excessive width, really excessive spacing, can slow down the agility of ball movement. Passes have to travel too far, taking too much time to reach their destination. Not only does this allow the opposition to get into position to deal with the consequences of the pass, but it limits the ability for the team in possession to exploit spaces as they appear, over time. The long pass that gets played, is played due to the nature of the game at time t. The more time the pass takes, the further the game state may have changed from time t, meaning that the team in possession has greater need to reallocate their resources, including the ball, to best exploit space. Therefore, by maintaining a more compact shape in the attacking third, Arsenal can better respond to the dynamic nature of the match.
Specifically, Arsenal may want to focus on playing from half-space to half-space, reducing their investment in the outer sixths of the pitch. If Arsenal can push Palace’s wide players, in the midfield line, in to the back line, then Arsenal can exploit Palace’s reliance on two, or three, players manning the midfield zone. This could involve creating an overload in the half-space on one side, to drag Palace’s midfield to that side, creating space for the midfielder, in the opposite half-space, to receive the ball. For example, in the right half-space, Chambers, Cazorla, Sanchez, and Giroud cluster together, dragging Palace’s midfield over to them. In the left half-space, Mesut Ozil could take up a position, free from the opposition. With Palace’s midfield out of position, and Arsenal compact enough, playing half-space to half-space, the ball can quickly move to Ozil. There he has plenty of time and space, with only the back line in front of him. At that point, Ozil can dribble at the back line, bringing back memories of his days at Werder Bremen. He could play in an overlapping left-back or the most advanced player on the left. Ozil could also play the ball back from whence it came. With all those players on the right side, and Ozil free on the left, the German through-ball master has plenty of candidates to make a run into the box. With the center backs probably concerned more with Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez, midfield runs beyond the back line could help to create quality chances for Arsenal. And if Mesut Ozil is given time and space to pick out such runs, it means that Arsenal stand a good chance of scoring.
Cutbacks over Crosses
With Palace looking to control central areas of the pitch, there is a danger that Arsenal’s possession turns rather U-shaped. Instead of achieving control of central spaces, Arsenal look to move the ball into wide areas, as it is the path of least resistance. Those spaces are under less control by Palace, but also pose less of a goal threat.
And Crystal Palace want this to happen. In a wide area, they have an additional defender who covers quite a bit of space, in the touchline. Also, if Arsenal wish to move the ball from a wide area into the center, via an aerial cross, Palace have plenty of aerial ability to deal with the first ball². With how deep Palace will probably defend, playing a successful cross, behind the back line, could prove difficult, despite Olivier Giroud’s proficiency at the near post.
Instead, Arsenal should probably take advantage of Palace’s desire to defend deep and keep men behind the ball. When the ball is played wide, maybe it could be played into the space behind the back line, allowing someone to run onto the ball. As Palace retreat, space at the top of the 18-yard box might be vacated. If the wide players in Palace’s midfield line find themselves in the back line, when the ball is cut back, then the amount of potential space at the top of the box only increases. Without the depth in defense, due to a line of 6 at the back and a duo ahead of them, a cut back only has to break through one defensive line to find a player with plenty of time and space to shoot, dribble, or pass. And these cutbacks do not have to exclusively come from overlapping runs³.
Alexis Sanchez’s dribbling could allow him to beat a player in a wide area, allowing him to move inside, parallel to the byline. From there, he can cause a similar amount of chaos in Palace’s team shape and play a cutback, to devastating effect.
Sometimes You Have To Zig Before You Can Zag
With this match setting up as Palace trying to concede possession, but control important spaces, Arsenal need to wrest control of the spaces that will help them produce goals, as it seems unlikely that Palace will easily concede such spaces. To gain control of these spaces, they need to draw their opponent away from the spaces their opponents seek to control. To do this, Arsenal need to dangle bait—the ball and players—to convince their opponent to divest from these precious spaces. In the build-up, players may need to come short to help advance play and create space for more advanced players. In the final third, Arsenal may need to allocate resources toward a side of play, with the ultimate goal of creating time and space for a player on the other side. From wide areas, Arsenal may need to move the ball behind Palace’s back line, to create a shot in front of Palace’s back line.
Ideally, a team looking to do this has all XI players playing roles in possession, allowing for greater manipulation of the opposition. It will be interesting to see whether Arsenal’s less than optimal options, particularly at holding midfield, prevent Arsenal from creating the misdirection that seems like the best path to victory. For, if Arsenal want to progress as a side that can truly compete for honors, they need to have the ability to control space with their possession, as well as control space without it.
¹Having a center-back who can step into midfield is an important part of a team that wants to play a possession-based game. It gives the side more of an ability to exploit space when it appears, increases interaction among all the players in possession, and helps to draw defenders out, allowing teammates to find pockets of space in more advanced areas to receive the ball.
²Prioritizing winning the second ball is a potentially effective way to go for the side in possession, if playing balls like that, into the box, is something the men with the ball are willing to do.
³At the same time, the more central the location the cutback occurs, the more effective it is. Therefore cutbacks from the half-space, particularly from inside the 18-yard box would be particularly potent.