Strike partnerships are not as common in modern football as they once were. Many teams such as EPL pair Liverpool and Manchester United show preference to a front three. Other clubs prefer to play a single striker and pack the midfield. There are further examples away from the very elite level as well. Despite this, the use of two strikers can still be found at lower league clubs. EFL League Two side Crawley Town, under manager John Yems, often made good use of a pair of centre-forwards. 25-year-old Ashley Nadesan impressed as part of that two, but the man in focus here is Ollie Palmer. Coming off the back of two impressive campaigns with ‘The Red Devils,’ the 28-year-old has left the club, and has not made a move to third tier side AFC Wimbledon.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Ollie Palmer during the 2019/20 at Crawley Town. It will look into how he fit into his club’s tactics, and the analysis will identify the key strengths and weaknesses of the striker’s game.
Role In The Team
Ollie Palmer made 28 appearances in League Two last season. 22 of them were starts. Every single appearance was in a centre-forward position. These were usually as part of a pair alongside players like Ashley Nadesan, Ricky German and Norwich City loanee Mason Bloomfield.
The image above shows Ollie Palmer’s heatmap. The warmer the colour, the more often he was positioned on this part of the pitch. What immediately stands out from an analysis of the heatmap is that Palmer is comfortable operating on either side of the pitch. Given Crawley Town usually operate with a front two, you could be forgiven for expecting the heatmap to show Palmer operating on only one side of the frontline. That is instead not the case. The 28-year-old does not have a preferred side. He is happy drifting out towards either the left or right side with the aim of opening up central space.
Here, he is playing alongside Ashley Nadesan in a home game against Bradford City. Palmer has dropped away from the Bradford backline to receive a pass from midfielder Nathan Ferguson. What this does is open up central space further upfield. Nadesan identifies this space and makes a run into it. In turn, Palmer is able to pick his strike partner out with a progressive pass.
The 28-year-old’s movement is made even more impressive when you consider his size. Ollie Palmer stands at 6’5″ and weighs over 90kg. Modern stereotypes would therefore have him down as a target man. You would expect him to be a player who sits on the backline, looking to hold up play and provide knockdowns for nearby teammates. Palmer instead is a very mobile player, and that is shown by his heatmap and the still image above.
Penalty Area Specialist
Ollie Palmer’s base numbers alone are enough to catch the eye. 13 league goals and three league assists for a team that finished the premature season in 13th place via PPG. Only two players, Mansfield’s Nicky Maynard and Swindon’s Eoin Doyle, scored more goals than him.
What immediately stands out from this analysis is Palmer’s tendency to shoot inside the penalty area. Attempts at goal from outside the penalty area are a rarity and most come from central positions.
Here, Palmer is initially facing away from goal. As Dannie Bulman receives the ball, Palmer drifts off his marker and onto his blind side. He is now sideways on, and ready to receive a pass from Bulman. His first touch upon receiving the ball is positive, and takes him past the nearby defender. Now inside the penalty area, he is able to shoot across goal and score with his stronger right foot.
52 of Palmer’s 71 shots over the last 12 months have come from his right foot. This is mainly in part due to him operating on the right side of the front two. The striker will shoot with his left foot when necessary, but will always look to get into positions that allows him to lead on his stronger right side.
Ollie Palmer is of course more than a player who likes receiving the ball to feet. His 6’5″ frame makes a fantastic aerial threat. The 28-year-old towers over many other defenders, and Crawley Town have made use of that at times this season.
Here, a Crawley free-kick is swung deep to the back post. Defender Jamie Sendles-White heads the ball back across the six-yard box. Palmer, making use of his height and jumping ability, is able to get up and power a header into the net. No opposing Plymouth defender is able to anticipate the ball’s movement or beat Palmer in the air.
Whether it’s with his feet or with his head, Ollie Palmer has proved to be a dangerous player inside the penalty area for Crawley Town.
“Good Feet For A Big Lad”
It is admittedly an overused cliché, but the phrase could not be more true for Ollie Palmer. The 28-year-old is not only a physical presence but a player more than comfortable with the ball at his feet.
The above image shows Palmer’s final third dribbles. He averages 3.21 every 90 minutes, with a 73.1% success rate. Those numbers rank him towards the upper end of the list amongst other League Two players.
Here, Palmer makes use of his size to hold off opposing Bradford players. He is able to keep opponents at arm’s length as he carries the ball into the box. From here, he has Ashley Nadesan available as a passing option, or can choose to try and get past Anthony O’Connor and head towards goal.
