Counter Attack Tactics - Zaha and Crystal Palace

Counter Attack Tactics - The Positioning of Players

Coaches are advised to give much thought to the positioning of players, especially forwards, when the ball is lost and the midfielders and backs are defending. The Dutch have formulated the game of soccer into 4 “Moments”

Moment 1 – We have the ball.
Moment 2 – We lose the ball.
Moment 3 – They have the ball.
Moment 4 – They lose the ball.

As noted in my book “Drills and Exercises for the Elite American Player” the positioning of forwards, when the midfielders and backs are defending, as in Moment 3, can have a lot to do with the success of the counter attack which begins at Moment 4. Not enough coaches give thought to the positioning of the forward players when the ball has gone past them.  This vital element has been studied and personalized by an article in the Daily Telegraph regarding the play of Crystal Palace’s striker, Wilfried Zaha under the new manager Sam Allardyce.  The newspaper said the following;

From Daily Telegraph 9 April, 2017 - “Allardyce finds key to unlock Zaha’s potential”


“If you go back and watch Wilfried Zaha’s match-winning display against Chelsea last weekend, you quickly notice something strange. Crystal Palace, protecting a 2-1 lead for the last 80 minutes of the game, spent most of those minutes engaged in a desperate defence. But with very few exceptions, Zaha is a bystander in all of this; dawdling along the halfway line, a blur in the background, like an Admiral watching the Normandy invasion, from the safety of the poop deck, gin and tonic in hand….But when Palace get the ball, it all begins to make sense. As Christian Benteke holds it up , Zaha bursts into life, darting ahead,  daring the Chelsea defence to hold it’s line. Sometimes he runs left, sometimes right, but always into space. He sets up one goal for Benteke, scores one himself and arguably, should have had more.
 When Allardyce was appointed at Palace, some feared for Zaha: a gifted winger with every trick in the book…but lacked the defensive vigilance Allardyce demands from all his wide players…Instead Zaha has thrived, scoring three goals in nine games and locating the consistency that eluded him during the early years of his career…But there are also tactical factors behind Zaha’s recent surge in form, which stem from the club’s decision to dispense with Alan Pardew (Crystal Palace’s former manager).

Pardew adored traditional wingers. He liked his wide men  to stay wide in a 4-3-3: beat a man, get to the goal line and cross the ball…(Under Pardew) Zaha was confined, almost exclusively, to the right touchline…Against Everton,  recently, a quarter of Zaha’s passes are, actually, crosses.  According to a recent analysis by Four-Four-Two magazine, only one in every 92 crosses in the Premier League ends in a goal….with the decision by Allardyce to give him (Zaha) more attacking freedom…alongside Benteke in a 4-4-2 Zaha was largely freed of defensive responsibility …Since the start of February, Zaha has, actually, made 40 percent fewer tackles and interceptions…and taken around 40% more shots. “

The two blue forwards position themselves as follows; Centre forwards split – one goes deep and mirrors the position of the ball and one stays high on the half way line. If the ball moves across field the forwards may switch their positioning.

If the back players and midfielders win the ball they have 2 options;

  1.  Look for long ball over the top to high centre forward.
  2. If under pressure and cannot play ball long, play short pass into deep centre forward who rebounds ball to midfielders sprinting out.

Coaches are encouraged to think about the positioning of ALL their players when defending but the forwards are, particularly, important as they are, often, the first pass the defending players look to at the moment of interception.