Crystal Palace – Chelsea: Back-Post Freedom Spare Chelsea Blushes (0-1)
A combination of a stale set-up and effective Crystal Palace block left Chelsea in another state of stagnation. With a low shot count and sporadic phases of quality, the game was destined for a goalless draw, only for Hakim Ziyech to find space at the back-post to squeeze in a late winner at the game’s death.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
The building blocks to Palace’s future are set, to support and nurture homegrown South London talents, a transition of values and strategy which has rapidly grown within the last twelve months. Tyrick Mitchell, Marc Guéhi and Michael Olise represent this change of mindset, whilst Patrick Vieira’s pass-and-press style has seen huge admiration towards the club. Yet Palace are a team that is still raw, five games without a win and just two since the start of December saw them face Chelsea at a particularly vulnerable time.
The Champions League holders returned from UAE with Club World Cup success to add, but a short trip across to Selhurst Park kicked off a pivotal week in their campaign. With Lille and Liverpool in the calendar, Thomas Tuchel could be more inclined to dip into the team’s rich depth, but run the risk of stumbling into the top four fisticuffs.
Vieira made four changes to the selection in their 4-3-3 system. Conor Gallagher was the biggest omission, unavailable against his parent club; Joel Ward was out entirely, whilst Will Hughes and Odsonne Édouard were dropped to the bench. Nathaniel Clyne, Cheikhou Kouyaté, James McArthur and Olise all came in.
Tuchel also made four changes to his Chelsea team. César Azpilicueta, Mateo Kovačić, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount all came out, whilst Malang Sarr, Jorginho, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech replaced them.
The base for a dysfunctional display
For the past month, one can find separation between Chelsea and their traditional three-at-the-back systems, which have seen much success in a short period. This change has been made by the flexibility of Azpilicueta on the right, as well as Tuchel moving his team into a 4-1-2-3/2-3-2-3 formation at home to Tottenham. Tuchel deployed the same system, but without the right profiles, Chelsea failed to develop their new shape much further.
With Azpilicueta on the bench, Andreas Christensen started at right-back, which resulted in four traditional center-backs being positioned in the backline. Jorginho remained very central within this structure, whilst Pulisic and N’Golo Kanté were relied upon to create runs in the halfspaces and thread play together between the very conservative fullbacks, as well as wingers who aimed to cut back inside onto their stronger feet.
At the start of the season, you could consider Chelsea to be the most effective in utilizing their wingbacks in the final third of the field, but come February, they had next to no impact past the middle third. The difference in personnel is a big factor, but to not replicate such effectiveness in any way is an unusual step to make, having reaped the rewards earlier in the season.
No cutting edge in the Chelsea dagger
The 2-3-2-3 Chelsea system was as basic as we have seen them under Tuchel. The visitors had long spells on the ball throughout the first period, with very passive circulation around Palace’s medium block, that wasn’t pulled out of their positions all that often.
6th minute: Example of Chelsea problems in possession. Without dynamic movements, it was easy for Palace’s double pivot to track the movements of the inside runners. In this phase, Sarr’s pass was easily intercepted by Kouyaté and Chelsea players were not in a position to counterpress.
Vieira had switched his team into a 4-2-3-1 system, which also moved into a 4-4-1-1 shape in the defensive third. This change of structure was important as it enabled Kouyaté and McArthur to track the advanced Chelsea midfielders. Olise would occupy Jorginho in the center, whilst also cutting off the lane towards the single pivot if either Jordan Ayew or Jeffrey Schlupp held their positions, to make a progressive pass down the channels harder for the Chelsea backline. Palace’s defensive block was organized in its compactness, whilst also matching their opponent’s midfield, a lot better pairing than what the 4-1-4-1 formation would look like, which is what they usually deploy.
As a result, Chelsea’s progression was relied upon getting the ball to Kai Havertz or Hakim Ziyech on the wings, and as their buildup lacked penetration, the more direct balls from deep were thrown towards their creators. Once this would happen, Chelsea’s attack would surge towards the box, with no player holding the width out wide to support the second phase. Pulisic showcased how important the back-post would become, within the first few moments, having a great opportunity from close range after being left unoccupied as Clyne marked Havertz and Ayew left Pulisic completely free, but he could not convert.
These Chelsea attacks aimed to find either Pulisic or Kanté in spaces around the box, with Havertz, Ziyech and Lukaku forcing the last line further back. Between the two eights, they offered the most flexibility to a stale attack with their movements and the variety of positions they could take up. Both had patterns where they played in the proximity of one another, with one closer to the Jorginho and the other sitting much higher but on the same side, Lukaku often positioned on the opposite side of the ball.