Palmer’s final third dribble data links back to his heatmap from earlier. The data shows that his successful dribbles are well spread across the entire third. When you consider his heatmap, which showed how comfortable he is playing on either side of the frontline, this makes sense. Palmer is a good dribbler who will want to carry the ball forwards when possible. Whilst he isn’t the quickest player when dribbling, he is able to make use of his large size to shield the ball from multiple opponents as he advances upfield. AFC Wimbledon could massively benefit from this.
Part Of A Positive Pair
One of Crawley Town’s biggest strengths in 2019/20 was the performances of their strike partnership. That pair took many forms, but the most common, and most successful, was Ollie Palmer and Ashley Nadesan. Both stand well over six feet tall, but are good with the ball at their feet, and comfortable playing on either side the final third.
Here, Palmer has drifted wide from a central position to receive a progressive pass from Beryly Lubala. His movement opens up space in the centre of the pitch as he brings a Grimsby defender across with him. Nadesan recognises this open space and runs into it. Palmer plays a first time pass into Nadesan, who shoots and scores.
The above example once again links back to Palmer’s heatmap from earlier in the scout report. As a player who is comfortable operating on either side of the frontline, Palmer has no issue with drifting wide from central positions. At AFC Wimbledon, he could really compliment the movement of fellow striker Joe Pigott. The 26-year-old is similarly in size to Ashley Nadesan, and could form a very impressive partnership alongside the new recruit.
What Needs To Change At AFC Wimbledon
Of course, for all the positives in Ollie Palmer’s game, it is certainly not perfect. There are areas of the 28-year-old’s play that need to improve if he is to make the step up to a higher division.
Palmer has competed just 83 ball recoveries in the past year. More than half of these understandably have come in the final third. His average of 2.72 per 90 minutes ranks very low down in the list among other League Two players.
Part of the reason Palmer’s defensive contributions are so low is because of his role in the team. As a striker, he generally isn’t expected to commit to defending in both the first and middle thirds.
The above example shows Crawley Town in their defensive set-up. Palmer is the furthest man forward in what is a 4-5-1 formation. Strike partner Ashley Nadesan drops into midfield to screen progressive into there. Palmer’s role here involves closing down the opposition centre-backs. This in turn aims to force the ball out to either full-back. In the example above, the pass goes to Bradford City’s left-back. Midfielder Panutche Camará quickly closes down the left-back, whilst Palmer gets across to close down the nearest centre-back as well. What this does is force Bradford City to play direct, or else risk losing the ball near their own penalty area.
The above example also explains why most of Ollie Palmer’s ball recoveries have come in the final third. At AFC Wimbledon, there isn’t a full guarantee that Ollie Palmer will have the same defensive role. He may be required to press only one side of the opposing backline as his strike partner may be kept upfield with him. Alternatively, Wimbledon manager Glyn Hodges may want Palmer to remain on the half-way line and not instigate the press until the opposition are further up the pitch. Palmer is going to need to show his tactical adaptability next season.
That same adaptability will be important when in possession as well. Whilst the front two of Palmer and Joe Pigott is possible for AFC Wimbledon, it may not happen. There is a possibility that the 28-year-old may become more of a focal point.
Palmer on average received 10.32 passes every 90 minutes last season. 2.52 of these on average were long passes. These numbers compared to other League Two strikers ranked him 103rd and 46th respectively. It is worth remembering however that Crawley operate with two strikers. Palmer would therefore not receive as many passes as a lone striker would.
At AFC Wimbledon, Palmer may be expected to receive the ball more, and receive more of them from a long distance away. This will require excellent positioning that he can control the ball away from any opponents. His heatmap from earlier, showing that he is comfortable drifting either to side of the centre, suggests that this should be possible.
28-year-old Ollie Palmer has slowly blossomed into an impressive lower league striker. Beginning his career in Non-League, Palmer has spent the last few seasons impressing in League Two. After two successful years at Crawley Town, he has completed a move to League One side AFC Wimbledon.
The Dons now have a striker who you should not judge exclusively by his size. He may stand at 6’5″, but possesses great competence with the ball at his feet. He is a penalty box specialist who relishes linking up with a nearby strike partner.
Of course, he may not play exactly the same way at the Dons. If playing as a lone striker, he will likely receive a lot more progressive passes each game, and his defensive role may also change from the one he had with Crawley Town. The possibility is still there though that manager Glyn Hodges plays someone alongside Palmer during matches. The most likely name here could be Joe Pigott.
Regardless of how the 28-year-old is used, this is a big step in his career progression. The new campaign will begin in a division he has never played in before. Given how impressive he was in his two most recent fourth tier seasons however, AFC Wimbledon may well have picked up a very good centre-forward. It’ll be interesting to see just how well Ollie Palmer does in southwest London.