Analysis: Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool

With the race for top 4 heating up considerably, Liverpool scraped a win against bogey-team Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park with goals from Sadio Mane and the red-hot Egyptian striker, Mohammed Salah. Coming off the international break and with a crucial game between fellow top four rivals, Tottenham and Chelsea, the next day it was imperative that Liverpool secured a win and the three points to further solidify its claim for a Champions League position.

Lineup- Crystal Palace

Coming off an away win at Huddersfield, Crystal Palace lined up with what appeared to be a 4-5-1, with target striker Christian Benteke leading the line and the lightning quick Wilfried Zaha on the left side. The midfield was congested with Milivojevic and MacArthur tasked with breaking up Liverpool’s passing lanes in the midfield. On the right, Andros Townsend and the young fullback, Wan-Bissaka, looked to contain Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson’s surging runs.

Lineup- Liverpool

Klopp set up his team in the familiar 4-3-3, with the star studded trio of Mane, Firmino, and Salah leading the attack. The midfield underwent a forced change with Emre Can injured and Gini Wijnaldum restored to the starting 11 alongside veteran James Milner and captain Jordan Henderson. This made me a little skeptical before the game began as I wasn’t sure that the midfield could handle both a midfield battle with Palace’s tough tackling and, at the same time, supply the strikers with threatening passes. In defense, Matip was picked to partner Van Dijk down the middle while TAA was selected on the right, with Joe Gomez out with an injury over the break and Nathaniel Clyne still feeling his way back to first team football.

First Half

Liverpool were quite poor in the first half, with a lot of safe passing in the back and conceding a penalty due to a lost duel and questionable decisions by several members of the defense. Despite boasting superior numbers in possession, Liverpool were largely reduced to hopeful shots in attack and passing without any real penetration. On the other hand, Palace defended compactly and stuck to a strategy of counter attacks.

Palace Strategy

From the third minute, it was apparent that Crystal Palace wanted to target Liverpool’s right side and try to isolate Zaha against TAA. As you can see from this clip, once Cabaye has the ball under control, he immediately launches a ball toward Benteke and Zaha is already sprinting forward for a counter attack:

cabaye-1

The second warning shot came a few minutes later with Zaha bursting past TAA and almost scoring:

palace-1

This targeting of our right side may be for a number of reasons:

  1. TAA/Matip on the right side are simply not as defensively solid as VVD and Robbo on the left side.
  2. Zaha vs TAA matchup: TAA showed his weakness against skilled, pacy wingers when he was exposed twice in quick succession by Marcus Rashford during the Manchester United game. Zaha being 1 v 1 against the young fullback was definitely tilted in favor of Zaha
  3. Benteke: The combination of Liverpool’s midfield being physically weak and having a target striker of Benteke’s size and strength plays into Palace’s favor. His only competition in the air was Van Dijk and those duels are 50-50; good odds for the striker

Crystal Palace 1 – 0 (Milivojevic penalty)

From a routine goal kick, Benteke was able to knock the ball into Zaha’s path who was quite clearly taken out by a charging Karius:

palace-2

For me, this is a stonewall penalty and not even debatable. Although TAA is too easily beaten by Zaha and will be main focus of criticism (he should have been goal-side of his marker), there are a couple of other mistakes occurring in the play by Liverpool defenders. Matip is at fault here as well as he advances to challenge Benteke in the air, but does nothing other than briefly shove him forward and put himself out of position. Had he won the ball, or even just stayed in his position, he would have been able to deal with the deflection and cover for TAA. In addition, Karius commits himself unnecessarily for a low-danger ball that his defense would have responded to eventually.

