Note: Naveen and I are aware that Tony Pulis has chickened out, I mean stepped down, ahead of the match. That said, he did prepare this team over the summer and they only have one day to change things so it is highly unlikely that the new manager will be able to radically alter Pulis’ summer long game plan. Moreover, this is an excellent piece on the tactics required to overcome a well drilled team who sit deep, something Arsenal see a lot of. -7am
Opening day of the 2014-15 season and Arsenal get Crystal Palace. At the beginning of last season, a match against Crystal Palace would serve as a chance for Lukas Podolski to feast on another side that lacked any defensive organization, leading to Arsenal fans praising his finishing and asking why he does not play more, even though he’s a one-trick pony and that one trick requires a relative large amount space and time to work (he is like a very powerful but very immobile and difficult to load cannon). With Tony Pulis at the helm, the Crystal Palace of Ian Holloway has long since died. While Pulis has changed the way Palace play, Pulis has also adapted the approach he used at Stoke to better extract value from the resources available to him. With Arsenal lacking a couple of Germans, particularly Mesut Ozil, they could find it difficult to break down the Eagles. Therefore, this match will serve as a test for Arsenal to create and exploit information asymmetries, in order to break down a resolute defense.
Crystal Palace’s 4-4-2
One of the biggest myths in football is that a team cannot play 4-4-2 in the modern game. Now, a side probably cannot get away with the 4-4-2 Tim Sherwood had Spurs playing¹ however, teams like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have found quite a bit of success at the highest level playing a 4-4-2. In fact, Palace’s 4-4-2 looks a bit like the 4-4-2 Atletico Madrid used to win La Liga and come within a minute of winning the Champions League.
Palace’s four in midfield operate as a tight unit, sliding as the ball moves from side to side. Therefore, when the opponent has the ball in a central area, Palace can congest the center of the pitch and prevent passing into the space right in front of the back line. With Marouane Chamakh dropping into midfield, a player like Mile Jedinak will look to close down the man with the ball and win possession, believing Palace have plenty of bodies in the center of the pitch to cover him. When the ball moves to a wide area, the four man midfield shifts to the ball-side with the midfielder closest to the ball looking to challenge the player on the ball. With the number of bodies in the way of a potential dribble or a potential pass forward, into the center of the pitch, dribbling out wide represents the path of least resistance. And this is exactly what Pulis wants. With two of 6’3” Damien Delaney, 6’ 2” Scott Dann, and now 6’ 6” Brede Hangeland, at center back, Palace have more than enough aerial ability to comfortably deal with crosses from wide areas. Throw in a 6’ 2” Joel Ward, who can play as an inverted left-back, or right-back, and crosses from wide areas serve as a rather inefficient way to score goals.
When Palace win possession, they become a three true outcomes side (they are the Jack Cust of the Premier League). If they come under any pressure in their own third, then Palace will look to launch the ball forward, hoping the man up top, a quick player like Frazier Campbell, can latch onto it. If they do not come under pressure, then Palace will look to get the ball to their pacey wingers, often Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie, or they will look to get the ball to Marouane Chamakh, who will look to play the center forward in behind or find a winger in space (Chamakh as a No. 10…who would have thought?).
Unlike his Stoke City sides, Pulis’ Palace focus more on short and quick passes as the foundation of their counter-attacking play, not aimless long balls up to two target men. Also, in the final third, Palace do not have the single-minded approach of Pulis’ Stoke, who looked to cross the ball to their center forwards as early in the move as possible. Palace have a greater willingness to patiently play the ball in the final third, looking for an opening by making short passes or looking for one of the wingers to beat their marker. This makes Crystal Palace much more inventive and fun to watch than any Stoke side under Pulis.
How Arsenal Could Play Against Them
The obvious way to take advantage of an aggressive team is to move the ball quickly. If a team can pass the ball accurately and quickly, they can exploit those momentary windows in time and space, allowing the ball to move into more valuable positions. Based on this logic, a more fluid approach could prove useful against a structured team. Given the importance of cohesion and organization in Palace’s defending, the information asymmetries and the ability for the ball and players to more freely flow to their highest valued uses, due to a more fluid approach, could help Arsenal create more openings and better exploit those openings. When everything clicks, this approach can devastate an opponent. However, as matches away to Liverpool and Chelsea showed, this reliance on technique and fluidity can backfire terribly if the pass-and-move game is not on point.
So what are some specific ways Arsenal could attack Crystal Palace? Given the narrow defensive structure Crystal Palace employ and the aggressiveness in closing down the man on the ball, Arsenal may look to play the ball in a deeper area on one side of the pitch, looking to drag the Palace defense to the ball-side, and have a player on the opposite side make a forward run, making him a target for a diagonal. That tactic got Arsenal their first goal in their only game against Pulis’ Palace last season.
