Saturday 21 September 2019

Pace, positioning and punch: The Palace blueprint for storming City

Richard Jolly looks at the key parts of Hodgson's game plan

Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend celebrates after scoring his stunning long-range effort against Manchester City with team-mate Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend celebrates after scoring his stunning long-range effort against Manchester City with team-mate Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

Richard Jolly

Defend deep and well

Whereas Fulham, Southampton and Shakhtar Donetsk had produced naive performances at the Etihad Stadium, making it easier for Manchester City, Crystal Palace made it tougher for the champions in their shock 3-2 victory at the Etihad.

The visitors defended deeper, and the fact that striker Sergio Aguero was on the pitch for 46 minutes, and touched the ball just 11 times, shows how little space there was both in front of and behind the Palace defence.

Palace manager Roy Hodgson also showed he was prepared to change his tactics to best contain City's creative influences. He had played 4-4-2 in his side's previous seven league games, but not this time: even without the injured Cheikhou Kouyate, he played three central midfielders, with Jeffrey Schlupp deployed infield in a 4-5-1 formation, to flood the centre of the pitch and make it harder for City to play through them.

Only second-half substitute Kevin De Bruyne threatened to do that, with injured midfielder David Silva sorely missed. Half of City's shots came from long range.

"I'm sure the only disappointment for Pep (Guardiola) will be that having so much of the ball and being able to buzz around our final third as much as they did, they didn't create as many chances as he would have liked," said Hodgson.

When the ball did come into the box, Palace's centre-halves held firm, with James Tomkins making 13 clearances in a near-flawless display alongside Mamadou Sakho.

"We were incredible defensively, everyone was structured and stuck to their job," said Andros Townsend. "It was a deserved victory."

Be clinical and realistic - but positive

Guardiola complained that Palace had only three shots on target, but Hodgson's team were clinical, with unstoppable finishes from Schlupp and Townsend.

Winger Townsend thought his 29-yard, 67mph volley was the best of his career.

"His body shape looked quite good," said Hodgson. "I still didn't expect it to fly into the net. He is a scorer of great goals, he is not a great scorer. It is great to know that is in his locker."

That inspiration was allied to perspiration. Palace knew they would have a small share of possession and reacted accordingly.

"City are probably the team of our generation," said Townsend. "It is impossible to get the ball off them, so we knew if we were going to get anything it was going to have to be a perfect, disciplined performance."

That discipline was also shown by Luka Milivojevic, who was a booking away from a ban and could have been omitted. "He assured me he (would be) sensible," said Hodgson. "I am delighted I did (pick him)."

Nor did he even discuss the possibility of defeat. "You don't even mention that you might not get anything from the game."

Target City's stand-ins

Palace's first attack came when Max Meyer robbed John Stones, who was being deployed in a midfield role.

Hodgson revealed he once had a discussion with the defender about using him in midfield for England, and while Guardiola attached no blame to Stones - "I give credit to people who try to adapt to positions they are not used to," he said - there was no disguising the fact that he did not look comfortable.

Stones' passing was less accurate than usual as he had to take the ball at different angles.

It underlined that City miss the injured Fernandinho - "In my opinion, one of the best players in the league," Hodgson said.

Protect the flanks

Guardiola's game plan is based around potent, inventive wingers. Besides becoming prolific, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling have been two of the three most creative players in the Premier League since the start of last season. But on Saturday Sterling was so subdued he was substituted, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who made nine blocks, performed superbly against Sane. Yet Hodgson ensured he had plenty of support: he configured his wingers and central midfielders to ensure Palace were not outnumbered on the flanks.

"We identified that wide area was the real danger area," he said. "The real danger is the three-v-two situations they create down the side with their attacking midfielder, winger and full-back and we really needed Townsend and Max Meyer to do a fantastic job, helped by Jeff Schlupp and James McArthur."

Counter-attack quickly against Walker

Nearly all the teams who have beaten Guardiola's City - Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham, Claudio Ranieri's Leicester, Antonio Conte's Chelsea, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool - have caught them on the break and few teams have speedier counter-attackers than Palace, in the trio of Wilfried Zaha, Schlupp and Townsend.

Palace's pass-completion rate was only 55 per cent, but when they got the ball, they immediately looked forward.

It helped get them their first and third goals as City had players stranded upfield.

Kyle Walker, who had a wretched game, was targeted and exposed as two-thirds of Palace's attacks were on their left flank, where he lacked protection.

He also gave away the penalty for the third goal.

Tellingly, Walker appeared to be the only City player Guardiola did not hug after the final whistle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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