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Talking Tactics

Wide men can kick-start Palace revival

24 Dec 2016
Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace

Boxing Day can bring some festive cheer for Sam Allardyce's Crystal Palace at Watford, says Adrian Clarke

Watford and Crystal Palace have only ever met twice in the Premier League, and on both occasions it was the away side that triumphed.

Ahead of a lunchtime encounter that kicks off the Premier League’s Boxing Day schedule, Adrian Clarke picks out some areas to watch.

Crossing lessons

Whenever crosses fly into the penalty area at Vicarage Road, both sets of supporters will shift uncomfortably in their seats, and not without good reason. Their teams have suffered badly in the air this term.

Given that Watford often deploy three tall central defenders it is surprising that they have conceded the most headed goals so far in 2016-17.

Jonny Evans, West Bromwich Albion
Watford have conceded the most headed goals (10) in the Premier League this season

The team does not lack height, and in Heurelho Gomes they have a goalkeeper who is willing to come out and deal with deliveries. In the fact the Brazilian is the Premier League’s most prolific puncher (17) and the third-highest ranked for high claims (26).

Premier League 2016/17 Headers conceded
Watford 10
Stoke 9
Sunderland 8
Everton 7
Crystal Palace 6
Swansea 6

The Hornets’ problems stem from a failure to stop crosses being fired into the area, and their weak spot when it comes to taking responsibility for runners attacking the ball.

Midfielders have not always stayed with their men, and defenders have too frequently allowed rival forwards to get their head on crosses in between markers.

Has Walter Mazzarri’s use of seven different formations so far, flitting between a back three and four, created confusion?

Walter Mazzarri, Watford
Walter Mazzarri has changed the formation of his Watford side on seven occasions already this season

It is hard to say that with any degree of certainty, but the tinkering cannot have helped with the defenders’ understanding and communication.

Premier League 2016/17 goals conceded Corner Wide free-kick Total
Watford 9 2 11
Crystal Palace 7 5 12

These two sides are officially the softest when it comes to defending set-pieces.

Watford have endured a rotten run at corners and for much of the campaign there has also been great uncertainty among Crystal Palace’s players. They are not a small side but the Eagles have been consistently loose when picking up at wide free-kicks and corners.

It is very much their Achilles heel, and doubtless this will be one of the first priorities Sam Allardyce, who replaced Alan Pardew as manager on Friday and is a stickler for defensive rigour, will look to address.

To put their figures into context , Swansea City are the Premier League’s next worst side at defending dead balls, with nine concessions to date.

So, based on what we have witnessed in the first half of the season, do not be surprised if a set-piece decides this clash.  

Winging it well

Playing with width has been a key tactic of both sides, and each boast a wide man who has the necessary form and flair to get fans out of their seats on Boxing Day. Creatively, Nordin Amrabat and Wilfried Zaha should prove prominent figures.

Zaha has to be one of the most improved players in the division. Displaying a level of consistency that had previously eluded him, the Eagles winger is now somebody the club can rely on to deliver end product.

The 24-year-old is not running with the ball any better or creating tons more opportunities than he did in 2015-16, but the quality of his decision-making has come on in leaps and bounds.

By taking shots on at the right time, delivering crosses with more care and precision, and picking out the right selections at key moments, the former Manchester United man has conjured up three goals and six assists in a string of eye-catching displays.

Wilfried Zaha 2015/16 2016/17
Mins/assist 2492 229
Mins/goal 1246 458
Chances per 90 1.44 1.38
Dribbles complated per 90 4.60 4.70
Total shots per 90 1.20 1.40
Crosses/corner accuracy % 23.73 34.69

Zaha has been evenly used on the left and right wing this term, but in my view he has always looked more dangerous on the right. In that position he loves to beat defenders on the outside, and looks more at home.

Statistically, he has produced all his goals and two-thirds of his assists from that side of the pitch.

Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace
Wilfried Zaha has proven most effective on the right flank, from where he has produced all his goals and two third of his assists

Over Christmas it is important for Zaha to rekindle the spark he had during a purple patch between late October and mid-December. If he can, it will lift those around him.

For the Hornets, Moroccan wide man Amrabat is equally influential.

The versatile 29-year-old has been deployed in a number of different positions by Mazzarri this season; from right-back, to right-midfield, to a right-sided forward role, but he has always appeared happier in advanced areas.

That is where he has been used of late, playing with a zip that has provided Watford with a more potent attacking edge – even if results have not reflected that.

Watford's Nordin Amrabat
In recent weeks Nordin Amrabat has delivered three assists and is creating 1.4 chances per match on average

Amarabat’s crossing is a little hit or miss (he has an 18.18% accuracy) but in recent weeks he has delivered three assists, and is on average creating 1.4 chances per match.

That makes him Watford’s most imaginative player, so Joel Ward’s duel with him down that flank will be critical.

The Flying Scotsman

From a goalscoring perspective Crystal Palace midfielder James McArthur is enjoying the season of his life. Netting five PL goals in 15 starts, he has already returned his highest tally for a single campaign.

Before he departed the club earlier this week, Alan Pardew tended to rotate the 29-year-old between an orthodox central-midfield role alongside Joe Ledley, and as an attacking No 10 type, just off striker Christian Benteke.

Crystal Palace's James McArthur
James McArthur has developed a knack of timing his runs from midfield to get on the end of crosses

Only time will tell whether this will continue under Allardyce, but my own view is that he is more effective as a box-to-box midfielder. 

McArthur is not blessed with the quickest feet, a skill you often need to wriggle out of tight situations inside the final third, but the Scotland international compensates for that by being an excellent passer, a physical presence, and someone with a fantastic engine.

Crucially he also has the football intelligence to pick and choose his forward runs wisely. Timing his forays into the box astutely, he has popped up in some brilliant positions to score for Palace at crucial times this season.

McArthur 2016/17
Mins per goal 251.6
Dribbles completed per 90 1
Shots per 90 1.2
Chance conversion 42%
Km per 90 11.3

Watford’s principle holding midfielder Valon Behrami must we wary of the threat posed by the Scot, for when he gets his chances inside the box, a 42% conversion rate suggests McArthur is clinical enough to punish them.

When Jason Puncheon, Zaha, Andros Townsend and Ward are shaping to cross, Watford need to be aware of the dynamic midfielder.

Scoring three headers, one goal with his right foot and the other with his left, the Eagles' star is not the type to worry about how the ball comes to him. He can be a match winner on Boxing Day.

James McArthur v Liverpool
McArthur scored twice from his only two touches inside the box v Liverpool

Final thoughts

Mazzarri and Allardyce will both warn their teams about the need to concentrate right from the start of this 12.30pm kick-off.

Watford and Palace have got into a habit of starting matches slowly, letting in too many goals early on. In fact no other club have shipped more first-half goals (16) than these two sides, with champions Leicester City on the same number.

Interestingly, after half-time they each boast a positive goal difference.

Troy Deeney, Watford
Watford need to find a way to get Troy Deeney more involved as he has not scored in the Premier League since 1 October

The Hornets also need to find a way to get to Troy Deeney into the match. When the forward is at the hub of their play the Hertfordshire outfit usually produce their most effective football. During a patchy run including five defeats from their last seven contests, the club captain has been on the periphery.

Provided that they are able to soak up pressure from the hosts, Palace do appear to have the tools to hurt Watford on the break. With pace and craft out wide, and the presence of Benteke in attack, I expect the Eagles to pepper the box with crosses whenever they counter.

It feels like both clubs are in need of a morale-boosting win.

From a tactical perspective, even though match preparations are bound to have been disrupted by the managerial departure, this feels like a great chance for Crystal Palace to collect the three precious points and get Big Sam's tenure off to the perfect start.

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