Beware the Eagles: Explaining Crystal Palace’s early-season form


For many reasons, 2020 makes no conventional sense. Allow another addition to the list. Across the first two Premier League games, the order of London’s teams on expected goals difference reads: West Ham, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Fulham. Bless Fulham for being a safe jetty of continuity on this river of confusion we’re bobbing along on.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances — Chelsea’s ten-player display against Liverpool, for example — the kind that will be averaged out of sight as the season goes on. West Ham’s position at the top of this list may also be disputed: by Twenty3’s Wyscout-powered figures, they created a lot more value in their shots than Arsenal but less than Newcastle. That seems like a difficult team to trust.

But Crystal Palace — lowly, Roy Hodgson-managed Crystal Palace — have produced two performances, against Southampton and Manchester United, that were both backed up by underlying numbers. Are Palace… good?

The average positions of Hodgson’s team so far are much like any teenage philosophy student: extremely, perhaps frustratingly, and possibly worryingly deep. Their Big Mc central midfield partnership of James McArthur and James McCarthy are almost sat on top of the central defenders.


Usually, such a deep-lying defensive block team would struggle to create chances while opponents might rack up low-to-medium quality chances. The plan might get a couple of results, but they’d be feeding off scraps, and generally wouldn’t look good on the stats sheet. However, looking at the expected goals figures and the shot maps, neither of those two tropes have been happening. Palace haven’t even been conceding tons of shots from distance.


It should be said that Hodgson’s team have benefited from going ahead very early in both of their matches. Wilfried Zaha scored the game’s only goal against Southampton in the 13th minute, and Andros Townsend opened the scoring against Manchester United in the 7th. They’re yet to go behind in 2020/21 and have only been drawing for 20 minutes. 

This is a large part of the reason why the Eagles have been able to get six points from such little possession. And the lack of possession they’ve had can barely be overblown: only Burnley have completed fewer passes, and they’ve only played one game. The 18th-most frequent passers in the league, West Bromwich Albion, have completed almost double the amount of passes as Palace.

As you might expect from a team who go up quickly and ably sit on the lead, then, the majority of Palace’s good chances have come in the first half.


Still, it remains significant that even when defending a lead for 70-80 minutes, Palace have had positive stats. They haven’t allowed a situation where they grit their teeth and hold their lucky charms as opponents spurn chances — it really seems they deserve their six points.

It makes it a very positive starting point for the team to build on, in terms of performances as well as results. However, a concern which may cast doubt on how sustainable this might be is that they’re very lopsided in attack. In our Flank Attacks graphic below, the almost imperceptibly faint arrows in the centre and on the right show how concentrated Palace’s threatening attacks are down their left-hand side.


Palace always used to be focused down their left, of course — call it the Wilfried Zaha effect — but even for this early stage of the season this is a surprising skew. 

In 2020/21, Zaha’s transition into one of Palace’s main forwards, rather than a wide player,  has continued. Perhaps paradoxically, it’s possible that moving Zaha centrally is shifting Palace further to that left-hand side. Now, in their 4-4-2 rather than the 4-3-3 they often played last season, Palace have three players who operate on that side. That constellation of activity seems to be causing Jordan Ayew to gravitate towards it too.


And yet, even if this heavy skew was a real cause for concern, Crystal Palace’s schedule might mean they can skate by quite happily for a couple of months. After playing Everton and Chelsea in their next two games, their October and November see them play Brighton, Fulham, Wolves, Leeds, Burnley, and Newcastle. 

If Palace’s expected goals figures are reliable, the Eagles might not be far off their current fifth place as we enter winter.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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