Tactics writer Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Premier League trip to Selhurst Park to take on a Crystal Palace side who suffered their biggest defeat of the season last time out...
Just over a quarter of the way into the season, what does Crystal Palace’s report card look like?
There was a lot of excitement around this Eagles team in pre-season. Coming off the back of a superb “rebuild” year, having recruited a slew of exciting young footballers to change the club’s image, Selhurst Park couldn’t wait to host football again in 2022/23.
With that in mind, then, the opening stretch of this season has disappointed some Palace fans. With just three wins and 13 points gained from the first 11 games and a general lack of consistency from week to week, there’s a feeling things can get better.
That said, they did face arguably the toughest opening Premier League schedule, squaring off against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Newcastle United in their first six, so gaining momentum has been understandably tough.
Last weekend saw Palace fall to their worst defeat of the season, 3-0 to Everton. What happened?
When you lose 3-0 it’s fair to say plenty has gone wrong, but this result (and performance) was particularly illuminative of one specific thing: the importance of Cheick Doucouré in Palace’s midfield.
The Senegalese sat out his first Premier League game of the campaign so far due to suspension (accumulation of yellow cards) and his absence showcased how crucial an ingredient he is to the balance of this team.
Manager Patrick Vieira plays a 4-3-3 formation that, at times, looks a bit more 4-1-5; the attacking nature of the central midfielders and wingers means that Doucouré is at times the only man in midfield for Palace, leaving him a long list of instructions to carry out and a vast area to cover.
Without him Palace really suffered up at Goodison Park, and while he’ll be back for this game, taking note of this midfield dynamic is crucial to game-planning against them.
What else must Saints be wary of?
Wilfried Zaha remains Palace’s primary attacking threat, cutting in off the left flank and either dribbling into the box or getting shots off. The team shape naturally tilts to the left to get him on the ball and on the end of things as often as possible.
Eberechi Eze, once a left winger like Zaha, has emerged as one of the Premier League’s most exciting central midfielders – particularly in transition. His ability to carry the ball in space and jink around tackles is something to be wary of.
Lastly, Joachim Andersen fires off more accurate long balls (7.2 per game) than any other central defender in the league, so watch out for his raking passes out of the back that switch the point of emphasis.
What can Saints do to gain an advantage on Saturday?
Palace are an inherently attacking team now and commit bodies forward. The front three are geared to get into the opposition box, the central midfielders push up to support and the full-backs get involved at times too, creating that rough 4-1-5 look.
Southampton have to be ready to strike in transition when Palace commit (or overcommit) and flood the area Doucouré patrols. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s classic steal-and-go tactics match up against this well, and if you can get Doucouré booked early, it creates a real fragility in their setup.
In addition, Ché Adams’s return to fitness will be a big plus given how influential he has been up front, and he’ll enjoy the physical tussle with Andersen and Marc Guéhi.
It’s also time for James Ward-Prowse and Wilfried Zaha to go head to head once again; the outcome of that particular duel often shapes the result of this fixture one way or the other.
Predicted XI (4-3-3): Guaita; Ward, Andersen, Guéhi, Mitchell; Doucouré, Eze, Schlupp; Olise, Édouard, Zaha.
-The goalkeeper, back four and Doucouré as the holder picks itself when fit and available
-Vieira has given Eze multiple midfield partners this season, so be ready for anything from Schlupp to Milivojević to Ayew
-Zaha’s the top scorer so far (5) but Édouard is a dangerous all-round forward who leads the line