23rd minute: Example of why Chelsea’s game plan failed. As the ball switches from right to left, Sarr passed to Havertz (Grey ball, first pass) who held the width and found Kanté (Black ball, second pass), who made an outward run. Havertz and Kanté rotated positions, but with neither penetrating or pulling their shape out, as Clyne followed Havertz’s run. An overlapping fullback run could have created a much more challenging exchange for Palace to deal with.
Tuchel’s team did have one occasion where they were able to find Kanté high up the field. Malang Sarr moved inside of Ayew, which forced interaction from Kouyaté and McArthur. As Lukaku had dragged Guéhi central, this created a lot of space for Kanté to move into and take a shot, but Vicente Guaita stopped the attempt. Unfortunately for Chelsea, this was an isolated pattern that was not repeated.
Palace did show signs of a defense that could be unpicked in the final third. Not only was the back post left free, but either of the double pivot was dragged into the defensive line consistently. A team with functional fullbacks and a connected striker could provide a lot more threat, but Chelsea was fruitless in possession and forgettable in the attack.
Sporadic Palace can’t capitalize
Long spells of Chelsea on the ball were interrupted by the occasional Palace move to break the cycle. This was created by having an out ball to Wilfried Zaha down the left, whose threat was indicated from an Olise chance in the first few moments of the game, that went narrowly wide. Zaha himself would have a shot on the transition, similar in result with an attempt that shaved the far post, right at the end of the first period.
In the second, the fixation of Palace’s attack came less from transitions with silky attackers and more on moving the ball about themselves, with Mitchell finding more space on the overlap. In their 4-2-3-1 formation, the double pivot rarely broke out of the same line, which gave the Palace set-up a strong central base for their attackers.
51st minute: Olise’s positioning helped open Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 press. Poor positions amongst the midfielders created a passing lane from Guéhi to Olise (Grey ball, first pass), with Andreas Christensen engaged in a very central position. As a result, Mitchell was left in acres to receive (Black ball, second pass) and charge down the flank with the ball.
The most to benefit from this was Michael Olise, whose continuous roaming on both sides connected Palace between the lines and offered a progressive option out wide. As a result, Palace got into good positions, especially down the left, with Chelsea still open on the transition and Olise’s positioning resulted in Christensen being occupied and a free run for either Schlupp or Mitchell.
Although Palace had found routes to cause Chelsea harm, they failed to execute through such routes to get shots off. Attacks often saw Ayew or Zaha having to carry the ball infield, into an opposition overload as Palace had no solution to separate their opponent’s center-backs, nor have any movements around them that could open up a quality chance. Palace’s best stage of the game quickly fizzled out as there was no concrete plan once the ball had got into the final third.
Destined to draw, winner at the death
— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) February 19, 2022
From this point onwards, a slow match had stagnated further where neither team looked capable of breaking the deadlock. Up to the hour mark, just two shots had hit the target all game, whilst Palace’s five shots were bested by Chelsea’s seven, but none of real quality since the first twenty minutes.
Tuchel made a triple change with fifteen minutes left, with more appropriate profiles taking to the field. Now Chelsea had switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Pulisic on the left, Havertz down the middle and Ziyech still on the right side, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovačić behind them. Marcos Alonso was also introduced at left-back.
Chelsea almost benefitted instantly from this change, with Kovačić putting Lukaku behind and although his shot was saved, Ziyech tapped in the rebound, but Lukaku had moved into an offside position within the build.
The visitors still appeared uncreative and struggled to get into shooting positions, but at least the likes of Ziyech and Havertz were getting into more crossing locations as the game entered its final phases. Palace was now much more reliant on the right side to move the ball forward, with Olise moving more into this channel.
Nevertheless, Chelsea played the crossing lottery and won the jackpot with a minute of normal time still to play. Alonso was able to receive and set himself under limited pressure, to put a ball towards the back post. Lukaku must’ve been the aim, but Mitchell’s close positioning to the striker left Ziyech free, to grab the winner from an acute angle.
Palace showed encouraging sides; most noticeably, providing a strong link in midfield without Gallagher, which came in the form of Olise. Vieira has created a young and exciting team, but their five wins throughout the season have them level with Watford and Leeds, and below the likes of Everton. Four points separate them from Everton and Newcastle, a gap which must be widened with Watford and Burnley in the upcoming weeks.
Though Chelsea is mustering wins again, it joins the long list where they haven’t produced a solid ninety-minute performance in significant time. Their various three-at-the-back systems may have stagnated, but it’s infinitely better than the back four in its current state and set-up.
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