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Match Preview: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Crystal Palace

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On the last day of the season, Tottenham will be fighting for a place in the Europa League at Selhurst Park.

Tottenham Hotspur v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Spurs find themselves in a good run of form going into the last game of the season. Although Mourinho has received plenty of flak for playing “boring football” , one would be hard pressed to argue against Tottenham’s results over the last couple of weeks. A good win against Arsenal and a dominant performance from Kane to secure three points against Leicester have been the highlights of Spurs’ return to action so far.

If Spurs have benefitted from the break in football, Crystal Palace have suffered from it. After beating Bournemouth in their first game back, they’ve lost the following seven games, being outscored 17-2 along the way (they scored those two goals in a single match). 3 points from 32 is genuine relegation form and, although they have faced tough opposition in the restart and been hard done by with VAR decisions, Hodgson must be extremely grateful for their not-so-disastrous form prior to the break (and, frankly, the fact that there are a few teams that have simply gotten worse results).

Spurs can’t come in feeling like the match will be an easy one - Palace will surely be desperate to break their losing streak and end their season on somewhat of a high note. The final matchday is an excellent opportunity for Spurs to potentially claim a spot in the Europa League and salvage a forgettable season.

Crystal Palace - A Season to Forget

Much like Mourinho at Tottenham, Hodgson trusts his starting XI completely and has been very reluctant to make any changes to his starting lineup. Although he’ll stick to the 4-4-2 defensive formation that Crystal Palace typically line up with, injuries will force his hand to change personnel. Van Annholt was injured against Manchester United, forcing Hodgson to hand Tyrick Mitchell his first start in Premier League against Wolves - something that Adama Traore relished.

Wolves’ attacking areas focused on the right side as they looked for their star man, Traore, to take on youngster Mitchell.

Due to Sakho’s injury in their most recent game, it does seem like Palace will have to push Kouyate back from midfield into their defensive lineup - a position he’s only started at once this season. That means that in midfield, one of McCarthy or McArthur will slot in next to Milivojevic with Schlupp and ex Spurs Townsend on the flanks. Zaha and Ayew will play up top, both interchanging depending on the position of the ball to shift to a 4-4-1-1.

At first glance, this would look like a tricky match for Mourinho’s Spurs. They’ve struggled with defensively compact sides in the past - specially those that look to sit within a low to medium block and crowd out the center area of the defensive third.

All of that starts with Palace’s first wave of pressure, i.e. how Zaha/Ayew press the backline, and how their midfield supports the press.

As much as they try to nullify teams building from the back, Palace’s front line is not particularly good at doing so.

Against Wolves, Palace consistently shifted into a 4-4-1-1. Here, Zaha drops to block a pass towards a Wolves midfielder, but by doing so he opens up a space for Moutinho to run into. Ayew, on the other hand, is playing a position that a strike would in a 4-4-2. Zaha should be pressuring the ball carrier and utilizing his cover shadow, but he doesn’t so Wolves are able to progress the ball with ease.

Much has been said about Hodgson’s defensive demands of Zaha. Although Palace’s star is more free to express himself taking the position of a striker, both his and Ayew’s defensive positioning can be lacking.

Townsend does a great job pressuring Wolves’ midfield, but Zaha and Ayew are stretched too far and cannot pressure the backline effectively. Consequently, Wolves have enough time and space to either play it through the middle or switch the play to the opposite flank.

Palace’s midfield can struggle to maintain a solid defensive line once the front two are bypassed. A team with good technical players and mobile midfielders (as seen below) can exploit these gaps in the defense.

Palace’s first wave of pressure is bypassed as Wolves find Coady on the flank with space. This is where Palace’s midfield fails them - Wolves have a good triangular structure for passing, and have two of their most dangerous calling for a pass. It should be noted that throughout the match Palace players looked languid and reluctant to put in the extra effort required defensively.

Another way they play like Mourinho’s Spurs is their counterattacking style. They tend to rely on Zaha and, to a lesser extent, players like Townsend and Ayew to explode on the break on quick transitions and take shots on goal. They play a direct attacking style which leads to the team losing possession fairly often. They’ve only had 50%+ of the ball against Aston Villa and Burnley since the restart. Their opposition must be taken into account (can hardly blame them for not having high possession against teams like Leicester and Manchester United) but combined with their lack of goals, its indicative of how much they are struggling at the moment.

Spurs certainly are happy to walk away from a match with less possession, but their counter attacks work, as seen in recent score lines.

One of the many examples in which Palace regain possession and immediately try to find one of Zaha or Ayew. Palace have the fourth lowest passes per minute of possession at 13.3.

One of the main reasons that Palace’s counterattacks fail to materialize any threat towards the opposition goal is the lack of support provided by other Palace players. It’s unclear whether this has to do with lack of mobility from their midfield (apart from Townsend) or Ayew/Zaha are simply instructed to consistently create Bale-esque moments for their team.

Palace start off a promising counterattack, but Wolves maintain numerical superiority in the dangerous areas. No winger or fullback support arrives in time for Zaha to lay off a pass, and the Palace attack is effectively defended.

It’s completely possible that Hodgson’s team just sits too deep - earlier in the post we explored how gaps appear between the midfield line and Palace’s forwards. This can have a detrimental effect on both their defense and their attack, especially towards the later parts of a game.

Frankly, Mourinho has the attacking talent at Tottenham to be able to forego an attacking structure in the short term and rely on individual creativity. Hodgson does not have that luxury at Palace. Players like Ayew and Benteke cannot be consistently relied on to carry the attack. Zaha has the talent but has seriously struggled this season (4 goals/3 assists.)

How Spurs Can Approach the Match

Palace find themselves ending the season with the weakest of whimpers - but Spurs can hardly rest on their laurels. Europa League qualification necessitates results elsewhere to go our way, and Spurs might even still qualify for Europe with a mere tie.

But ideally Spurs keep up their ruthless streak and come away with a win, as they are clear favorites for this match up.

Palace have been leaking goals recently, and with any shaky defense, it looks shakier on the break.

Chelsea attack down their right, while Pulisic isolates Ward on the left side. Palace’s defense is pulled one way and Chelsea find Pulisic, who takes Ward on and scores. We’ve seen Son pull off similar goals recently.
Again against Chelsea, Palace’s defensive positioning is lacking. First, van Aanholt is caught upfield - natural as he is given the freedom to aid Palace’s attack but Hodgson will be demanding his attacking fullback to not forego his defensive duties and sprint back, specially in the 70th minute. Second, Sakho’s positioned in no man’s land, not pressing the ball carrier and not effectively covering Abraham with his shadow. His body positioning is not good either as he has to turn around completely in order to defend Abraham when he receives the ball. Abraham ends up burying his shot in the net.

Spurs will need to actively not trick themselves into a lull of overconfidence. It’d be great to see Mourinho adopt the same tactic that he did against Leicester. A low block to eliminate the space for Ayew/Zaha to run into, with direct attacks and not too much concern for keeping the ball. This will require the team to come into the final match full of energy and ready to do their part in obtaining Europa League for next season. Anything but a win here would be severely disappointing.