Over at Cartilage Free Captain I recently argued that Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace is a poor man’s version of the Harry Redknapp-era Spurs: They have continental midfielders that serve as the creative engine rooms in the center of the park. They have powerful, fast wingers who storm down the flanks. They have a penchant to get cracked open defensively because of their attacking approach. And their entire system is built on quick, devastating counter attacks.
But that wasn’t the only thing that tied Pardew’s Palace to Redknapp’s Spurs: Both also suffered at times from abysmal play from their strikers. Palace’s struggles this year are well-documented. Indeed, we may have seen things hit their nadir in the club’s 3-1 defeat to Tottenham when striker Connor Wickham’s most valuable service was making long throws into the box a la Rory Delap. Rule of thumb: If your striker’s best quality is “He’s like Rory Delap,” it’s time for a new striker.
Though not many remember it now, the 2010-11 Spurs were plagued by a similar problem. For much of the season their only available strikers were Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko, neither of whom scream out “European-caliber striker.” The team also had Jermain Defoe, but Defoe spent much of the year injured and when he did return struggled mightily. The result: Tottenham under-achieved in the Premier League, scoring only 55 goals and finishing six points behind Arsenal for fourth despite having a squad that included Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, and Rafael van der Vaart.
The following season the club brought in Adebayor on loan from Manchester City and, until February, looked like genuine title contenders. Things famously fell apart quickly after that, but for the first five months of the campaign that was the best Spurs team of the Premier League era (until this season). And the key to it all was Adebayor. The team still boasted the same elite talent as the previous season, but in a squad with a former Real Madrid man and two future European champions, Adebayor was often the best player.
Adebayor is an athletic target man who loves to play on the counter.
The Togolese striker possesses a unique blend of skills perfectly matched to a team that plays quickly on the counter but relies more on continental guile and creativity to fuel the counters. He isn’t necessarily a great English-style target man in the mold of Andy Carroll or Rickie Lambert, but Adebayor is extraordinarily good at covering a lot of ground, holding up play effectively, and linking up with fast wingers to help create high-quality chances in the attack.
He’s also comfortable running on the ball and waiting for another player to make a run behind him to receive a layoff and take a shot. It’s not hard to imagine Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, and Jason Puncheon benefitting from work like this:
Additionally, though he doesn’t score as many headed goals as you’d expect (despite his considerable frame), Adebayor does have a Benteke-like knack for finishing hard chances in the box:
That quality was on full display last weekend when Adebayor looped a stunning header over former Spurs teammate Heurelho Gomes to level things for Palace in their match against Watford:
This quality may be especially important for Palace as they take more shots off of crosses than any team in England besides Aston Villa. When the strikers attacking those crosses are Wickham, Dwight Gayle, or Marouane Chamakh, you don’t have much hope at success. But Adebayor? It may be a different story.
There’s a second quality Adebayor will offer this Palace team. Ever since Yannick Bolasie went down due to injury, the Eagles have been, to put it generously, calamitously bad. Some of this seems to be the normal pattern of undulation we see everywhere Alan Pardew goes. His teams hit odd purple patches and then hit equally odd dry spells. It’s happened everywhere the man has managed.
Palace desperately need a target man.
That said, there may be another issue as well. With Bolasie out of the team and no live options up top for playing the ball forward, the Palace attack has often lacked a focal point of any sort. The only live threat in the team has been winger Wilfried Zaha. But Zaha drifts in and out of games anyway and when he’s being more tightly marked due to being the team’s only genuine threat, that makes it even more difficult to get the ball to him. The result has been that the Palace attack has broken down before it can even begin as the midfield routinely turns the ball over as they vainly attempt to get the ball forward to start an attack. The effect on Yohan Cabaye has been particularly notable as Palace simply isn’t getting him the ball as consistently and this in turn means he cannot provide service to the Eagles’ attacking stars. Here is a passing chart from the team’s early season 1-0 defeat to Tottenham at White Hart Lane. In this game, Palace started all four of Zaha, Bolasie, Puncheon, and Bakary Sako:
Here we can see that Palace is stretching the field and creating space for Cabaye to receive the ball and play long passes to the team’s dynamic wingers.
Now here is the more recent fixture against Spurs, a 3-1 defeat at Selhurst Park played in January:
In this game, Cabaye has completely disappeared. Some of that is a credit to Tottenham’s defense, of course. But he managed to complete 29 passes on 38 attempts earlier in the season at White Hart Lane. Yet on the return fixture at home Cabaye completes only twelve passes, only one of which is into an advanced central position (and that one is actually a lateral ball played slightly backward). In fact, he only attempted two total passes into advanced central areas all game. Palace’s attack just didn’t have a focal point.
Adebayor has the potential to change that picture a bit. Let’s return to his goal from last weekend but consider the build-up play from about one minute before he scores the goal. The goal comes off a long throw in. The throw in was won after Palace attacked and Watford cleared the ball out of bounds to the wing, leading to Wickham’s long throw and Adebayor’s goal. But how did the Palace attack that led to the throw begin? Here you go:
So goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey takes a free kick. And who gets on the end of it to win the knockdown header? Adebayor. Mile Jedinak receives the ball from Adebayor and plays it out wide. This leads to a cross which in turn leads to the clearance that results in the long throw that leads to a goal.
There is still much that needs to be fixed in this Crystal Palace team. Defensively they are (and have been all year) a sieve. And if they cannot retain possession better in midfield, it may not matter that they finally have an actually good striker leading the line. So there is still plenty to be concerned about in Pardew’s team—and that’s without considering the trend that Pardew teams have of falling apart for months at a time.
That said, Palace’s attack has clearly lacked a focal point since Bolasie’s injury and Zaha has clearly needed another attacking threat to take some of the pressure off him. Though it’s early days and he’s still rounding into form, Adebayor may do both of those things for this team. If he does, don’t be surprised if the Eagles start creeping back up the table. Currently they are eight points clear of relegation and nine points out of the Europa League places. It’s likely fair to say that Adebayor will determine which direction this Palace team will go as the season hits its stretch run.