Crystal Palace and the art of the long ball

I have always been fascinated by the use of a long ball. In terms of using a long ball, it’s often regarded as a negative thing to do – or at least it has been for a long time. Now we have started to look a bit differently at the game in terms of attack and defence, which leads us to the fact that a defensive style of play isn’t negative football. It’s all about which principles you adhere to.

In this particular case study, I wanted to look at Crystal Palace. The reason for that is because, in the Premier League, Crystal Palace has the second number of long balls per 90 minutes.

Credit: Wyscout

As you can see in the image above, Crystal Palace has many long passes per 90 minutes – but are surrounded by teams who are battling against relegation. Solely based on this, the question remains: do Crystal Palace play conservative football and are they under pressure a lot, to maintain the long ball?

Obviously, the question above is generalised and not based on any evidence, but the interesting point still holds ground. What do Crystal Palace do in their game, that they maintain the long ball so much? To answer that in part, I’m analysing the long balls by the four players with the most long balls in the Crystal Palace’s squad:

  • Tyrick Mitchell
  • Marc Guehi
  • Joachim Andersen

These players are all defenders which makes it an interesting case, but we shouldn’t be biased or prejudiced. Defenders are more than just people who defend, they are players who construct attacks and lead the defensive organsiation. In that light, I have made the distinction between long balls that:

a) Strengthen the defensive organisation
b) Construct attacks

The analysis will be done by looking at a few examples of every player. The footage comes from Wyscout and has been taken from the platform prior to April 9th, 2022. Any results after that haven’t been included in this analysis.

Strengthening the defensive organisation

One use of the long ball can be to reorganise the defensive shape of the team. When a team is under the pressure from the opposition, this can lead to hazardous situations. One can be that the central defenders and or full backs are being pressed aggressively and their only way out is to play a long ball and regain their defensive solid positioning.

Another way is when there has been a counter-attack from the opposition and in order to regroup and make sure the rest defence is aided, is to clear the ball long and give the other players time to drop deep again.

In the three examples below we look at the three players in the defence of Crystal Palace, making sure the team has room, space and time to reorganise their defensive shape.

In the video above we see Tyrick Mitchell in the FA Cup game against Everton. Everton has the ball in the defensive third of Crystal Palace and are looking threatening to the defence. The ball comes to Mitchell’s feet who just gives the ball long into the high middle third. In doing so the accent of play goes to that area, the attackers drop deep and therefore the defence can reorganise. They go the most optimal position and move up the pitch, to maintain a higher line – as Crystal Palace is looking to be more attacking in this phase.

In the video above, you see Crystal Palace in their Premier League game against Arsenal. Marc Guehi is very comfortable at the ball – which we will touch upon in the attacking side of the long balls – and this can also be seen in this particular example. Whilst he has enough time to do something with the ball, he’s fully aware of the press Arsenal employs on him and chooses to go long in order to give the defence a breather.

Pressing isn’t only about the man who is on the ball, but also about the pressing that occurs in the passing lanes or passing options. In that regard, playing the ball long offers more stability in the back.

In the video above, we see Crystal Palace against Arsenal. While we have seen that Mitchell and Guehi have different ways of restoring defensive shape, Andersen is the most defensive-minded and less concerned with taking time.

He gets the ball in a tighter space from his teammate and has little time to think, as Lacazette presses him aggressively on that right side. He opts to shoot the ball long and high, giving him and his defensive teammates as much time to regroup. In doing so, it’s all about time and not about progression. And that’s the difference between Mitchell and Guehi. They opt to play the ball long but also use the time to maintain a higher position on the field.

Constructing attacks

In the image above you see two long balls often played by Crystal Palace: the ball across the wide areas by the full back to an attacker who moves wide. Or, the ball goes from one central defender to the wide-area with the attacker making that same movement. Other variables than portrayed, are of course also known to happen.

Constructing attacks from ball-playing defenders happens a lot with Crystal Palace. Full backs do make runs down the line, but the direct ability to play a long ball and instantly set up the danger in the attacking third, is where Crystal Palace has had success as well.

In the video above we see Crystal Palace in their game against Arsenal. Mitchell has the ball and is not pressed, which gives him the time to look for the run of a teammate. Crystal Palace want to utilise the wide areas and that’s the attackers make a movement.

In this case, Mitchell provides a ball to the left which is received by Crystal Palace and immediately goes into the attacking shape. While Arsenal defends the ball well, it’s this kind of playing long balls that can see Crystal Palace become dangerous within seconds.

In the video above, we see another video of the game Crystal Palace vs Arsenal. What Guehi excels in, is his ability to spot an attacking player, recognise the run that the attacker does and pinpoint the pass in that direction. That’s what he does here as well.

He has time on the ball, moves to his right foot and spots the run Zaha is making. His pass is into an area where Zaha has to go to as well, which makes the pass dynamic and keeps the attack alive if Zaha receives the ball well. He does and in doing so, the ball has just gone from defensive third to attacking third with one pass. A direct passing style of play caused Arsenal all sorts of problems.

Final thoughts
Football can be played in many ways. There is no right or wrong way to play football, but it’s important to illustrate that long passes can have different uses. While most people have claimed in the past that they are part of the defensive part of play, it’s important to stress that long passes or long balls are a sign of something else: the direct passing style of play.

Crystal Palace want to attack through their direct passing and choose to have as few passes as possible to get in that final third. This can be achieved through their long balls from the back by either the central defensive duo or the full back pairing.

In defence, it’s really important as well. Playing out from the back might be more aesthetically pleasing, but in professional football, it’s all about being effective. Playing the ball long can lead to satisfying attacking results, but it also gives the defence time, space and room to reorganise their defence and strengthen it.

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