When Harry Redknapp came to Tottenham Hotspur from what would soon be a smoldering wreck of a club on England's south coast, no one had high expectations. That, of course, is precisely what made the next several seasons so remarkable. Prior to Tottenham Redknapp was a manager mostly known for being the English equivalent to Mack Brown if Brown had never had Vince Young and was from England's south coast. He was folksy, he sometimes shouted at youth team players during live interviews, and he had managed to carve out a long career in the game without ever accomplishing anything all that impressive save an FA Cup at Portsmouth that nearly came at the cost of the club's entire existence.
At Spurs that changed—at least for a few years. Though some of his "changes" were probably more dumb luck than managerial genius, Redknapp was able to build a side that would play the most thrilling football seen at Tottenham during the Premier League era. His finest team, the 2011-12 team, anticipated the surprising resurgence of Liverpool in 2013-14 by making a short-lived title run that fizzled out in the spring and his 2010-11 squad made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. The only Premier League team to top such a record in Europe since then is Chelsea who of course won the title in 2011-12 and then reached the semifinals in 2013-14. Put another way, in the past six years Spurs have gone deeper into Europe than Arsenal, Liverpool, or Manchester City. Even Manchester United, England's wealthiest, most storied club, hasn't made it to the quarterfinals since that same season that Spurs made their run.
Eventually Redknapp's limitations as a manager became more apparent, of course. The 10-11 team was helped by a favorable draw in the Champions League that saw them face Rafa Benitez's Inter as well as mostly unimpressive teams in Werder Bremen (who lost Mesut Ozil the previous summer) and Twente Enschede from the Eredivisie whose star man was a young Nacer Chadli.
The team's inconsistent league form in 2010-11 and 2011-12 also highlighted some of Redknapp's struggles as a manager. But while Redknapp's sacking was probably reasonable given these limitations, it's still fun to remember that remarkable run that Spurs enjoyed under his stewardship. Prior to this year we hadn't seen a club match those Tottenham sides as far as sheer fun and counter-attacking verve goes.
Alan Pardew's Palace is the closest thing we've seen to the Redknapp Spurs.
But this season we may finally have found the successor to those fun-but-badly-flawed Redknapp teams: Alan Pardew's Crystal Palace. The similarities are slightly jarring once you start to look at them: Pardew's reputation prior to his arrival at Palace may be even more complicated than Redknapp's, but like Redknapp Pardew has assembled a fun, counter-attacking side that relies on creative midfield passers and dynamic wingers playing as true wide forwards.
To begin, consider Palace's use of Yohan Cabaye. Although Cabaye is on the other side of his big money move to a European Champions League power, his role in this Palace side is often quite similar to the role played by Luka Modric in those Tottenham teams prior to Modric's move to Real Madrid. Both players have typically played in a midfield two, although they can also be used in other roles as well. (Modric sometimes played on the wings while Cabaye can play in the number 10 spot.) When used as deep passing midfielders, both players have a blank check from their managers to drift wherever they think is best to receive the ball and pick out a pass. Both players also generally look to play long passes to the opposite wing in order to reverse play, but they can also play simpler, short passes to the wing closest to them.
Consider these two passing maps, the former of which is from Cabaye's performance in Palace's recent 2-0 win against West Bromwich Albion while the latter comes from Modric in Tottenham's 2-0 win against Newcastle in December of 2010.
Modric didn't play quite as many vertical passes into the channels as Cabaye in this game (though he did in others), but the other similarities are notable—both players made and attempted a similar number of passes, both players had basically free roles in a midfield two that allowed them to drift wherever they wanted, and both players pushed the ball wide to the wingers who are the focal point of the attack.
The similarities don't end in the midfield either. Like that Spurs team, they lean heavily on a wide man who in the past was linked to Manchester United and who provides equal parts pace, power, and goal-scoring ability off the wing. (Wilfried Zaha, unlike Gareth Bale, actually moved to Manchester United for a short time.)
Compare the passes Zaha received in Palace's win against West Brom with the passes Bale received against Liverpool in Tottenham's 4-0 demolition of the Reds in the 11-12 season. In both cases you can see that the two teams love playing the ball to the wings where their wide attackers can go to work attacking the opposition defense:
There are differences between the Redknapp Spurs and Pardew's Palace.
