CRYSTAL Palace fans, help me out here. You watch your team every week – whereas yesterday’s match at Nottingham Forest was the first time I had seen them live this season. So tell me: What exactly is your formation?
Normally, when I watch a game, even if it’s a team I’ve not seen for a while, I can work out the way they line up within the first five or 10 minutes. I can make sense of Napoli’s brilliantly effective 3-4-2-1, with the front trio of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani causing all manner of problems with their movement, and the two wing-backs getting forward to support.
I can make sense of Blackpool’s fluid 4-3-3, which sees Barry Ferguson effectively operate in a holding role, allowing his two fellow midfielders to get forward and support an attacking trio who swap and change positions.
I’ve seen 4-4-2 set-ups were the wingers and strikers swap places every 10 minutes, and I’ve seen the 4-2-3-1 that seems to be the fashion in the Premier League these days. And while there are probably subtle nuances in those set-ups that I’m missing, I can broadly understand how they work (and sometimes, how they don’t – I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out Scotland manager Craig Levein’s infamous 4-6-0 set-up).
But at the City Ground yesterday, I could not for the life of me figure out Palace’s formation. They had a goalkeeper. They had a flat back four. They had Glenn Murray operating as a central striker. And they had five other players sort of operating in between.
Those five players – David Wright, Mile Jedinak, Stuart O’Keefe, Wilfried Zaha and Sean Scannell – were almost constantly rearranging themselves into different shapes. It was remarkable to watch.
Sometimes it was 4-1-4-1, with Wright as the holding midfielder. Sometimes Jedinak dropped back to make a 4-2-3-1. Sometimes O’Keefe completed a midfield three as Zaha and Scannell went forward to support Murray in a 4-3-3. Whenever Forest had a goal kick, it became a 4-1-2-3, as the midfield five formed a human arrow pointing towards the Palace goal with Wright as the tip. When Palace had a goal kick, it seemed to become 4-1-5. At one stage in the first half, all five midfield players became bunched within about 15 yards of each other as Forest had possession. I think that one might just have been positional indiscipline, though.
Now, the excellent Zonal Marking website will tell you that there is a danger in paying too much attention to formations. A team might start with a basic set-up, but players – particularly attacking players – will move around outside that basic framework. Football is not Celebrity Squares – you don’t necessarily have to stay in your box.
Even so, I don’t recall ever seeing anything quite like the way Palace play. During the early stages of yesterday’s match, I got the impression that their players haven’t quite fully got the hang of the system either.
I know, I know. Palace knocked Manchester United out of the Carling Cup. And even though it wasn’t United’s strongest team, they’ve also knocked out Championship leaders Southampton and Premier League Wigan, so their tactics must have something going for them.
And Dougie Freedman, still in his first year as a manager, is clearly making progress. Working on one of the Championship’s tighter budgets, he has transformed a team of relegation fodder into a side who reached the top three in late October. Speak to Freedman, and he plays down any talk of a promotion challenge. Instead, he speaks of planning for the long term, of making steady and sustainable process. It’s a sensible outlook.
Palace might have gone further in this season’s Carling Cup than Chelsea, but they hadn’t won in seven league games before the trip to Forest. The seventh game of that run had seen them concede the quickest goal Barnsley have ever scored. And although Palace did avoid a goal against inside the first nine seconds yesterday, it still took them a while to find their feet.
Captain Paddy McCarthy, returning after sitting out the Barnsley defeat, had a shaky start, first slipping to allow Paul Anderson to run clear – Anthony Gardner made a superb block – then surviving a penalty appeal when Luke Chambers felt he had been dragged down at a corner. Centre-back Gardner’s experience was crucial to holding Palace together at that point, while keeper Julian Speroni made a couple of useful saves from Garath McCleary. At that stage, Forest looked the likely winners.
So what changed? Forest boss Steve Cotterill suggested afterwards, with some justification, that his team were thrown by the reshuffle forced upon them by Wes Morgan’s injury. Morgan limped off with ankle trouble after 20 minutes, and with no defenders on the bench, Guy Moussi had to drop to centre-back, with substitute Andy Reid going into midfield.
Forest looked less imposing in the middle as a result, and Palace took advantage. Zaha and Gardner both came close to scoring before half-time. Eleven minutes into the second half, Glenn Murray did score.
The impressive Zaha made the goal with a burst through the middle, setting up Murray to find the net for the first time since his winner at Old Trafford. Forest had plenty of possession after that, but Gardner and Co looked solid. Speroni didn’t have an awful lot to do.
This is clearly a problem for Forest. They have dropped into the Championship’s bottom three after going four in a row without scoring. To my mind, they’re not playing badly, but they’re nowhere near ruthless enough. None of their “101 strikers”, as Cotterill put it in a post-match radio interview, have been prolific this season. Maybe Dexter Blackstock, who returned as a substitute yesterday after a year out with cruciate knee ligament damage, will be their main man once he gets fully up to speed. Or maybe not.
“We shouldn’t expect too much of Dexter,” Cotterill said. “I’ve been there with cruciate injuries myself, and it takes you a little while to get back into your stride again. I don’t think we’ll see the best of him until next season.
“We’ve got to keep on going. There’s no other way out of this. We’ve got to knock that door down.”
Freedman, meanwhile, continues to see Palace as a work in progress. “We’re a growing club, and we’re going to have our ups and downs throughout the season. I’m prepared to handle that.”