Bottom-club Fulham faced Crystal Palace in a London derby for the second of Saturday’s four Premier League matches. The Cottagers had suffered a horrible start to the season which saw them pick up just one point in five games, and looked destined for relegation already unless they turned things around very quickly. Palace, on the other hand, were relatively much better off, as they had seven points from five matches. However, they had lost momentum after picking up just one point from the last three games (including defeats to Everton and Chelsea) and needed to turn that around here.
After a solid performance from the visitors, they came away with a 1-2 victory thanks to goals from Jaïro Riedewald and Wilfried Zaha, with Tom Cairney’s late strike for Fulham proving to be a mere consolation. Here, we will take a look at the tactics and setups of the two sides in our tactical analysis.
Before we start the analysis, let’s take a quick look at both lineups.
Fulham went for a slightly unfamiliar 4-3-3, as Alphonse Areola had a defence of Ola Aina, Tosin Adarabioyo, Tim Ream, and Antonee Robinson in front of him. Mario Lemina, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, and Tom Cairney operated in midfield, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ademola Lookman provided width. Aleksandar Mitrović led the line for the Cottagers.
Crystal Palace lined up in a familiar 4-4-2, with Vicente Guaita in goal. New signing Nathaniel Clyne made his debut at right-back and he had Cheikhou Kouyaté, Scott Dann, and Tyrick Mitchell along with him in defence. Andros Townsend, Luka Milivojević, Jaïro Riedewald, and Jeffrey Schlupp made up the numbers in midfield, while Michy Batshuayi partnered Wilfried Zaha in attack.
Crystal Palace’s defensive shape
Crystal Palace didn’t look to take control of possession, as they were happy to defend in their disciplined shape.
Above, you can see Palace’s midfield and front-two in their formation. The forwards didn’t have any individual instructions, but their basic job involved lightly pressing the ball and trying to mark Mario Lemina, Fulham’s defensive midfielder. The man on the right took care of the first job, while the left forward did the second.
They maintained the classic two banks of four after the ball went beyond their attacking line. They held a low-block and tried to minimise the space between their midfield and defence in such situations.
The Eagles didn’t spread their players too wide so as to prevent any openings through the middle and forced Fulham, so they moved as a unit to either side depending on which flank the ball was on and left the opposite flank relatively open.
However, since they almost always maintained some sort of pressure on the ball in and around the final third, it was hard for Fulham to access the space on the opposite wing and Palace were able to contain them.
Thus, Crystal Palace defended in a solid shape and were happy to let Fulham keep the possession, as the Eagles were more adept at posing a direct goal-threat.
Fulham were undoubtedly the better side as far as possession was concerned, as they kept 66% of the ball. But they were up against a well-drilled defence and had to work hard to create any small openings.
Mario Lemina stayed back in possession and helped in the build-up by forming a triangle along with the two centre-backs.
On the right flank, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa liked to drift wide from midfield and move to the wing, freeing up Ola Aina to get forward.
In other cases, Zambo Anguissa pushed further forward than Aina, but this was relatively uncommon and only noticeable in the first quarter of the match.
Tom Cairney didn’t drift wide like Zambo Anguissa and instead stayed central to allow Antonee Robinson freedom on the left flank.
Ademola Lookman’s narrow position helped too, as that created space for Robinson to move forward and run onto Cairney’s passes. This gave the American full-back a fair few crossing opportunities.
As was evident in the previous instance, Fulham’s full-backs pushed way up the pitch to provide width in their attacks.
The wingers facilitated the full-backs’ advance by tucking inside, as is evident in the above example on the right flank. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has moved inside and opened up space on the flank, where Oli Aina can move forward. In this instance, he chose to deliver a cross.
It was a similar story on the opposite side too, as Antonee Robinson attacked the space that was evacuated by Ademola Lookman.
You can quite clearly see all the aforementioned characteristics of Fulham’s possession-play quite clearly in their average positions map below:
Notice how Lemina (18) is much further behind than the rest of the midfield. Zambo Anguissa (29) is about three-quarters to the right, whereas Tom Cairney (10) is much more central and further ahead. The two full-backs, Aina (34) and Robinson (33) are fairly forward too.
Those were all the tricks that Fulham tried to employ to break past Crystal Palace’s resolute defence, but in the end, they lacked the incisive final ball and rarely created a good chance.
Crystal Palace’s direct threat
Fulham have been alternating between a back-three and back-four throughout this Premier League season, but they just can’t seem to stop conceding. Therefore, Crystal Palace didn’t waste time in possession when threatening the Cottagers and were very direct in their attacks.
Above, you can see that Fulham have nine players (the back-four, midfield-three, and two wingers who have tucked inside) in shape behind that ball, while Crystal Palace only have three players in front of it. However, notice the area highlighted in blue, where both the Palace attackers are playing on the shoulder of Tosin Adarabioyo. The ex-Manchester City centre-back obviously can’t stop both of them, so Wilfried Zaha is able to run onto the ball played over the top of all of Fulham’s players.
Although Zaha’s resultant shot was kept out, Palace kept hold of the ball in the attacking third where Fulham’s leaky defence is at its deadliest.
In this particular case, Adarabioyo was at fault for stepping out of the defensive line and moving forward to meet Zaha, who was too clever for him and slipped in a no-look pass into the space he vacated. Mario Lemina must shoulder a part of the blame as well because he let Jaïro Riedewald get in front of him and meet the through pass before finishing in style. With that, Crystal Palace took the lead.
In other cases, they didn’t play long balls over the top and instead maintained their directness in play as they didn’t pass around aimlessly.
If the script was flipped in the above example and Fulham had the ball, then they would have probably played it back. However, Palace were direct in their attacks and didn’t waste time passing around, so Luka Milivojević went for the slightly-risky line-breaking pass to Andros Townsend.
The ex-Tottenham man carried the ball forward and got into a crossing position before delivering a great ball for Wilfried Zaha, who somehow headed wide. Even though the chance was gone, it was clear that Palace could add a goal in this manner too.
They did just that to double their advantage.
Michy Batshuayi started the move by taking a long ball down in a slightly tight area and nudging it on to Andros Townsend, who had already proven his quality in a similar situation.
Yet again, there were gaps aplenty in the Fulham defence and Townsend exploited them by playing another exquisite pass to release Batshuayi on the right.
Batshuayi then simply had to square it into the danger area, where Wilfried Zaha arrived to turn it in.
In this manner, Crystal Palace made the most of Fulham’s defensive frailties by attacking them directly with the help of some individual brilliance from Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend.
Tactically speaking, Fulham were set up well to exploit Crystal Palace’s weaknesses and create a fair few chances, but they simply didn’t take them. The Eagles, on the other hand, made the most of whatever little they created in front of goal with their no-nonsense system, and that worked a treat on the day.
Fulham have failed to win after six Premier League matches and just have a point in the bag, so they already seem to be favourites to go right back down to the Championship. Crystal Palace, on the other hand, are certainly looking to be a strong side with a respectable return of 10 points from six matches.