Crystal Palace claimed their first three points of the new Premier League season with a 3-1 home win against Sunderland on Saturday evening and it was a performance that shed light on the amount of warrior-like personalities Ian Holloway has within his squad.
The Eagles are fully aware of the strenuous challenges that lie ahead for them in the top-flight this season, but Palace played some wonderful football on the weekend and epitomised the steel and determination to win that Holloway has always demanded from his teams, which are two ingredients that can help you go a long way in this division.
Inside an energetic Selhurst Park, they kept their shape at the back exceptionally well and broke with great vigour when in control of the ball. Several players in the Palace shirt warranted the Man of the Match award but one in particular – Joel Ward at right-back – was effective in both areas of the pitch against the Black Cats, and will definitely be one to watch in his side’s bid for survival this year.
Structure and Position: What Holloway Wanted and Got from Palace
Holloway organised his side to play a 4-3-3 system, that pinpointed Sunderland’s full-backs Ondřej Čelůstka and Jack Colback as areas to exploit, with Dwight Gayle and Jason Puncheon drifting in off the flanks to support Marouane Chamakh as their driving pace, forcing the back-line to drop deeper. This formation could just as easily revert to a 4-5-1 when in defensive mode.
Paolo Di Canio went with creative player Sebastian Larsson and a defensive-minded workhorse in David Vaughan as his deep midfield pairing, whilst hoping for Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson to drift in off the wings and test Julián Speroni in the home goal.
But Mile Jedinak, who made four clearances from his own box, was positioned to break play up and squeezed Sunderland when they had the impetus in the middle. The Australian often morphed into an extra centre-back whilst Kagisho Dikgacoi and José Campaña controlled the possession just in front of him and both continuously sprayed the ball into wide areas to pierce Sunderland’s structure.
Ward allowed Giaccherini no space down the flanks and forced the Italian to run into the trap of both centre-backs and Jedinak, whilst the former Portsmouth man helped start an abundance of attacks in cooperation with Puncheon and that constant theme helped contribute to Palace prevailing in the match.
Link-up and Attacking Play with Puncheon
Palace went about their game plan in quick fashion and Ward’s deep cross into the opponent’s half early on paid dividends, as the resulting corner brought the first goal through Gabbidon after nine minutes.
They tended to exercise the diagonal ball tactic, over the defender’s shoulder for Chamakh to run onto in the first half, whilst Ward and Puncheon relentlessly chipped away at Colback who was struggling without Giaccherini covering back often enough.
Ward completed 89% (31/35) of his passes during the game and whilst Holloway is a believer in attacking football, 17 of his passes successfully went forwards and nine of those were to Puncheon. The first image shows where Ward’s passes went, either down the line to Puncheon or inside to him so he could run at the Sunderland defence on his cultured left foot.
The 27-year-old, who has joined on a season-long loan from Southampton, clearly benefited from Ward’s link-up play as Puncheon created four chances from open play, more than any other player who competed in a Saturday fixture, and successfully completed five take-ons.
Ward who only signed for Palace from Portsmouth for £400,000 last season, unquestionably improved on his attacking involvement in the games against Tottenham and Stoke, impressing hugely against Sunderland – but he was once again resolute in defence, and has showed he has the potential to make the grade in the Premier League.
Having been brought through the Portsmouth youth academy as a natural centre-half, Ward is therefore knowledgeable on the defensive requirements of playing right-back and it’s his contribution to attack that is developing match by match in the promised land.
Sunderland had Giaccherini positioned to do battle with the 23-year-old and as the former Juventus man was matched for speed by Ward, he was therefore relatively quiet in the match and failed with three take-on attempts.
Ward completed 5/7 of his tackles during the game and didn’t give Giaccherini any opportunities to fizz balls into the box for Wickham and Dong-Won to latch onto, thus he moved inside towards Jedinak and Dikgacoi to get some freedom.
Colback was too busy trying to keep Puncheon within his sights, as the winger looked much better than what Adam Johnson did on the opposite end of the pitch (and he cost Sunderland £12m last season).
Ward also made five successful clearances in the match and made four crucial interceptions within Jedinak’s zone, who was moving closer to Gabbidon and Damien Delaney in defence.
Sunderland were without new signing Jozy Altidore upfront, whilst Steven Fletcher still isn’t 100% fit, although he scored their goal in the second half, and Di Canio was consequently forced to play Dong-Won and Wickham, in a pairing that just didn’t get going from the start.
Both strikers, who have returned to the squad this summer from respective loan spells out last year, had zero shots on target between them in the whole match although in the first half, they floated towards Ward and gave him a test in the air.
Ward’s centre-half mentality was evident as he won 4/7 of his aerial duels, whilst all five of his successful clearances came with his head. Both images highlight the areas in which he was tested and the ways in which he had to adjust to the physicality of Wickham in particular.
It was a strategy by Di Canio which wanted Wickham or Dong-Won to head the ball down in the corners for midfield runners such as: Giaccherini, Johnson and Larsson to pick up and do damage with, but Palace’s backline stood firm and came through the trial.
The jubilant atmosphere from the crowd helped them get through it and Ward certainly raised a lot of eyebrows for how well he coped in the game. He showed great composure when asked a question by Sunderland and was sensible in just about everything he did.
Ward, who has played in all three of Palace’s games so far, kept a clean sheet in terms of committing fouls against Sunderland and was illegally challenged twice himself during the game. He only has one foul to his name this season, which was for a mistimed tackle against Tottenham on the opening day.
In conclusion, Ward was different class against Sunderland and the result overall has installed hope into the Palace fans ahead of their next fixture against Manchester United.
Every player on the pitch showed fighting spirit and were all top performers in their own way, but Ward dealt with the nitty-gritty aspect of the match incredibly well and looks as though himself and Puncheon could form a first-class partnership down the right-hand side.
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