Focus: Palace preparing to nullify the threat of United's Martial
Crystal Palace relish these kinds of matches. Selhurst Park will rally behind the underdogs and Manchester United – who average 57% possession and more passes than any other team in the league (575 per match) – may be lured into Alan Pardew’s counter-attacking trap. If Palace are to be successful, they will need Yohan Cabaye to nullify United’s main threat – Anthony Martial.
Crystal Palace are able to counter-attack with such menace down the flanks (78% of attacks, most in division) because both Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie are afforded a free-roaming role even during sustained periods of opposition pressure. Pardew’s central midfield three shimmy across to act like a four, with Cabaye and James McArthur essentially acting as both wide and central midfielder simultaneously. When the ball is central they compress into a tight trio of midfielders, and when the ball goes wide they shift across to cover like a winger, leaving two in the middle.
From the right side of the three, Cabaye’s ability to meet Martial and prevent his inside runs will be vitally important. As Wayne Rooney’s performances wilt, it is Martial’s frightening directness (7.8 dribbles per 90, most in Premier League) that represents the most obvious threat against a congested and deep-lying opponent. He may meet his match in Cabaye (3.7 tackles, 3.7 interceptions per match).
Manchester United have been superb defensively this season, but the speed of Zaha and Bolasie could trouble Antonio Valencia. However, Louis van Gaal will ensure that his full-backs are more cautious than usual – particularly in the penalty area.
Three of Palace’s four league goals since August have been from penalties won by the trickery of Zaha. Man United commit 13.1 fouls per game (5th most in division), and although they are yet to concede a penalty it is easy to imagine a rash challenge by Valencia.
The only other significant threat to United’s goal is aerially. However, the return to defence of Phil Jones has bolstered their dominance in this department, with the England international winning 93% of his aerial battles this campaign.
The goals are drying up for Palace, but their superbly organised tactics could still nullify Martial and cause confusion in the penalty area; this should be a very tight game.