The polarity between a low block team and a team that plays a free-flowing brand of football is most distinguishable when they play one another. The very same contrast was observed as expected when Crystal Palace hosted Brighton and Hove Albion, amidst quite an eventful game week in the Premier League.
Despite only registering one shot via Wilfried Zaha’s penalty throughout the match, Crystal Palace looked to negate their opposition’s flair in a true Catenaccio style. Conversely, Brighton had the majority of the ball and did the majority of the running. While their possession-based optimism was quite easy on the eye, their lack of a final pass frustrated them.
In this match report, we provide a tactical analysis of an instructive mid-table battle. We provide an analysis of the tactics behind two inherently contrasting styles, and illustrate areas for improvement for both teams.
It was a tale of attack vs defence between two teams that both had strong performances against Manchester United this season. Crystal Palace’s signature 4-4-2 low block setup came as no surprise. They were happy to give their opposition the ball and eliminate major spaces in their half through two narrow lines of four. Zaha and Michy Batchuayi were the targets for counter-attacks facilitated by direct vertical passing.
Conversely, Brighton lined up in a 3-4-3. Their average formation line of 59.4 metres (as opposed to Palace’s 42.3) was pronounced through their talented wing-backs in Tariq Lamptey and Solly March. Their double-pivot, consisting of Ben White and Yves Bissouma, was essential to their possession-based ball progression. The central midfielders were tasked with progressing the ball into the final third and covering the half-spaces behind their wing-backs – allowing them to get more forward.
The above image maps the average positions of the players for both teams. There are several noteworthy elements conveyed here that highlight subtle elements of the match. First, Brighton’s distinctly high defensive line, contrasted with Crystal Palace’s distinctly deep defensive line, captures the different approaches taken by both teams.
Furthermore, Palace’s attacking players are concentrated towards the left-hand side of the pitch. The exclusivity of the left side is a signature tactic employed by Roy Hodgson, and can be observed in the majority of their matches. As a countermeasure, White’s average position is more towards the right, in order to support Lamptey’s runs in a prophylactic manner. His counterpart Bissouma is more centrally positioned, in a box-to-box role. On the other flank, Dan Burn is comfortable with covering a larger chunk of the pitch behind March.
Finally, for a team holding a markedly high line, the average positioning of Brighton’s attackers seems to blend in with the midfield. This implies that their formation resembles more of a 3-4-1-2, with Adam Lallana as an attacking midfielder, Leandro Trossard as the second striker and Neal Maupay upfront.
The respective degree of success for both teams can be measured through Crystal Palace’s collective solidity while defending, and Brighton’s quality of chances while attacking.
Crystal Palace’s low block system
Much like an old-school boxer, Roy Hodgson’s philosophy lies in a safety-first approach. Crystal Palace look to frustrate the opposition by denying them space in central areas. As the opposition continues to push forward, Palace rely on a handful of opportunities on the counter to expose them.
In the following position, Crystal Palace’s defensive structure is in place as Bayern Munich-linked Lamptey looks to progress the ball forward.
All four of Palace’s midfielders routinely fall back to eliminate spaces in the centre. This prompts Lamptey to dribble wide and opt against passing it to Lallana. While the youngster does well by winning the one-on-one, his mediocre cross is comfortably dealt with by the narrow backline. This is an ideal defending scenario for Crystal Palace.
By having numerical superiority in the centre, they are confident in their defenders’ ability in the air. In testing the creativity of their opposition, they look to frustrate Brighton as they patiently wait for their own chances, against the run of play.
“Against the run of play” is indeed an effective option used by several low block teams. In the above image, a moment of ball-watching by Brighton allows Jairo Riedewald an ounce of extra space. His forward through ball permits Batshuayi to get behind Brighton’s high line. Although he’s a whisker offside, Burn’s advanced position is noteworthy. The centre-back looking to press his man in the midfield was caught completely out of position.
