I’m not sure what Steve Parish and the rest of the Crystal Palace brass are concocting behind closed doors at Selhurst Park, but whatever it is, it’s working against the Big 6. According to CPFC Analytics, “Only Manchester City have won more games away at the ‘big Six’ than Crystal Palace since May 2015.”
In that time, the Eagles have beat Liverpool 3 times at Anfield (!), Chelsea twice at Stamford Bridge, Manchester City and Arsenal once each at their grounds, and now twice at Old Trafford against Manchester United.
It’s rare form. It’s hard to explain. So let’s look at what happened against Manchester United on Saturday to figure out why they are so plucky against the Big 6.
It’s hard to explain defensive activity with total ground covered stats. Midfielders are basically running back and forth in a 15-yard radius when they’re stuck defending for most of the match. The back four are also hard to assess with how straight the line remains with cutting strikers coming from every which way. Players on the wing do more long-distance sprints, so it’s hard to explain their impact on the shape. Here’s what we can try to look at instead.
The 24 tackles and 20 interceptions are clues of the work rate Crystal Palace displayed against Manchester United. James McArthur, arguably the engine that’s been driving Palace in the midfield since Yohan Cabaya’s departure in 2017, had a massive game. The Scotsman had 7 tackles and 3 interceptions alone. That’s 10 forced turnovers! He wasn’t the only player staying disciplined on that end of the pitch.
Flood the box in your own end
Rarely is it one player who drags their club to 3 points against a Big 6 opponent on the road. The Crystal Palace defending accolades shouldn’t rest on McArthur’s shoulders alone. You could see a collective effort to clear any ball that sniffed the Palace box.
Manchester United were 5/28 with their crosses. This doesn’t include the additional 5 blocked attempts by Palace. Not only were they solid in clearing crosses, the image below shows Palace only lost two aerial challenges in their own box. This deserves a massive tip of the cap to Cheikhou Kouyaté and Mamadou Sakho.
The green circles represent clearances while the two orange upward arrows represent lost aerial duels. Palace kept the box clean of any red kits, which prevented any dangerous headers from beating Vicente Guaita.
Long ball outlet passes
Who said the long ball is dead? Roy Hodgson has made this a trademark of his Palace team when they are overwhelmed by the class of their opponents. Crystal Palace booted it long on 16.4% of their total passes. That’s more than 4 times as often compared to United, who passed it long with 4.9% of their passes.
Palace only completed 8 of their 37 long balls. This wasn’t entirely a disaster because they play without target forward within their 4-4-2 formation. Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew tend to play off each other and neither are relatively strong with aerial battles.
What the long ball did was give the Palace defense a chance to reset. As shown above, many defensive actions took place in the box with usually 4 or 5 players in the mix. The long ball allowed the spacing to stretch out so the midfield could return up the pitch and regain their shape for another United attack.
Attack from the flank
Speaking of attack, Palace had a few, but made most of their chances. A casual observer or someone who is looking directly at the stats will see that Palace didn’t have many opportunities in the opposing end. This wasn’t the story in the first 7 minutes. The Eagles controlled the game in the early stages. This resulted in a lovely Jeffrey Schlupp cross to Andros Townsend for the match’s opening goal.
Look at how this unfolded below. This is the quintessential flank build up. And it’s a strength of the Palace team who were basically playing with 4 wingers on the pitch, including the two strikers in Ayew and Zaha.
Manchester United possessed the ball for more than 70% of the match, yet they committed 13 fouls compared to Palace’s 10. It sounds simple. And it’s been a theme of Palace matches in the past. We know that Wilfried Zaha draws a handful of fouls every game, but is this actually an underrated aspect of his game?
Zaha was fouled 5 times against Manchester United. Two drew yellow cards in the 58th and 64th minutes, respectively. This can have a mental impact on how these defenders, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Harry Maguire, play the rest of the match.
This is a bigger problem with a squad that loves a counter attack. The outlet passes started with winning balls in the box. It was then distributed quickly up the wings in 1 or 2 passes. And when you’re dealing with the speed of Zaha, Townsend, Ayew and Eberechi Eze, fouling is the only thing you can do to slow them down.
Attacking with break neck speed has been a staple for Palace going back to their Championship days with Yannick Bolasie and a younger Zaha. This type of play is hard for the Big 6 to handle and United proved it again on Saturday.
Do yourself a favor the next time you see Palace play the big boys. You never know when the Eagles make it a day to remember.