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Alan Pardew has masterminded incredible Crystal Palace turnaround

It took 17 minutes from the start of the second half for Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace to change a cagey 0-0 game against Sunderland into a rout. The 4-1 win, featuring a hat-trick from highly impressive winger Yannick Bolasie, is emblematic of the English manager’s tenure at Palace. A difficult first half of the season left Palace as relegation favorites by December. Pardew replaced embattled manager Neil Warnock in early January and since then has taken Palace on a tear. Saturday’s win saw them rise to 11th place on 42 points – just above the well recognised 40-point minimum required to avoid relegation – with six matches yet to play. After too much time spent under the hair-trigger scrutiny of the Newcastle fanbase, this must come as welcome relief to the 2011/12 Premier League Manager of the Year.

Put lightly, Palace’s improvement under Pardew is impressive. In the 12 games that preceded Pardew’s appointment on January 2nd, Palace earned a measly 0.75 points per game in the league. In the 12 league games since Pardew’s appointment that figure has jumped to 2.08 points per game – Champions League chasing form. One can expect a bit of a bump from any mid-season managerial appointment, but this is a dramatic improvement compared to other such changes in the league this season. Tim Sherwood’s miracle-in-progress at Aston Villa, the next best example of a new manager bump, has only yielded an improvement from 0.25 points per game in the last eight games of the horrid Paul Lambert era to 1.25 points per game in the eight league games since.

Pardew’s accomplished this feat by reverting to an unfashionable tactic – the long ball. In an age of possession-obsessed teams, it’s become gauche to rely on punting the ball up the pitch. The long ball simplicity belies its effectiveness in the right hands, however. A possession-based game relies on the superior technical ability of every player on the pitch, from the goalkeeper to the center-forward. They each need to be able to lay off and receive the ball precisely, reliably and better than the other team. This is not an easy level of proficiency. The paragon of this style, Barcelona, literally grew a team up from childhood together in order to master this possession-based approach. A vast majority of teams don’t have the wherewithal or resources to do something similar. The next best thing a team like Crystal Palace can do, then, is learn what it is good at it and do it exceedingly well. Thus Pardew lives or dies by the long ball.

Pardew isn’t alone in embracing this retro tactic – Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United have thrived by the grace of Marouane Fellaini’s head, who the boss now believes is undroppable from his starting XI, and German club Wolfsburg will continue to pump balls forward in their Europa League game against Napoli on Thursday. This long ball is not the same as the ones of years past, however. It is less about a simple desire to distance the ball from your own goal and more about bypassing the opposition’s midfield and defense. Palace are fortunate enough to have three of the most dynamic attacking midfielders outside of the top four teams in Bolasie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha. Combined with the aerial prowess of striker Glenn Murray and the long ball distribution of defensive midfielder Mile Jedinak, this makes Palace a particularly striking example of the long ball’s modern interpretation. All four goals scored in that 17 minute period of the second half against Sunderland came as a direct result of a forward pass from deep in Palace’s own half.

No discussion of the long ball or Crystal Palace would be complete without mentioning last season’s savior, Tony Pulis. Taking over in November 2013 after Ian Holloway’s sacking, Pulis also led Crystal Palace clear of near-certain relegation and earned the Premier League Manager of the Year award for his efforts. He demands a physical style of play built around set pieces and, yes, long balls to powerful forward lines. To call Pardew’s success this season wholly revolutionary is a bit of stretch – his accomplishments are largely built on a team formed around Pulis’ ideals. To watch this Palace team play though is to instantly recognize the positivity Pardew brings, especially compared to Pulis. Far from crowding behind the ball, he positions his attacking players so far forward that it sometimes appears he’s fielded a 4-2-4 formation. It’s in the numbers where the true difference becomes clear though. While still not dominating possession, Pardew’s Palace team has only once dipped below the 37% possession average Pulis put up in 2013/14. Tactical optimism, increased possession and in-form attackers have yielded results. In 28 games in charge of Palace, Pulis’ team managed to score an average of .87 goals per game from a shot conversion rate of 10.8%. In 12 league games, Pardew has managed a startling 1.83 goals per game from a shot conversion rate of 12.9%. This scoring success comes in part due to an admittedly unsustainable amount of luck – almost 50% of Palace’s shots on target have gone in, a figure significantly larger than even the top teams in the league. Nevertheless, Pardew’s Palace comeback is even more successful than Pulis’.

The six concluding games of Palace’s season will see them play Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool along with Pulis’ new side West Brom this coming weekend. Even a modest point return from such difficult fixtures would be enough to make Crystal Palace’s season feel like a success after Pardew’s fantastic run. In Pardew, Palace have both a savior and a foundation from which to build. His teambuilding efforts at Newcastle, though constantly marred by injury and the sale of his best players, is proof enough that Pardew is an excellent choice for Palace. Paired with some tactical pragmatism and a bit of luck, Pardew and Crystal Palace’s future should be bright.


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  1. jtm371

    April 14, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Just remember if not for Tony Pulis they would be in the Championship League this season.

    • yespage

      April 15, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      The article notes that.

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