The above sequence was especially effective, as the line-breaking was predominantly done by the team that had most of the ball. Crystal Palace’s solidity led to them almost doubling their lead through one of their few chances in the game. The added factor of it being “against the run of play” contributed to its potency.
Brighton’s ball progression
Graham Potter’s enterprising style of football saw Brighton have more possession than Manchester City at home last season. With promising new additions this season, they seem to certainly be building on a said philosophy, despite not having the points to back it up so far.
Thus, they were undoubtedly uncompromising in their playing style against Crystal Palace. They routinely progressed the ball by passing it from the back. Their possession chains consisted of the double pivot of White and Bissouma relaying it to either March or Lamptey, both of whom were bright.
With three centre-backs instead of two, Brighton’s double pivot always had a forward option to their wing-back or a backward option to their centre-back. This allowed them to progress the ball into the subsequent phase of play without much pressure. In addition, they played an active role in Brighton’s press as well, as shown in the following image.
Ben White’s reading of the game is spot-on on this occasion. His awareness of Riedewald’s passing lanes prompts him to engage in a seemingly unfavourable duel. The positioning of his teammates, then, permits him to win the ball and attempt a shot.
While Brighton were ticking all the boxes in build-up play and winning the ball, their decision-making in the final third let them down. At times where a final pass was required, they were wasteful. At times where they needed to be direct, they took a touch too many. The former could be personified by Bissouma in the final third. He had five shots on goal, but none were on target.
In the above position, perhaps the best option would be to make the pass to Lamptey, who would have had a strong attempt at goal. The easier pass to see, however, is the shorter option on the overlap. Bissouma’s decision-making in the above half-space lets him down, as he opts for neither and attempts a blind shot under pressure.
Brighton looked most dangerous through their wing-backs. In the following possession chain, Lamptey initiates the attack and March provides the final ball.
The nature of Lamptey’s pass is what Brighton needed more of. With one line-breaking pass, Trossard is given free space on the turn as Palace’s second line of defence is bypassed for a moment. The tempo of his reaction allows him to switch flanks, moving the ball to March. March’s agile dribbling permits him to send a low cross into the box.
The significance of Lallana’s consequent dummy is to split the centre-backs. To their credit, they manage to do enough to take the venom from Maupay’s shot. This play personifies how dangerous Brighton can be. Their high tempo managed to get behind a fairly solid but not perfect defensive line. It equally indicates room for improvement in terms of being clinical in front of goal. While Maupay was involved in most of Brighton’s chances, the two shots he did have on target were underwhelming, due to him holding the ball for half a second too long. In the above image, another line-breaking pass is made, this time by White. Brighton’s high tempo play enables Maupay a chance on goal. Once again, he held onto the ball for an extra half-second. This led to Palace recovering space and doing enough to defend.
On one hand, the optimistic analyst argues that the project being built by Graham Potter is gradually improving. On the other hand, the pragmatic analyst would point out that it hasn’t translated into much yet this season. Brighton had an xG of 1.76 on the day. Interestingly, then, their equaliser in the 90th minute had an xG of 0.13. This implies that Brighton have been highly underperforming in relation to their xG.
Crystal Palace were almost successful at entirely denying Brighton’s optimism. The goal conceded by them was, moreover, due to an individual error, indicating a lack of concentration. While Palace were solid and realised in their approach, they did concede chances that would have been converted by better oppositions. Their midfield line of four, in particular, has room to be more organised. Overall, their catenaccio system surely could be better drilled.
Conversely, Brighton have shown some exciting football, but need to make more direct and urgent decisions in front of goal. While it may be argued that their apparent underperformance will eventually be balanced out as the season progresses, their players have to score the goals in order for that to happen.
In this match report, we deconstructed the contrast between the playing styles of two teams touted to finish in the limbo between the top and the bottom of the Premier League. While they may not necessarily boast the fanciest of players, Crystal Palace and Brighton were true to two of the oldest and most distinguishable styles of football.