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Everton must stay focused against a flailing Palace

Last week was incredible; a win this week would validate it

West Ham United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

My father is a big fan of American football, and particularly the Philadelphia Eagles. As a kid, I remember that every time the Eagles came up with a big win, Dad would warn me during the following week that next Sunday’s matchup was a classic letdown game. “No way,” I would say, “the team they’re playing is crap.” More often than not (so it seemed), the Birds would indeed lose and I would end up distraught and confused—how could a team play so well one week then lose to inferior opposition the next?

In truth, the letdown game is probably more myth than reality, but I couldn’t help but think of it when I saw that Everton were up against Crystal Palace this weekend. Like most supporters, I am still basking in the glow of what happened on Sunday. It still seems unreal, like a perfect Football Manager game come to life. The world’s best manager came to town with a front four of Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, and David Silva, and our team was missing their standout defensive midfielder.

Then, the impossible happened - Everton won 4-0 with goals from the star striker, the maligned winger-turned-second striker, the 18-year-old local boy who can’t find his razor, and the 19-year-old signed out of nowhere days before from League One (?!?!?!?!). Also, John Stones was on the pitch for the whole thing, wearing a Manchester City shirt. I honestly could not have made that up if I tried.

Suddenly, we’re looking at an Everton team that’s beaten 4 of last year’s top 6 in the span of a month. They’ve signed one of the league’s best defensive midfielders. They are evidently stocked with young talent.

All of which brings me to Crystal Palace.

Pardew out

Palace sacked Alan Pardew on December 22. Why?

At the time, the Eagles were in 17th place. Notably, they’d won just 6 matches in all of 2016. They also had the worst home form in the league. I suppose there are three good reasons right there, but let’s dig a little deeper.

In terms of expected goal differential, they weren’t great but they also weren’t in the relegation zone. Their finishing was actually on fire, way outperforming xG and netting a whopping 28 goals to that point, 6th most in the league. The problem was primarily with the defense—tied for 5th most goals conceded. In terms of shots and shots on target conceded though, Palace were better than their league position. This suggests an element of bad luck, or perhaps bad goalkeeping. At the very least we can now say that Wayne Hennessey has a knack for conceding unbelievable goals.

It’s probably also true, though, that Palace’s defense is just kind of bad:

If you concede a lot of big chances, you are unlucky enough that your opponents tend to finish those chances often, then you will concede a lot of goals. Under Pardew, Palace achieved one clean sheet all season and conceded 2.5 goals per game over his final 9 matches. From that perspective, one can see why he got the boot.

Big Sam in

Enter Sam Allardyce, who I guess at this point is the man to call on when you are desperate to not get relegated. After drawing with Watford, Palace have begun 2017 with three consecutive losses. Here’s how things look now:

Worryingly, the Palace offense has regressed badly under Big Sam:

A tale of two managers

Attacking metric Pardew Allardyce Difference
Attacking metric Pardew Allardyce Difference
Goals per game 1.6 0.5 -1.1
xG per game 1.0 0.5 -0.5
Shots per game 12.8 8.5 -4.3
Shots on target per game 4.7 3.0 -1.7
Shot quality (xG per shot) 0.080 0.056 -0.024
Conversion percentage 12.8% 5.9% -6.9%
Expected goals courtesy of Michael Caley

The sample size is small, but the trend is alarming; if Palace’s one saving grace was their hot offense, to see it cooling down rapidly is not comforting. Meanwhile, the defensive numbers have changed little. In short, Palace weren’t good to begin with, and they now appear to be moving in the wrong direction.

Tactics

Is Big Sam at fault for Palace’s poor run? It’s hard to say. Their hot finishing was unlikely to be sustainable, regardless of manager. One factor contributing to Palace’s ups and downs is their reliance on crossing to create chances. Only West Brom have a higher percentage of total passes that are crosses. I got into this a bit more deeply in my preview for the last Everton-Palace matchup. The Eagles have crossed a bit less since Allardyce took over, but they were already trending that way so it’s unclear if it’s really a managerial effect.

Regardless, Palace remain a team that relies heavily on wingers for creation. Yohan Cabaye is their central midfielder with the most key passes per 90 thus far this season. Courtesy of Paul Riley, here is a map of the chances he has created thus far this year:

Indeed, Palace’s most “creative” players in terms of output are Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon, two wingers who rarely play through balls. Their other oft-used winger, Andros Townsend, just does this:

This direct approach that is reliant on crossing and shooting from bad positions could in part explain how Palace’s shot quality (see table above) has dropped so precipitously despite any marked tactical shift under the new manager. A team set up this way is bound to blow hot and cold, as they depend on methods that are unsustainable in the long term.

Matching up with Everton

The Toffees come into this game with a decent bill of health, and one would expect them to control the midfield and the overall flow of the game. Koeman curiously deployed a 4-4-2 diamond in his last match against Palace, a move that seemed to play to his opponent’s strengths. Knowing that the Eagles are so wing-oriented in attack, one hopes that Everton do a better job of focusing their defensive efforts there. Stockpiling the midfield in this one is probably a misallocation of resources.

Moving forward, sticking with Kevin Mirallas or Enner Valencia as a support striker for Lukaku is a good plan. It seems like every time Everton don’t leave Rom isolated, they score goals:

For me, this game is a chance for Everton to show that they are really making progress, that they really are a half-decent side that deserves to be considered “the best of the rest”. Palace are sinking, disjointed, and desperate. In other words, the perfect trap to fall into.