Sadio Mane Yellow

For me, Sadio Mane was our best player in the first half as he was constantly getting into threatening positions. Unfortunately, his performance was marred by a booking as the referee decided he dove for a penalty. Here’s the incident:

palace-3

Mane’s left ankle is swiped by McArthur and there is definite contact –  however, he also embellishes the contact by his leap into the air and grimace of pain. It’s not unusual for players to embellish and attempt to win penalties this way; I even believe that players are forced to act this way because referees are less likely to make a controversial call otherwise. Something to ponder: how would VAR tackle these kinds of calls? If the referee called a dive on the field, would he be obligated to review the footage or would he stick to his decision without review? A topic for a different day.

Second Half

The second half saw Liverpool improve considerably as the quality of passing, defending, and attacking was raised. Over the course of the season, I notice that our second halves are usually much better than our first halves, presumably because Klopp lights a fire under everyone’s ass during his halftime team talks and the small adjustments he makes to the team’s strategy.

This improvement came from the midfield assisting TAA a lot more in containing Zaha, and also being much more willing to attack the edges of Palace’s penalty box. We can see an example of both during Liverpool’s first goal.

Liverpool 1-1 (Sadio Mane)

The move starts off when Wijnaldum hustles back to help Robertson break up a Palace attack, already showing an improvement from the previous half.

When the ball comes into Mane on the right corner, Milner, recognizing the potential in the attack and the space on the outside of the Palace penalty box, charges forward with perfect timing.

milnerattack

A deft combination with Firmino and an awareness of the space between the Palace defense and the goal-line allows Milner to drive the ball to Sadio’s feet for a sweet finish.

palace-4

Now the Palace defense definitely commits many errors here – the two defenders in front of Milner need to block that cross from coming in at all costs, but also Sakho was ball watching and did not notice Sadio’s position directly behind him.

Mane’s desire to score has to be outlined as well. Not only does he fight to keep the attack in play by controlling the ball and laying it off to Salah, but after he does so, he immediately gets back into a goal-scoring position despite being the farthest player away from the play.

Sadio Mane Handball Incident

I believe the referee got it wrong on two counts – on the foul itself (it should have been a foul) and not giving Mane a second yellow. Looking at the incident, you can clearly see Townsend fouling Mane on the edge of the box by attempting to play the ball through him.

However, once Mane falls to the ground and the referee has decided not to call a foul, Mane absolutely cannot grab the ball to force a decision. Bizarrely enough, the referee decides that it is not a foul on Townsend, but instead a foul on Mane for… handling the ball? I guess? If that was his thought process – then Mane should have gotten a second yellow, no doubt about it.

Liverpool 2-1 (Mohammed Salah)

If we point fingers at TAA for the first goal that Liverpool conceded, then his efforts on the winner must also be applauded. At this point in the game it is 85 minutes in, everyone is knackered and players are thinking about the final whistle. However, TAA does very well to make an attacking run down Palace’s left hand side to open up space for the Ox to dribble into and cause a problem for Van Arnholt, who doesn’t know if he wants to mark TAA or tackle the Ox.

Taking advantage of Van Arnholt’s indecision, the Ox crosses the ball to Robbo who delivers an absolute peach of a ball, slicing right through Palace’s midfield and center backs:

palace-goal1

From there, Salah makes no mistake and punishes Palace, sealing three points for Liverpool.

Things to Note

  • Gini Wijnaldum played quite poorly. His impact was barely noticeable and he took 2 more touches than Karius, which is shocking for a midfielder. Perhaps this was down to defensively covering for TAA, which restricted his involvement. However, his defensive involvement was abysmal compared to Henderson and Milner:midfield

In addition, his passing was much less involved as well:

midfield2

This could be attributed to a lack of game time for him, however this is something he will need to sort out before the Wednesday game against City.

  • Going against City’s Leroy Sane this Wednesday gives me nightmares – the Matip/TAA partnership on the right gives me very little confidence, especially with the way Guardiola sets up this wingers with little defensive duties in order to focus on width and pacy counter attacks. If those two start, Milner will have to start on that side to help with the defensive duties.
  • Lallana’s injury is extremely unfortunate, however the team was able to maintain defensive and tactical discipline with 3 at the back.

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