Everton’s brilliant start to the league season came to end on Saturday with a 1-0 loss away to Bournemouth. It was a disappointing result and a disappointing performance though perhaps not the trainwreck it may have appeared to be.
The Toffees face a different sort of challenge this week in a Crystal Palace team that is coming off three straight Premier League victories and sitting a respectable 7th place in the table.
Crystal Palace overview
Alan Pardew has always been a bit of an interesting case for the numbers folks, as his teams are known to carry some pretty crazy conversion rates to either mask bad performances or derail good ones depending on the season. Last year it was an absolutely miserable shooting percentage that buried the Eagles in 16th place despite league average expected goals numbers. In other words, Palace were okay at getting shots off but just couldn’t buy a goal, especially during the second half of the season. It didn’t help that their defense was leaking the second highest amount of shots in the league. Weird finishing streaks tend to happen in football and often escape the mainstream narratives, but ultimately the team survived an ugly run and Pardew kept his job.
This season, Michael Caley’s model has Palace at pretty middle of the road in terms of expected goals, Paul Riley’s got them a bit higher, but neither their shooting or save percentages are much off league average, all of which suggests that Palace are probably more or less deserving of their league standing at the moment...at least until you glance at their schedule and see who they’ve played: West Brom, Tottenham, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland. You might recognize that collection of squads from Everton’s elapsed schedule, and as we’ve seen they haven’t exactly put up the greatest of fights. Given this fact, Pardew’s history, and a few other factors I’ll mention below, I expect Palace fans will be in for plenty more twists and turns this season.
Crosses, crosses, and more crosses
When you dig a hair past the more wholesale numbers, one thing that sticks out about this team is how much they love crossing the ball. Last year they produced more crosses than anyone else in the league and this year they are again on that pace. According to WhoScored, a whopping 30.3% of their key passes last season were crosses, and they’re actually up to 32.5% this time around, compared to a two-year average of about 22.7% for the league as a whole. This team is not ashamed to chuck balls into the box from wide.
A lot of people smarter than me have said and analyzed a lot about crosses—not all crosses are created equal, teams can’t be elite with a purely cross-based approach, crossing is just generally hard—so without getting to deep here I imagine that Palace’s reliance on crossing in part explains why their finishing can run hot and cold so much, as crosses can be productive in small sample sizes but in the long term are a relatively inefficient way to generate quality chances. In this particular sample size (this season), it’s working: only West Ham have assisted more goals from crosses than Palace so far.
To Pardew’s credit, he has at least set up the team’s personnel to fit the style. They’ve had pacy, direct wingers for a few years now but seemed to lack a striker to fit such a team. Enter Christian Benteke:
The big Belgian is one of the best aerial strikers the Premier League has seen in the last few years, and thus far he’s feasted on the service he’s received. Combining him with two of the ten most active dribblers in the league (Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend), gives you plays like this.
It’s not the most creative approach in the world but it’s simple: with pace on the wings and power in the middle, Palace are set up to play direct. Indeed, they’ve required the second fewest number of completions per shot thus far in the league.
Organization and control, or lack of it
Unfortunately for Pardew, the downsides to the counter-attacking/crossing approach are numerous and not always hard to suss out. Spielverlagerung did a great analysis of Crystal Palace last season, focusing especially on their reliance on individuality:
One issue in the individuality of Crystal Palace’s possession game is it’s negative influence on collective features...a more collective orientation has a greater impact on various different tactical principles where individuality is less far-reaching. A prime example is positional structure; a collective-oriented tactical concept.
In other words, Palace’s positional structure and ability to work as a group tends to break down in attack, especially in the final third. This has two particularly negative effects: (1) if the speed of attack can be slowed down, it is easy to isolate the attacker with the ball and force him into a bad pass or unsuccessful dribble, and (2) if the attack breaks down, Palace are prone to being caught out of position on the counter.
Benteke helps quite a bit with (1), as his aerial ability means that it’s often a legitimate strategy to simply get the ball in the box and hope he beats several defenders. (2) is less easy to mitigate with their current setup, and is something Everton fans even saw last week with former Palace man Yannick Bolasie failing to cover properly on the attack that resulted in Bournemouth’s winning goal.
The Spielver article singles out the attacking phase as the location of Palace’s structural issues and even praises the work of their central midfield, but that area has been a bit of an issue this season. The loss against Tottenham saw some really poor ball circulation through the midfield, and both goals they conceded against Sunderland stemmed from an inability of the midfield to deal with a press.
First, Joe Ledley received the ball under pressure but due to poor organization of the midfield three had no teammates nearby as an outlet:
Shortly afterwards, James McArthur failed to win an aerial duel and for some reason his midfield partners were not in proper positions to deal with the resulting counter:
It’s worth noting that the above sequence ends with Jason Puncheon getting back to defend way too late. These things generally don’t happen to good teams, and definitely not to good teams with solid midfield structures.
Overall Palace strike me as a bit too loosey goosey all over the pitch and while they have some real threats in attack, their lack of organization and creativity in all phases means they remain vulnerable to the more skilled sides in the league.
Everton will need to be wary of Palace’s dribblers, as letting one free means they can subsequently put in a cross, and fouling one means Palace can cross from the resulting set piece. Benteke and Scott Dann are the Eagles’ leading scorers, and both carry legitimate threats—it was a Dann header combined with suspect Everton marking that secured Palace a draw in a game last year that the Toffees probably should have won.
The good news for Koeman’s men is that Palace will not be as aggressive as Bournemouth were in terms of pressing, and Barry and Gueye should in theory see plenty of time on the ball. Barry will in particular be licking his lips if he is pressed this little and has this much space in front of him to work with:
Palace are always a bit of a wildcard, but if Everton can keep Benteke quiet in the early going, it’s likely that Zaha and Townsend in particular will begin to resort to long shots, which would be a good thing for the Toffees. On the other hand, if Everton get drawn into bad fouls, get caught out on the counter, or simply can’t get a body on Benteke, they could be in for another long day.