Chelsea's title challenge is just about over at this point. After going to 17th-place Crystal Palace and coming away with no points at all, the Blues will likely find themselves level on points with Manchester City, who have two games in hand and a substantial edge in goal differential. Sadly, this title hunt has ended because of our inability to regularly beat the teams at the bottom of the table, despite having a tremendous record this season against the clubs at the top.
Crystal Palace did exactly what we'd expect them to do, sitting deep and very narrow, and firing balls to the wings whenever Chelsea turned the ball over. The Blues were lucky to go to the halftime break without having conceded, and a John Terry own goal just minutes after the restart put the home side deservedly ahead. Chelsea pushed hard after conceding, created chances while being left wide open at the back, and the 1-0 loss didn't seem in any way unfair. As has been the case far too often this season, a club that were more than happy to play deep and narrow managed to take three points off of a team that wants to challenge for the title.
It's easy to look at certain players and pick out individuals to blame, and frankly, not many Chelsea players looked up to the task today. Oscar, Fernando Torres, and John Terry all fluffed relatively easy chances without even managing to test the keeper. Eden Hazard at least managed to force a pair of diving saves, both of which forced an outstanding save to be made. John Terry and Petr Cech managed not to communicate at all on the game's only goal, while David Luiz looked like a lost puppy in the midfield before being pulled off the pitch at the break.
While all of the above could have probably changed the result despite the poor performance, it's hard to act like Palace deserved anything less than three points. They were organized at the back, and very efficient in starting the counter. Tony Pulis had obviously done his homework on this Chelsea side, and his squad executed their gameplan in a manner that makes you wonder how they weren't safely out of the relegation picture already. For Chelsea, this performance was typical of what we've seen for the past three seasons against this sort of setup, and highlights one of the biggest weaknesses we have in the current squad.
So what is it about the deep and narrow defense that manages to undo Chelsea every time? One of the biggest issues is one that Jose Mourinho identified this summer, when he was targeting Wayne Rooney. When using a single forward up top, that player absolutely has to be able to impact the game without having to drop into the midfield or race out onto the wings. Against teams that sit deep and narrow, that means finding someone with good close control, and that doesn't need an acre of space in which to operate. Fernando Torres, through no fault of his own, is just not that sort of player. Demba Ba, unfortunately, is not that sort of player either.
Chelsea do have a guy who does a slightly better job of staying at home and moving defenders around with intelligent movement, but unfortunately for Mourinho, that player is out with a hamstring injury. The Chelsea boss adjusted in one of the only ways he could, by using Andre Schurrle in more of a second striker role, trying to create problems with numbers that weren't being caused by intelligent movement.
With Eden Hazard primarily on the left, this forced Branislav Ivanovic into advanced areas of the pitch often enough to leave Chelsea exposed to the counter. Palace did a brilliant job of identifying that gaping hole, and hit us repeatedly down that flank until they managed to open the scoring. Compounding the problem was the work of David Luiz (first 45) and Frank Lampard (early second half), neither of whom ever adjusted to the advanced position of the Serbian fullback.
Full credit to Palace today, as they had a gameplan and executed it perfectly. Pulis knew we'd need to push extra bodies into the center of the attack, correctly identified where those bodies would come from, and set up his team to attack those areas quickly and efficiently. Combined with the failure of our midfield to adapt, this created more than enough chances for our opponents to take a deserved three points. Frankly, we were probably lucky it took them as long as it did to score, and we probably could have found ourselves down three or four with some better finishing.
For Chelsea, this just reinforces exactly what Mourinho has been saying all season, that the Blues are still a work in progress that aren't ready to compete on all fronts. We created enough chances today that we could have managed three points, even if we weren't moving intelligently enough to pile massive pressure on our opponent. While some better finishing would have possibly kept us in this season's title race, the issues this sort of opponent are exposing are still something that need to be addressed. This club has to figure out how to create chances without simply throwing every available body forward, but when they do pull fullbacks or midfielders out of position, others need to be aware enough to cover for those adjustments. Until that happens, we'll still be little horses trying to run down thoroughbreds.