Looking at Arsenal’s second goal in that match, playing a deep-lying center forward could also help break down Palace’s defense. In the build-up to that goal, Rosicky plays the ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then plays the ball into Giroud, who has moved into a withdrawn position for a center forward, left of center. Both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky continue their runs beyond Giroud. With Bolasie just arriving on the scene from an advanced position, Oxlade-Chamberlain runs past Joel Ward and Tomas Rosicky runs at the back line unmarked. With Danny Gabiddon looking to close down Olivier Giroud, forcing him to break from the back line, all Giroud needs to do is play the ball back to Oxlade-Chamberlain to create a 2-v-1, with Delaney trying to defend Oxlade-Chamberlain and the unmarked run of Tomas Rosicky. Giroud does this and Oxlade-Chamberlain scores his second goal of the match.
Given this way of attacking Palace’s defense, Olivier Giroud’s performance could go a long way in determining how successful Arsenal’s attack is (though as I wrote before, Alexis Sanchez could play this role of deep-lying center forward, especially if Arsenal play a 4-1-4-1). Maybe more importantly, if Giroud starts (or if Sanogo starts), Arsenal need to avoid the temptation of playing long balls or crosses to the center forward. That would play right into Palace’s hands and such inefficient attacking methods could give Palace more opportunities to launch their potent counter-attacks.
That is not to say that Arsenal should not attempt a single cross in the entire game (if the marginal benefit of a cross>marginal cost, go for it). What it means is that the expected value of crossing against Crystal Palace in general is less than it is against other clubs and given their counter-attacking ability and the profitability of other methods of attack (opportunity cost), the quantity of crosses that makes sense, in general, is lower than normal².
Finally, and this has become a much more viable option with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal could look to unleash a dribbler out wide, with the goal of beating the initial marker and then cutting infield. While Palace are willing to let a dribbler go around the midfield and attempt to whip a cross, the quick feet of Sanchez could allow him to beat his marker and then cut infield (or look to get further up the pitch before cutting infield to create more of a cutback opportunity). Now, instead of a speculative cross into a forest of defenders, Sanchez can look to shoot, if Palace gives him space, or look to pick out a teammate running into the box.
While I like Debuchy more than Sagna, in part because he has a better ability to recover from advanced positions, and Gibbs is quite an athlete at left-back, Arsenal may want to refrain from simultaneously pushing both fullbacks high up the pitch. With the speed of Crystal’s Palace wingers allowing them to effectively break from deep positions, having two fullbacks high up the pitch could leave Arsenal defending a 4-v-2, 4-v-3, or 3-v-2 situation with Calum Chambers and Laurent Koscielny at center back (this becomes much more of an issue if Monreal has to play center back). Given the pair’s lack of familiarity with one another, an odd man rush could lead to a severe misallocation of defensive resources, as the two center backs do not intimately know how their partner will react in this situation. The security of a fullback staying deep should help prevent those situations.
However, there is a cost to keeping a fullback stuck in a deep position (resources are scarce, so there is always a cost for any action), even if the fullback is on the opposite side of the ball. For example, having the fullback on the opposite side burst forward can make a drag-and-diagonal strategy more potent, as whoever defends the weak side has a choice to make about whom to track. This gives the man on the ball options. At best, forcing the defender to make a decision between two options could slow down the decision making process, leading to two unmarked attackers on the weak side. Again this is another dynamic resource allocation problem that Arsenal probably need to get right³ in order to start the season with three points.
Proper resource allocation with respect to time and space is the key to successful football. Initially, Crystal Palace allocate their defensive resources to make their opponent predictable, allowing them to simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem to be solved throughout the match. Arsenal should look to complicate that resource allocation problem for Palace and can do so through fluidity, switching play, and/or a dynamic presence that forces Palace out of their comfort zone. Palace’s initial defensive allocation of defensive resources also serves to maximize their efficiency in attack, as they look to maximize the value of the limited resources they allocate to attack. In possession, Arsenal need to avoid behaviors that increase the opportunities for Palace to efficiently use their attacking resources (less crosses), and should look to avoid situations where they have too few resources to defend Palace’s counters (keep a fullback deep more often).
In the end, the key to the match may turn out to be the first goal. If Arsenal score first, they can force Palace out of their game, out of their comfort zone. If Palace score first, they can allocate more resources defensive, take less risks defensively, while not suffering as much of a cost as they would have if the game was 0-0 (the marginal value of the goal that gives the team the lead is much greater than the marginal value of the goal that gives a team a two-goal lead). Therefore, more than 1800 words could all be wasted by a random high-leverage moment.
Such is football.
Naveen – @njm1211
¹a comical combination of a high line, plenty of space between midfield and the back line, and a wide playmaker who often did not give Spurs a numerical advantage in central midfield when he moved inside as Spurs only had two central midfielders to start, meaning they could not control games, and made them susceptible to counter-attacks down the wide playmaker’s flank.
²granted, Arsenal could look to press immediately when they lose possession to force turnovers or force Palace to punt the ball out of danger, lowering the marginal cost of crosses in general.
³though they do not have to be Pareto optimal…the margin for victory is not that slim.