Continuing Crystal Palace’s Summer Rebuild

At the end of the 2020/21 Premier League season, Crystal Palace were in a precarious position. Back-to-back 14th place positions, the departure of long-serving manager Roy Hodgson, and the loss of 9 first-team players to expiring contracts (including Andros Townsend, Gary Cahill, and Patrick Van Aanholt) forced Palace to hit the reset button – and in doing so alter the philosophy of their recruitment. Over the summer, the squad was given a new burst of life with the signing of several exciting, albeit inexperienced, players, building on the summer 2020 signings of Eberechi Eze and Nathan Ferguson. In came the likes of Marc Guéhi from Chelsea, Odsonne Edouard from Celtic and Michael Olise from Reading, alongside the appointment of Arsenal legend Patrick Viera as Head Coach, who promised to move away from the often turgid, counter-attacking football that Palace had played under Hodgson.

However, it’s fair to say that the squad still has some major holes, and that’s understandable – it would be a difficult task for any team to replace so many regular starters in one summer transfer window. In this article, I identify three areas of weakness in Palace’s current squad and profile possible targets who could fill these gaps, while maintaining their recruitment strategy by looking exclusively at players that are 24 years old or younger at a realistic transfer value.

Right Back

The first area that needs improvement, and probably the most immediate concern, is at right-back. Palace have three players who have spent time there in Joel Ward, Nathaniel Clyne and Martin Kelly, all over the age of 30 and with less than two years on their deal (Ward was one of the 9 players with their contracts expiring last season, but signed a 2-year extension just after he was initially released). Although the aforementioned Nathan Ferguson is also a capable fullback, his successive long-term injuries makes an additional right-back signing a sensible deal. 

From watching Viera’s team play, it would be fair to say that the right-back position is probably the least well-defined role, so there’s more freedom in identifying a plausible transfer target. Palace often build in a 3-2-5/2-3-5 shape that switches to a 4-3-3/4-4-2 shape when they lose possession, with the RB responsible for providing an outlet on the right-flank to progress the ball and creating triangles with the RCB and the DM. However, Viera has shown a preference towards playing a RW that tends to drift inside, leaving the RB with a lot of space and, therefore, the team needs a player who can both progress the ball effectively and contribute in the final third. Additionally, in some games this season, the RB has received very little support in defensive situations, and therefore any replacement would need to be comfortable defending their flank on their own. With all of this being taken into account, the player I would bring in is Watford’s 21-year-old right back Jeremy Ngakia.

Fantastic close controlSlight lack of speed means he can be beaten easily in 1v1s and transition
Frequently wins defensive duelsCrossing ability
Often looks to play progressive passes and can do so accurately with both feet

Ngakia’s technical quality in possession is his most notable strength, particularly his dribbling ability which, combined with a strong first-touch, allows him to beat players 1v1, particularly in tight situations. He’s not the quickest, but the speed of his decision-making often allows him to break out of pressing traps – a key skill given Palace frequently look to play out from the back under Vieira. His quality in this area is backed up by the data, as he attempted the 5th most dribbles out of Championship RB’s last season, completing 60.5% of them.

Ngakia’s passing is also very strong, both in execution and his decision-making. Ngakia’s progressive nature is enforced by last season’s numbers, in which he averaged 7.3 progressive passes and 2.2 progressive carries per 90. He often looks to play down the line into space for Ismaïla Sarr, Watford’s RW, although he has also shown the ability to play more diagonal balls into the striker’s feet, and I’m sure with specific instruction he could do this more regularly. Over shorter distances, he’s more than capable of quick interplay, particularly with other wide players — largely facilitated by a deliberate first touch and neat, close control that allows him to receive and release the ball in fluid motions.

Ngakia’s main strength defensively is his ability to win duels – being tall and strong allows him to shield the ball excellently and he is often able to jostle opponents out of position in order to win challenges in the air. The timing of his tackle is also fantastic and this, alongside his willingness to step up and engage with players receiving with their backs to goal, allows him to win the ball high up the pitch, thus maintaining Watford’s attacking pressure. He also exhibits a good understanding of when to tuck in vs. when to step out into wide areas, and his positioning allows him to intercept the ball frequently, doing so 7.7 times a match once adjusted for possession.

