Among plenty of discussion about Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez's credentials for the upcoming Premier League Manager of the Year vote -- entirely understandable as the two ex-Swansea bosses have led the two Merseyside clubs to their best collective performance in the Premier League era -- a third candidate has emerged.
While Rodgers and Martinez were busy planning for this season, Tony Pulis was out of a job, dismissed by Stoke City. Many were surprised when Crystal Palace approached him to replace Ian Holloway with the Eagles in the relegation zone in November, but the turnaround at Selhurst Park has been remarkable.
Palace are no longer in danger of the drop and can instead start preparing for their second consecutive Premier League season, which is a considerable achievement for a "yo-yo" club that has been relegated immediately after their previous three returns to the top-flight.
Pulis has primarily improved the defensive side of Palace's game plan, although great credit should also go to Keith Millen, who acted as caretaker manager between Holloway and Pulis. Millen's final two matches in charge saw Palace keep their first two clean sheets of the season, and Pulis has ensured that the club has continued in the same vein.
The defensive turnaround has been incredible. Holloway was an attack-minded manager who simply lacked the tactical acumen for this level -- his previous attempt at the Premier League, with Blackpool, saw his side relegated, having conceded more than two goals a game.
Defensively, Palace were in shambles in the opening weeks. The statistics tell the story: From the first 10 matches, they conceded 21 goals and kept no clean sheets. In the 25 games since, they've conceded just 20 goals and kept 12 clean sheets. If they continued this record over a 38-game season, they'd have the most clean sheets in the division. "We sat down, worked out the strengths of the team and worked out a system we thought would suit them," Pulis said. This meant defending with two solid banks of four, rather than with a midfield triangle and a forward trio spread across the pitch, as under Holloway.
While Palace's defensive record has improved, the crucial factor hasn't been the back four. They have been impressive, with centre-backs Scott Dann and Damien Delaney solid in the air, and the full-backs tucking inside to defend the penalty box fiercely.
The key, however, has been the organisation and defensive discipline shown by the midfield quartet. They stay tight together, sliding across the pitch laterally in unison, preventing the opposition from penetrating their unit, while staying compact enough to prevent opposition playmakers finding space between the lines. In recent weeks, the midfield quartet has been Mile Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi in the middle, with Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie out wide, although Joe Ledley has also played a valuable role.
This defensive commitment owes much to Pulis' favourite training ground warm-up exercise, as outlined in the latest issue of the Elite Soccer coaching magazine. It's a simple, established drill but demonstrates why Palace's midfielders have such a good defensive understanding.
The drill takes place in a 20x15m area, which is split into three horizontal blocks of 20x5m each -- imagine the playing area is a giant tricolour flag. A dozen players take part in three groups of four. Each quartet occupies one of the three strips, and the object of the game is for the two groups on the "outside" to work together and penetrate the middle foursome with incisive passes -- basically, an extended "piggy in the middle" game. But whereas Barcelona's "rondo" sessions are all about stressing the importance of ball retention, this drill focuses upon the piggies.
The central four are organised in a solid line and move as a unit across the pitch, preventing the opposition from playing any passes between the gaps. The closest player to the opponent in possession moves forward, while the other three narrow to cover the space behind him. If the central four get their positioning right, the "outside" players almost always go around them, rather than through them. That's what Pulis wants -- if the ball is out wide, he trusts his centre-backs to head the ball away from resulting crosses.
Many coaches use similar drills, but few sides re-enact it on a matchday as faithfully as Palace. The emphasis on defensive work means that the midfield is forced to deal with constant pressure -- Pulis' side have the worst pass completion rate in the Prem and the joint-least possession in Europe's top five leagues -- but the speed on the counterattack from the wide players has been crucial. Puncheon has scored six goals in 2014 -- five of them openers, and three the only goal in a 1-0 victory. While a true team effort, a couple of other midfielders deserve special mention for their individual work. Central midfielder Jedinak covers an incredible amount of ground and has made the most tackles (121) and the most interceptions (132) in the division. The Australian is so often pressuring the opponent with the ball, and ensuring that while Palace are patient without possession, they're not passive.
The other man hasn't featured much recently because of a hamstring injury and isn't even truly a midfielder, but Marouane Chamakh's willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the side has been extremely important. Naturally an out-and-out striker, the ex-Arsenal player has instead been used in the role behind the main forward -- which, in Palace's system, means he spends the majority of the time in his own half. He occupies the opposition's deep-lying passer to prevent them hitting good passes into the attackers and also starts the midfield pressure.
Chamakh was actually responsible for a defensive lapse against his former club Arsenal, switching off to allow Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to score the opener. But the very fact Chamakh was even in a position to be blamed sums up how deep he's been used. Equally, Pulis' post-match criticism that day underlined how strict he is, lambasting a couple of his players for their "poor body position" in the lead-up to the goal.
Pulis is keen to praise the work of his attackers, too, and Cameron Jerome has done well upfront. Pulis' problem at Stoke, however, was that he spent poorly, often on expensive attackers who were nothing more than minor upgrades on his existing options. Pulis must ensure he maintains the harmony within the squad -- and in particular, that crucial midfield structure.