Weekend Debrief: Palace continue to upset the odds

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IN a brand new column, tactical football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) reviews the weekend, picking out a series of themes he believes we can exploit in future weeks. 

Weekend Debrief: 7th October 2019

Palace continue to upset the odds

Crystal Palace are proving to be one of the surprise packages in the Premier League this season. After failing to score in their first two fixtures, away wins at Manchester United and West Ham, coupled with homes victories over Aston Villa and Norwich have left Roy Hogdson’s men sixth heading into the international break.

Of those triumphs, Palace went off above even-money in all, including an 8/1 success at Old Trafford. So should the bookies be paying the Eagles more respect?

I was one of many who fancied Palace to be relegated, and saw them as a one-man team in Wilfried Zaha. They looked short up front in summer recruitment, but so far, Jordan Ayew has stepped up to lead the line well, scoring three goals and winning 2.4 aerials per-game as a target man, an integral part of Palace’s play.
It’s not to say Zaha hasn’t been key; Hodgson has produced a well-drilled system built around his talents and what there is available at the club.

Palace look to sit deep, as centre backs Gary Cahill and Martin Kelly lack the pace to deal with most quick attacks, whilst full back Joel Ward has offered a more reserved option to the departed Aaron Wan-Bissaka. However, they are able to soak up vast amounts of pressure, and the rest of the team is built to then break quickly.

Cahill, signed on a free in the summer, has epitomised this solidity. He offers composure at the back with his underrated passing ability (91.3% pass success rate), whilst he is averaging 5.2 clearances per game, as is fellow centre half Kelly. Ward is also leading the side in tackles made, averaging 2.9 per game.

Hodgson favours a 4-3-3, and his central midfield has been excellent in buying into the system. Averaging 45% possession, they have to work hard off the ball, as well as utilising it well when they have it. Imperative to this is Luka Milivojevic, who’s tenacity in the midfield has already seen him suspended for picking up five yellow cards.

The Serbian is averaging 1.9 key passes per game, and is the creative spark in a midfield that often has the hardworking Cheikhou Kouyate and James McArthur alongside him, whilst James McCarthy often features from the bench.

Unsurprisingly, the Eagles offer their biggest threat attacking down the wings. Although his defensive work is sometimes questionable, Patrick van Aanholt offers an attacking outlet, shown by his winner at Manchester United, and links up well with left winger Jeffrey Schlupp.

Zaha operates on the right in front of the defensive Ward, and these avenues are utilised extremely well by Palace. Hitting both target man Ayew, and the space in behind the defence is key, and the long ball stats of Palace are high compared to the rest of the league. Milivojevic in particular is averaging 3.7 per game, whilst the back four all average 1.8 or more per game, highlighting Hodgson’s no nonsense approach.

As a result of these direct tactics, it is worth noting that they do still lack creativity without Zaha, as shown in the opening two games when unavailable, whilst a disappointing EFL Cup tie saw them knocked out on penalties by Colchester in August.

Palace have also only scored seven goals in seven games, and when coming up against compact defences such as that of Newcastle and Burnley, there may be worries in breaking them down. There is also a lack of depth past Zaha and Ayew up front, and if injuries are to hit in the coming weeks, it is worth approaching them with caution in the betting market.

However, despite their good run of form, it is a tough test over the coming months for Palace. Their next five fixtures read Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester, Chelsea and Liverpool. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if they can get points against some of these sides given their ability to frustrate top teams, particularly away.

The run of Arsenal, Leicester and Chelsea in particular stands out with the possibility of nicking a result, and given they’ve already won games at odds of 8/1 and 15/4 this season, it’s worth seeing if the bookies overprice them once again.

Palace’s defensive tactics and tendency to rely upon the long ball has seen five of eight of their games go Under 2.5 Goals, and it is worth keeping an eye on this market, especially in the coming weeks when playing against top sides, where they will look to sit and frustrate the opposition for long periods, as they did at West Ham on Saturday.

Fiorentina a force to be reckoned with?

Fiorentina made it three wins on the bounce with a 1-0 victory over Udinese on Sunday, and after a run of 19 games without a win for Vincenzo Montella’s men, the signs are looking much more positive.

Lining up 3-5-2, Franck Ribery and Federico Chiesa have been revelations up top in the past weeks, particularly in their 3-1 demolition of AC Milan, where Ribery rolled back the years and took apart the weary Milan defence.

Against Udinese, they wasted a number of chances (Chiesa particularly guilty), however there are promising signs on the attacking front for Montella. A unique approach (neither act as a focal point) as they look to constantly drift out wide and create overloads on the flanks. This is a nightmare for opposition centre halves as they don’t know whether to pick the strikers up or leave them to wide midfielders, and as a result Fiorentina have had a lot of joy going forward this season.

La Viola have a settled midfield three in Erick Pulgar, Gaetano Castrovilli and Milan Badelj. Full of energy and offering defensive solidity, they also capitalise well on the space created by Fiorentina’s front two centrally, as the movement creates gaps in the middle from where onrushing midfielders can look to create chances. Pulgar has benefited in particular, with three goals and two assists.

Defensively, signs are showing that it is starting to click. Dalbert and Pol Lirola have been excellent at wing backs, providing the width to attacks that is integral to getting the best out of the front two, whilst the back three of Nikola Milenkovic, german Pezzella and Martin Caceres are starting to gel.

A slight worry for Fiorentina is their lack of pace at the back, which was exposed by Milan with Rafael Leao, and Udinese at times were able to make the most of this with Rodrigo De Paul, and this does make them susceptible to counter attacking football.

As a result of these factors, goals will be in order when Fiorentina play, and both the Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score markets will be worth keeping an eye on in coming matches, with a standout game at the end of October against Lazio particularly catching the eye.

At 7/1 (SkyBet), Fiorentina to finish in the Top 4 is a push, but given the competition they are up against they can give it a good go. A top three of Inter, Juventus and Napoli is to be expected, however fourth is wide open.

Atalanta are favourites, but have their inaugural Champions League campaign to contend with, whilst Roma and Lazio also have Europa League to factor in. Milan are in transition and it is looking like Luciano Spalletti will be appointed over the international break, and are understandably priced at 14/1 (SkyBet). As a result, although Atalanta and Roma in particular do possess deeper, arguably better sides, Fiorentina’s clear run at Serie A makes them an exciting prospect at 7/1.

Interestingly, Fiorentina are 40/1 (Bwin) to lift the Coppa Italia, and this represents value despite the competition. As touched on before, they haven’t got the worries of European football to contend with, and could see it as the perfect opportunity to bring a trophy back to the Florence for the first time since 2001.

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