Ngakia does, however, have flaws in his game that need ironing out. The first is his lack of athleticism, especially in defensive situations. Although he isn’t slow by any means, he often struggles when coming up against particularly explosive wide players in transitional or 1v1 situations. Sharp changes of direction and acceleration are movements he tends to struggle with — especially if he overcommits and attempts to steal the ball from a loose touch. 

Although he shows willingness to get forward, his runs aren’t always effective, sometimes moving into bodies rather than space and rendering himself useless to effectively receive a pass. His crossing is often poor, either failing to beat the first man or sometimes going far over the heads of everyone in the area. The stats back this up as well – Ngakia completed 1.6 passes into the penalty area per 90 last season, but only registered 0.06 xA per 90. It’s fair to say that crossing is a difficult thing to do consistently well, but this isn’t helped by the fact that Ngakia looks to cross from deeper positions, rather than attacking the byline.

Overall, Ngakia should at least be on Palace’s radar if they want to sign a new RB in the next couple of transfer windows. A potentially fairly inexpensive transfer with a high potential upside and, at only 21, he has time to improve his game and iron out any weaknesses. Should Watford get relegated again this season, Crystal Palace could provide an alluring option to maintain his Premier League status.

Central Midfielder: ‘The Gallagher Role’

The next area I think that Crystal Palace should look to strengthen is the right-hand side of their midfield three. So far this season, this role has been taken up almost entirely by Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher. His loan status means there are no guarantees of retaining his services into next season and Palace don’t really have any other player who can replicate his impact in central midfield — so a potential replacement should be on their radar.

Gallagher is an overwhelmingly active midfielder, constantly looking to make himself available in the box for crosses and cut-backs whilst also helping to lead Palace’s press from the front. Gallagher isn’t an exceptional ball progressor, but he does offer enough technical quality to operate in tight, congested areas around the box. After looking at the data, the best fit for this role I have found is Giulio Maggiore, a 23-year-old central midfielder who currently plays for Spezia Calcio in Serie A.

Makes frequent attacking runs into the penalty areaPoor finisher
Effective presser of the ballGives away a lot of cheap fouls
Fantastic ability to receive in space and lay off to team mates

Maggiore’s standout trait is his ability to make well-timed and dangerous attacking runs into the box. Starting from deep makes it difficult for teams to defend, especially if he isn’t tracked by an opposing midfielder. The frequency of Maggiore’s runs is shown in the data as he registered 2.5 touches in the box per 90 last season – 2nd out of all Serie A midfielders with over 1000 minutes played. This willingness to push forward allows Spezia to be a threat in transition as they always have bodies in support of counter attacks. Although he doesn’t frequently register shots from these positions, only taking 1.3 per 90, the positions he moves into means he often has high-quality chances, giving him an xG per shot of 0.17 – the 5th best in the dataset. Another positive of his movement is that he frequently draws fouls, doing so 1.6 times per 90, giving his team the opportunity to punish opponents from a dead-ball situation.

Maggiore is a very effective and constant presser when out of possession. So far this season, Palace’s PPDA has been very similar to Spezia’s (13.2 to 13.4), and therefore his level of pressing is likely to translate under Vieira. Once he gets in positions to win the ball, he is extremely aggressive which, in combination with his decent size, allows him to bully smaller players off of the ball, winning just over half of the duels he competes in. He can be somewhat rash in these positions, often diving in and giving away cheap fouls (2.3 per 90), but this comes as a natural side-effect of his combativeness.

Although not a prolific progressor of the ball, Maggiore regularly shows the ability to play passes that help manoeuvre his side out of difficult areas. His strong first touch allows him to receive high up the pitch, from which he’ll either look to turn into space or lay off a pass first time to a teammate. Maggiore has shown a particular ability to play first time passes around an opponent, taking them out of the game and opening up space for Spezia to attack into. He doesn’t dribble frequently, but instead picks moments to do so in more advanced areas, averaging 1.2 progressive runs per 90. He isn’t particularly quick, similarly to Ngakia, so he relies on his close control and directness to beat players in tight spaces.

Although he does mainly shoot from good positions, he sometimes takes slightly more questionable shots – my theory being that he is under instruction to shoot as much as possible, given that Spezia don’t have the quality to create many chances – which often wastes good positions from which Spezia could potentially create better opportunities. On top of this, he is also a poor finisher, as seen in the clip of his attacking run above. Despite registering 5.5 xG in the league last season, he only scored 3 times and, although some of this comes down to variance (meaning it’s unlikely that he’ll be so unsustainably bad forever), his technique doesn’t help. He often slashes at chances, just trying to connect with the ball rather than composing himself and guiding the ball away from the keeper.

