Alex Pewter looks at Saturday's win, and considers how lessons learnt from it could factor into tactical changes.
All football ailments can have a straightforward cure, three points. The discontent amongst the Crystal Palace fanbase has been entirely valid this past month but amongst a season showing so many cracks the club found itself occupying a Europa League spot as the MOTD theme played on Saturday evening.
The frustrations felt by many was the unwillingness of Roy Hodgson to throw a punch against either Chelsea or Brighton. Excluding Wilfried Zaha's penalties, the team had produced only 2.1 xG (expected goals) in the first five games of the season. The passing seemed fractured, the gap between the midfield and attack enormous and the defenders were under constant pressure.
The gulf in quality at Craven Cottage was there to see, the consolation goal from Tom Cairney distorted the scoreline, but the result never seemed out-of-hand. The performance against a lesser-team showed what the club could be capable of if Roy Hodgson removed the shackles from the weekly gameplan. Royball has a simple formula if the team opens the scoring, the organisation and stout defensive work can suffocate oppositions but doesn't often allow for high-scoring victories. When the team falls behind, there is rarely a Plan B to take the attack to the opposition.
On the bench, Ebere Eze remained a spare-part, even against a team he faced last season in the Championship. There's a weight of fan anticipation and club marketing behind him, yet so far it seems that he doesn't have a natural role within the XI. With fixtures against two flowing footballing sides to come, in Wolves and Leeds, how can Hodgson and Palace build upon this weekend's success and not regress to negative performances?
Looking at the squad, based around the Eze acquisition, a 4-2-3-1 formation could suit the team. Roy Hodgson has exclusively lined up with a back-four through-out his career, but with variations of a theme in midfield. Hodgson currently has a preference for a 4-4-2 formation, but during the 2017-18 Hodgson deployed Yohan Cabaye as the attacking-midfielder on occasion. Given the evidence of the Fulham match, it seems the pieces are in place for a more attacking switch by building on three key areas.
The Double Pivot in Midfield
Football moves on quickly when a player is injured or unselected. For Luka Milivojević it has been three months since he has started a game for Crystal Palace. For Jaïro Riedewald he had been waiting two and a half years to start a league game in midfield, only having played as a replacement left-back or substitute last season.
Riedewald was arguably the only bright spark versus Brighton, but the combination of both Riedewald and Milivojević gave Palace a much better passing platform against Fulham. Riedewald simply isn't giving the ball away so far. He has a 97.7% completion on medium-ranged passes (5-25 yards) paired with Milivojević who has been the only central-midfielder capable of playing accurate long-passes consistently this season at 81.8% (25+ yards).
Switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation would give Palace a different shape and balance around these two midfielders. Notably, both players continually picked out the full-backs on the overlap on Saturday but adding the attacking-midfielder in front of them offers more of a chance to progress the ball forward. Even in the win on Saturday, the current set up can lend itself to having to move the ball sideways or backwards in a flat midfield.
Depth of Full Backs
The shrewd acquisition of Nathaniel Clyne by his former-manager (now Director of Football) Dougie Freedman has given cover to the long-term injury of Nathan Ferguson and re-united the club with one of the more successful academy players. His second club debut was solid if not spectacular, playing the more conservative "Ward" right-back role compared to the freer left-back more likely to get forward.
Compared to the minimal options last season, Palace now has four established full-backs on offer for Roy Hodgson. Tyrick Mitchell has risen to the occasion, showing mental and physical toughness against more experienced pros. His development offers a challenge to the incumbent Patrick van Aanholt. Competition is no bad thing; however, as a position of weakness has now become a strength.
Switching over to a 4-2-3-1 is going to leave the full-backs with less defensive cover, but with more significant opportunities in possession. Van Aanholt, in particular, is already proven as a top-end attacking wing-back who can contribute with goals and assists, and Clyne will hope to mimic that on the other side. The high workload for full-backs is going to need strength in depth as a consequence, which will now be available to the manager.
The "Ebere Eze" Problem
In all likelihood, Max Meyer will be leaving the club at the end of this season after an unspectacular time in South London. The former-wunderkind never suited the way Hodgson wished him to play, and his performances have rarely proved him wrong. Per Transfermarkt, Max Meyer has only played as a left-midfielder on 19 occasions, 18 of them at Crystal Palace. The bulk of his attacking success came as an attacking-midfielder at Schalke, free from as many defensive responsibilities.
That inside-left role now frequently occupied by Jeff Schlupp appears to be Eze's only way into the current XI, not precisely how he was successful in the Championship for QPR. Meyer's struggles, excusable or not, is a case study of how Hodgson appears unwilling to accommodate attacking midfielders in their natural role.
Now either Eze's signing along with Meyer's is a disconnect between the Manager, Director of Football or Chairman, or the dogmatic nature of Palace's 4-4-2 just happens to leave Eze miscast. Compared to some of his contemporaries who left the Championship, it would appear Hodgson is asking Eze to do much more defensive work, rather than flourish as a pure attacking player. Compare Eze's appearances to date, compared to the way James Maddison (Leicester) or David Brooks (Bournemouth) lined up in their debut seasons; both were far higher up the pitch.
The 4-2-3-1 formation solves several issues for Palace's attacking players. Firstly their summer investment Eze would return to a role that suited him for QPR and currently for England U21s. Zaha can drift back to his left-wing berth if needed, and Andros Townsend can take up a more attacking role opposite. Most importantly, there's flexibility for these players to switch positions, drift into pockets of space and act as attacking threats rather than the first line of defence, pressing rather than tracking back into their half quite as often.
Road to Success
It is typical of managers to double down on line ups or formations following a victory. Still, where Palace found themselves handicapped or asked to sit back on Saturday, the talent of the players eventually prevailed.
The early points success this season amongst some average performances gives Crystal Palace the chance to go after teams in the forthcoming fixtures. Palace can aspire to be more than a purely defensive team.