Reinventing - How Joel Ward's Role has Changed at Crystal Palace

Written by Alex Pewter & Mihai Patrascu

Joel Ward is one of the surprises of this season, but it's not just because of his performances -- it's what he's being asked to do. 

Ward Leicester Clap


Many people already know Joel Ward's journey to, and with, Crystal Palace in his near-decade at the club. Ward has persevered where others have left, despite various managerial changes. It's increasingly rare to have Testimonials in modern football, yet Ward will be the second player from the promotion team after Julian Speroni to have one.

On paper, the hiring of Patrick Vieira presented a wholesale change to how Ward has played in his career so far. Following the signing of a two-year contract extension in the summer, the challenge at hand was to prove he was more than a stopgap at the right-back spot.

In the second FiveYearPlan x TacticsNotAntics collaboration we will be looking at the numbers behind Ward's role change this season.


Sample Set


Our sample set includes the current season, along with 2017/18, 2019/20, and 2020/21. Since Aaron Wan-Bissaka had the starting job in the 2018-19 season, Ward only appeared for 552 minutes.


Right Back, New Role? 


Joel Ward is used to being the defensive player in a full-back pairing. He sat back when Dean Moxey pushed forward in the Championship, much as he did when Patrick van Aanholt overlapped in the Premier League. 

The reason it seems more pronounced this season is due to the change in playstyle. As Tyrick Mitchell pushes forward down the left, the remaining defenders rotate to make up a pseudo back three, with Ward and Guéhi almost mirroring each other on either side of Andersen. 




But where the counter-attack from van Aanholt was temporary, this backline not only looks to manoeuvre the ball repeatedly across the backline to find a way into midfield, they are doing this much higher up the pitch. 

Ward's heatmap this season (courtesy of SofaScore), compared to previous ones, shows more touches towards the halfway line and in narrower locations. 


JW Heatmap


The strategy employed by Patrick Vieira - converting Joel Ward from a full-back out of possession to a centre-back in possession - is not new. Previously he used Malang Sarr (a central defender by trade, now at Chelsea) similarly at OGC Nice on occasion, only down the left side.  

In terms of size, Ward is already a "larger" full-back (188cm and 82kg), and probably could have been converted to centre back earlier in his career, so this change does suit his physical attributes. 

Regardless of how conservative the lineup in which he plays in is, he has remained relatively consistent in terms of statistics as a defender. There is some variation season-on-season, but the changes are not dramatic.

Ward Defensive Prog


Thus, considering his defensive consistency, the question mark over his game would be away from his defensive capabilities. Instead, he would respond to playing in a possession-oriented team that builds their attacks from the back.


Comfort in Possession


Of the starting back-four for Patrick Vieira, only one player was in place when he joined as manager. 

Dougie Freedman identified both central defenders to suit the new possession-based style, to join the club as "ready-made" ball-playing-defenders. Meanwhile, Tyrick Mitchell, as a younger player, wasn't married to a specific type of football. 

This left Joel Ward, yet to sign a contract extension, as the odd player out. A holdover of a different era of Crystal Palace football.

The changes in Ward's statistics have been stark. Patrick Vieira's system will require all the defenders to be on the ball more frequently and comfortable under pressure, and he has risen to the occasion.


Ward Touch Pass


Ward's touches per 90 min have increased from an average of 65 in his last full seasons to 83 during this campaign. As shown above, the changes aren't just about volume. The most significant increase has come in the middle 1/3 of the pitch, where the team can hold onto the ball with greater ease as the season progresses.

The volume of passes has risen quickly as well. The focus of Ward isn't to be the playmaker but help create angles for those around him, such as Joachim Andersen or Conor Gallagher. 

Consequently, if you look at the total distance of his passes, the percentage of those that go forward has decreased. In 2020-21, 49.3% of the distance of his passes was forward. Now, as he is looking to play the ball sideways or backwards, that has dropped to 32.4%.

When given the space to move the ball forward, the defenders are asked to take it. In his short time with Crystal Palace, Marc Guéhi has already shown his prowess at driving past the first line of defence, and Ward has upped his volume again in this department opposite him.

Ward Carries Prog


In terms of total distance and "progressive" distance, Ward is on the ball far more. Under previous managers, you wouldn't expect to see him dribbling unless it was on an overlap, and even that appeared infrequent.

Joel Ward has gone on a quick learning curve in all of these aspects of possession football. It is still only eleven matches into the season, but given Patrick Vieira has already settled on a starting back-four, it has been a successful transition for him.