Tactical Watch: Palace vulnerable to set-pieces


Sam Tighe identifies the key areas that could decide Southampton's Premier League trip to Crystal Palace in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with

Crystal Palace have been one of

surprise stories of the Premier League season.

Doom and gloom surrounded the early stages of their summer window, as long-time manager Roy Hodgson and a whole host of players’ contracts expired. Patrick Vieira stepped into the manager’s role and had to rebuild the team immediately – a job many deemed too difficult to pull off in the space of a few short months.

But Sunday’s thumping performance and 3-1 win over Everton took them to 19 points from 16 games; they’ve been solidly mid-table throughout the first half of the season – thanks in part to some really strong home form (won three, drawn four, lost just one).

Performance levels have been strong and well worth the points tally, with the team’s image changing quickly in the post-Hodgson era: They’re possession-focused, averaging just over 50% per game, the centre-backs and midfielders now instructed to circulate the ball more often than looking long.

They’ve been particularly focused on this in home matches; in the first half vs Everton they accrued 70% of the ball, while they registered almost 65% in total against Aston Villa. Away from Selhurst Park they can be a touch more reactive, but the centre-backs still usually look to pass short first and foremost.

The focus of Palace’s attacking play remains the left flank, largely because that’s where Wilfried Zaha plays; 41% of their attacking work comes from that side, with Zaha’s ability to drive with the ball, enter the box and get shots off making life consistently difficult for full-backs.

For the first time in a long time, though, it’s not a case of “stop Zaha, stop Palace.” On-loan midfielder Conor Gallagher’s impact has been so strong, he’s a player opposing managers simply have to account for when drawing up a tactical plan.

His six goals this season highlight the threat he carries; he’s seemingly as much of a threat from distance as he is making late runs into the penalty box. Add that production to his relentless, boundless energy and talent for winning second balls, and it becomes clear why Palace feel so much more assertive in the middle of the park this term.

All of this should have Vieira smiling, but more often than not he finishes games with a troubled look on his face. That’s because Palace – for all their bright play and surpassing of expectations – have won just four Premier League matches this season due in part to an Achilles heel: defending set-pieces.

No team has conceded more goals (10) from these set-pieces than Palace this season; in particular, corners have proven a serious issue, with six conceded directly from these scenarios and two more in the second phase. Their struggle in this area has undone them in multiple games, and against Liverpool (3-0 loss) and Arsenal (2-2) all five goals conceded originated from corners.

When Ralph Hasenhüttl and his staff analyse the Eagles they’ll see dangermen to quell (Zaha, Gallagher), areas that promise to be a real battle (central midfield), but also one clear weakness in the form of dead balls. Pressing home that advantage – likely via the magical delivery of James Ward–Prowse – would be a big step toward an important victory.