Though there are similarities in the passes each player received, the differences in the maps above also highlight the great difference between those Spurs teams and this Palace squad. In the first place, the simple talent discrepancy between a Spurs side competing in the Champions League and this Palace side is considerable. If Palace's current trends hold, they will take about 20% fewer shots over the season than Spurs, even if the percentage of shots taken off counter-attack moves is virtually identical. So far this season Palace have had 22.66% of all their shots come from counters which compares quite favorably to the 2010-11 Spurs team's figure of 23.61% of all shots coming from counter attacks. (Counter-attacking stats courtesy of Michael Caley—you can read more about his method for analyzing shots in this post.)
But there are other differences as well. Despite his reputation as a tactical caveman, Redknapp's Spurs could actually be quite sophisticated. Thanks to the quality of Modric, van der Vaart, Bale, and Adebayor these teams could be very clever in their build-up play. Note the number of short passes Bale gets in a somewhat deeper wide position. These short passes could be used to spring Bale in areas where he had room to run with the ball. You don't see this sort of passing nearly as often in this Palace side. Nearly all the passes played to Zaha tend to be longer passes meant to get the ball to Zaha in space where he can go one-on-one with the opposition fullback.
Likewise, note the difference in area where Bale and Zaha receive the ball. At that point in his career Bale's best qualities were his pace and crossing ability, although he was beginning to emerge as an elite goal-scorer. Zaha's chief quality, in contrast, is his dribbling ability. So Spurs got the ball to their elite wide man in areas where he had room to actually run past the defense and whip in a cross. Palace get the ball to their star winger closer to the goal where a single successful dribble can create major trouble for the opposition defense.
These differences also show up in how each team's number 10 approaches the game. Rafael van der Vaart is the closest thing the Premier League has seen to a traditional, Riquelme-style number 10. Though van der Vaart ran more than many think, he was hardly the sort of cutting vertical attacker that most teams look for in a modern number 10. For these Spurs teams, however, van der Vaart fit perfectly. Bale and Lennon provided the pace that could stretch defenses vertically; van der Vaart provided a bit of anarchy in the middle not by charging forward all the time, but rather by finding the bits of space that allowed him to play that devastating final ball or to finish that thrilling attacking move. Bale and Lennon wanted to play crosses—van der Vaart had a knack for being available for their cutback passes or for the knockdowns provided by Peter Crouch or Adebayor. The two goals he scored in his coming out party at Spurs against Aston Villa are representative of the qualities van der Vaart brought to the club.
Puncheon, in contrast, plays like a central winger which is no surprise given that's exactly what he is. He receives the ball in either channel and then typically either charges forward himself or looks to play a quick pass and then continue moving forward down the channel. Though he seldom finishes his move with a strike of this quality, this GIF basically shows how Puncheon works as a number 10. He's running vertically throughout the entire sequence and with a speed that we associate more with wingers than a classic number 10.
When you partner Puncheon with Zaha and Bolasie you are essentially doing the equivalent of giving an elite passing quarterback three fast wide receivers to throw the ball to. Most Premier League defenses simply cannot cope with the speed of the Palace attack once they are moving forward. Even if they successfully contain Zaha or Bolasie, Puncheon is storming down the heart of the defense. This adds a further level of speed and pure counter-attacking menace that the Redknapp Spurs never possessed.
This Crystal Palace team is not a perfect replica of the Redknapp Spurs. Through no fault of their own they simply can't approach what those Spurs teams had in terms of individual quality. As a result, they rely on a far more direct attacking style that emphasizes individual take-ons more than the quick passing moves that Modric and van der Vaart so often orchestrated for Tottenham. But focusing on that point may cause us to miss out on what is one of the most enjoyable teams (and stories) of this year's Premier League.
The Eagles deserves as much media love as Southampton and Swansea. They are a legitimately fun team to watch, they are always looking to attack, and in Cabaye, Zaha, and Bolasie they have three players who could probably feature in the match day squad of a Champions League-caliber team and certainly would play a prominent role in a Europa League squad.
Due to the lack of anything even slightly resembling a competent striker as well as their generally wide open midfield, Palace will need help to do anything more than finish safely midtable. But even with their limitations and obvious flaws there are few sides in England that can match Pardew's Palace if you're looking for sheer fun. If you liked the wide open thrill of the Redknapp Spurs, then you should love the more direct take on the same basic style currently on display in southeast London.