Crystal Palace rendered a masterclass in assimilating pressure and attacking the league leaders key weaknesses to bring Pep Guardiolas winning streak to an end
The technological regions were a study in change. On one side was the pencil thin, shaven-headed figure of Pep Guardiola, limbs folded, sleek in his black bomber coat. In the other were two figures dressed in black but that was the only similarity between them. That football could have rendered two such disparate groups, practically separate species, is testament to its infinite richness.
There was Roy Hodgson, hands thrust in the pockets of his padded car coat, fretting and shrugging like an anxious owl, carefully wiping his feet every time he left the grassy area for the track. And beside him, behind him, around him, flapping about in a waterproofed coat, his assistant Ray Lewington, hair awry, arms thrusting with instruction. From behind he resembled some sort of demonic cross between Game of Thrones’ Alliser Thorne and Father Jack.
By the end, as a bruising game reached its denouement with Kevin De Bruyne and Jason Puncheon both being carried away, Guardiola took a seat next to Hodgson in the Palace dugout, like a young buck paying a new year visit to a well-loved teacher.” It was nice for Pep to come and mind sitting down ,” Hodgson said.” I know him from fulfilling him at Uefa seminars. It was two coaches who’ve been in video games a long time, two coach-and-fours with reciprocal respect for each other who took the opportunity to have a chat, which we don’t always get the chance to do .” What, after all, is Christmas time about?
Occasionally Hodgson and Lewington conferred, heads bowed in mutual scold, synchronised in their shrugging, or in telling Wilfried Zaha to switch flanks, the Statler and Waldorf of the dugout. And yet it worked. Implausible as it may have seemed, the Croydon Way proved equal to the Cruyffian Way. Other league opponents have sat deep against Manchester City this season and frustrated them; none has now been prevented them scoring. And none has so combined stifling City with putting them under pressure.
Palace had 10 shoots and forced seven corners, more than any other side in the league against City this season. Their success came from pressuring the two areas in which City have seemed susceptible. They continue to struggle against high balls, whether intersected in from broad or hit straight over the top. Eliaquim Mangala’s hesitation under a long clearance from Wayne Hennessey in the first half was mystifying and had Christian Benteke indicated more equanimity, well, he would probably still is currently under Liverpool. His anxiety was a recurring topic, and the Belgian put a very good headed chance broad late on.
The other success came in wide areas, where Zaha and to a lesser extent Andros Townsend both have the pace to induce opposing full-backs wary about pressing forward. The outcome was that, as Hodgson said, Kyle Walker and Zaha effectively” neutralised each other” for the first three quarters of the game, before Zaha and Townsend switched flanks. That was what get Zaha running at Danilo, which produced criminal penalties as Raheem Sterling clumsily tried to get back to him. Hodgson was reluctant to take credit, describing it as” a tactical switch my spouse would have stimulated “.
Hodgson set up his side in a 4-3-3, with Jairo Riedewald used on the left of midfield. It was the first league game the Holland international had started under Hodgson, having been brought in by Frank de Boer from Ajax, where he operated either at the back or in midfield. Here, his task was a specific one: halt De Bruyne. Within five minutes the Belgian was inconvenienced enough to switch with Ilkay Gundogan, and although they swapped back again for a hour after Scott Dann’s injury, City’s lack of fluency was striking.
City’s irritation was clear and led to Leroy Sane being booked for petulantly kicking the ball away after a mistimed pass for him.
Certain aspects of football are eternal, even as visionaries such as Guardiola change perceptions of what is possible. Palace’s success was rooted in the values Hodgson had absorbed on Allen Wade’s first FA training course in the late 60 s. That was when systematisation entered English football’s mainstream, when individuality yielded to the notion of a wider structure.
” We were excellent to its implementation of tactical discipline, commitment, focus and concentration ,” Hodgson said.
Rightly, he preferred to focus on a phase won rather than two lost due to the late penalty miss. But perhaps his greatest victory was doing what so little managers have done this season. Palace may have had only 25.7% possession but they disrupted City to the extent that this did not look like a game of handball: this was not an attack constantly passing in front of a defence, constantly in search of an opening. Hodgson’s triumph was to make this look like a normal game.
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