Crystal Palace’s decision to appoint Tony Pulis, as I discussed last month, was the only realistic possibility the club had of staying in the Barclays Premier League.
Palace’s squad is short on quality and had been stretched by a summer of seemingly aimless buying under former manager Ian Holloway. In a relatively short period of time, Pulis has taken a side that was on pace to not even reach the 15 point mark for the season and organized them into a cohesive playing unit capable of fighting for survival.
While at Stoke City, Pulis gained a reputation for being negative in his tactics and favoring a direct approach. The critics who articulated this message often times ignored that other managers had brought into the Premier League more talented sides than Stoke, only to face relegation thanks to an emphasis on slick passing and entertainment. When you’re fighting for survival, pragmatism and practical football always beats idealism.
Palace has set up in a conventional 4-4-2 since Pulis took over and have generally defended in two banks of four. While it is cliquish to deride this as negative, the new Palace manager understood the limitations of his squad and also realized that defensively this side was very strong last season in the Championship. The ability to organize the defense, which had not always been a trait of Ian Holloway in previous tenures at places like QPR and Blackpool, was actually one of his strengths at Palace.
But that organization after a decent first few weeks of Premier League life was torn apart in September and October. Holloway’s sides began to fray in shape and give the ball away all too often from a defensive position.
Under Pulis, while Palace still ranks dead last in possession in the league, the giveaways are more strategic. It fits the stereotype of Pulis’ system but opposition possession often starts further down the pitch allowing Palace to defend properly with two banks of four and then look to create goal scoring opportunities on the break or on set-pieces.
Conceding the bulk of possession is not a concern if much of the opposition’s time on the ball is in midfield. This is what has essentially happened in recent Crystal Palace matches, where the opponents have kept the ball in positions where they are not creating a large number of goal scoring opportunities (the Newcastle match at Selhurst Park is an obvious exception).
With the January transfer window looming and Palace back in the fight for survival after looking dead and buried when Pulis was appointed, it will be interesting to see how the South London club views the opportunity to reinforce. As noted above, Palace bought aimlessly this past summer, picking a hodgepodge of players with Premier League experience without any real plan on how to integrate many of them into the squad.
Up until his last few windows at Stoke, Pulis’ buying tended to be on-point for how his side played football and based around longer-term goals. If given the chance to spend in January, my guess is that Pulis will go for players that defend well and might be threats on set-pieces.
Whatever happens in January, it is remarkable we are talking about Palace’s survival after Boxing Day. The Pulis appointment was a master stroke. The other sides hovering near the bottom of the league that have recently sacked their managers can only hope they make as inspired an appointment.
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