Additionally, Maggiore’s single-mindedness in front of goal means he doesn’t create as many chances for his teammates as you’d expect from someone who occupies space in the box as frequently as he does. He only creates 0.06 xA per 90 and, because his job is more to attack the box rather than receive outside of it, he makes just 0.69 passes into the penalty area p/90. Learning to impact matches from a creative standpoint should be the next evolution of Maggiore’s game, and one he should be capable of based on his skillset.

Defensive Midfielder

Similarly to the right-back role, Crystal Palace have a lot of largely aging options in defensive midfield, with both Kouyaté and Milivojević under contracts expiring in 2022 and 2023 respectively and Riedewald who, in my opinion, has never really impressed since joining in 2017. Therefore, I would look to bring in someone that could establish themselves as a starter at the base of the team’s midfield.

Under Hodgson especially, Palace’s deepest-lying midfielder was very rarely effective as a ball progressor from deep — instead, the centre backs were expected to progress the ball by firing risky line-breaking passes up to the striker. A replacement should be capable of receiving under pressure and look to aid in build-up. In defence, their role should involve protecting the team from transition attacks and blocking passing lanes into the channels, whilst also being capable of stepping up to deal with attackers dropping into the space vacated by the RCM when they push forward. A player who fits a lot of these criteria is Genk’s 24-year-old midfielder Bryan Heynen.

Able to receive to feet under pressureCan be caught out of position due to lack of athleticism
Adept at dictating the tempo of gamesDoesn’t look to carry the ball
Strong in duels, particularly in the air

Heynen’s main strength is his ability to receive passes from deep positions into midfield, particularly under pressure, becoming an outlet when Genk are looking to build from the back. The combination of constant scanning and a great first touch enables him to get the ball out from his feet quickly and release passes before his man gets too close. His 6’0” stature allows him to hold players off, often getting his body between the opponent and the ball, giving him the room to recycle possession back to safety.

Heynen’s passing is crisp and accurate – he consistently judges the weight of his passes well and often fires the ball into his teammate’s feet, making it difficult for it to be intercepted. He is really smart at playing short, one-touch passes to players around him, before gliding into space for the return ball. He is also able to play longer, drilled passes into the feet of a striker, although he doesn’t do this as often. Last season, Heynen made 6.3 passes into the final 3rd per 90, as well as 0.68 through passes, both of which stack up well against other Jupiler Pro League midfielders. On top of that, despite not being the most progressive player (this is something he could add to his game), he still makes averaged 6.0 progressive passes per, helping Genk move the ball up the pitch. He does this all whilst retaining possession very well, receiving the ball 43.4 times per 90 and completing 87% of his passes.

Heynen’s scanning ability also becomes very useful in defensive situations. His awareness allows him to intercept passes frequently, doing so 7.6 times per 90 (once adjusted for possession). On the ground, he wins well over half of the duels he enters, and is fairly averse to diving in. In the air he is even more dominant, using a combination of height and positioning ability to win 69.1% of the duels he enters, albeit only doing so 2.9 times per 90.

A very obvious weakness in Heynen’s game is his lack of pace, both in acceleration and top speed. Although he compensates for this with his smart positioning, learning to adapt to a higher speed of play in Premier League football will be a critical adjustment if he’s to succeed. This poor athleticism also becomes clear in situations where his passing options are limited. He doesn’t carry the ball often or effectively — making just 0.75 progressive carries per 90 and completing less than 50% of the dribbles he attempts. He’s occasionally flat-footed and static without movement ahead of him, which limits his options in possession. The potential fluid front three ahead of him at Palace would likely ease these issues.

Potential Lineup in 2022/23

It should go without saying that, whilst this would be a good starting XI, Palace are a long way off being a regular top-half team, let alone a team that could challenge for Europe, and there are still several aspects of the side I would look to improve further – Vicente Guaita is currently 34 and has underperformed in his last 2 seasons, whilst the squad is missing a lot of overall depth. However, not only do I think these players could improve the first team, but they could also provide opportunities to make profit, bringing in the money required to improve this side even further in the long term.

(Data and clips taken from Wyscout)

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