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Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace: Opposition Analysis

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Chelsea are homing in on their first Premier League title since 2010 and last season's title-deciders Crystal Palace will aim to poop the party once again. Unfortunately for them, a repeat of last year's drama seems very unlikely.

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The Season So Far

Considering the turmoil that has characterised Crystal Palace’s season, the fact that they’re nine points above the drop zone in 12th is something of a miracle. When Tony Pulis left the club just before the start of the campaign, it seemed like a return to the murky and perilous waters of the Championship was beckoning. Neil Warnock’s complete lack of competence at Premier League level seemed to confirm Palace’s inevitable relegation. Since dismissing the hapless Warnock in December, however, the Eagles have surged up the table.

Almost all of the credit has to go to Warnock’s replacement, Lt. Frank Drebin Alan Pardew. Few could have imagined the galvanising effect he would have on the players, the tactical nous he would display or the lack of controversy he would court when he jumped off the ghost ship that is Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United to return to Selhurst Park. Nevertheless, Pardew’s work has been absolutely first-rate and for the second consecutive season an inspired mid-season change of manager has propelled Palace to Premier League safety.

Pardew’s tenure to date has seen the Eagles win ten of their seventeen games in all competitions, including very impressive victories over Spurs, Southampton, West Ham and Manchester City. The likes of Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha have exploded into life, while striker Glenn Murray’s return to prominence has added another dimension to their play.

This time last year, Palace destroyed Liverpool’s Premier League title dream. It would be a massive ask of them to repeat the trick and deny Chelsea glory, but despite losing their last two games they will arrive at Stamford Bridge full of confidence – feeling glad all over, if you will – and their fans will surely relish the prospect of bloodying another nose.

Tactics

Perhaps the reason that results under Alan Pardew have been so surprising is that the same squad looked completely useless under Neil Warnock. To be fair to Warnock, he has never been much of a tactician, instead a master motivator and man-manager who specialises in getting results in the gruelling 46-game "desire first, stamina second, tactics third" slogs that are lower-league seasons.

To be unfair to Warnock, the almost overnight arrival of cohesion and flexibility in his absence suggests that he is a spectacularly bad manager.

That’s not to say Pardew has suddenly become the English Marcelo Bielsa – it’s just that he knows how to organise a side to enable it to survive and compete at this level, and he did it extremely quickly. Palace had no direction and seemed rudderless until December, but now they know exactly what they’re doing and most of their players are in something close to perfect sync.

They usually play some kind of 4-2-1-3 with a high line and a very hard-working midfield trio, but they have adapted their system on a game-to-game basis. The main idea is always to give the ball as soon as possible to the maverick wingers Zaha and Bolasie, who have thrived under a manager who has not only trusted them but told them to try whatever they want on the pitch. It works – both are extremely quick and creative players who keep coming up with new ways to skin a cat. Bolasie’s recent hat-trick away to Sunderland was the highlight of what has been a very impressive individual season.

Possession doesn’t matter too much to Palace: in true Mourinho-style, their pace on the counter means they’re stronger without the ball. Indeed, no side has lower average possession and pass completion figures than Palace. This makes sense: given their rank outsider status in most games, it has made sense to prioritise being able to play as the reactive side and pull the opposition’s pants down at transitions – this is of particular relevance when it comes to playing at Stamford Bridge.

Strengths

As previously stated, Palace’s biggest strength is their high level of individual flair. Branislav Ivanović and César Azpilicueta will get a thorough work-out from Bolasie and Zaha respectively, and John Terry and Gary Cahill will have to be alert in the middle on the inevitable occasions when Palace’s wingers turn Chelsea’s full-backs inside out.

Palace are also excellent at both winning and converting set pieces. Only Spurs and WBA have scored more goals from set-pieces than them this season and with so much of their play going through wingers who know how to tempt a defender into making a mistake, Chelsea will have to be ready to deal with good deliveries into the box from open play and dead ball situations. Their reliance on crosses and set pieces is highlighted by the fact that no Premier League side has taken a greater percentage of its shots from inside the six-yard box this season.

Their midfield has to work extremely hard to support such a high-risk system and it does on a regular basis. They make an impressive number of tackles, even when accounting for the amount of time they spend without the ball. Captain and cult hero Mile Jedinak is the chief ball-winner, making 3.4 tackles and 3.6 interceptions per game. One suspects that Cesc Fàbregas will leave the pitch well aware of Jedinak’s presence.

That’s not to say that Palace are a dirty side, because they’re not. Their disciplinary record would be good by any team’s standards but for a side that spends an average of 60% of the game without the ball, it’s remarkable. They play fairly and know how to crowd teams out of the midfield without kicking lumps of them.

Weaknesses

Palace’s biggest weakness is still their basic lack of talent. With a few exceptions, their squad could easily be that of a wealthy Championship side, and at regular intervals their lack of quality has cost them points. Being more specific, they can’t keep the ball, allow a high number of shots on their goal and make a large number of individual errors at key times.

It’s also worth pointing out that while Pardew’s rejigging of their attack has been undeniably ingenious, they don’t actually work the opposition keeper that often. A lot of their wins have been down to moments of genius on the wings, clinical finishing in the middle and impressive midfield work in shutting the opposition out. It’s rare that Palace thoroughly outplay their opposition.

That said, compared to the almost disgusting level of performance displayed during Warnock’s tenure, these are minor flaws – Pardew’s Palace is Brazil 1970 by comparison.

Likely XIs

According to most observers, Chelsea will play 10 of their strongest 11 with Loïc Rémy taking the place of the injured Diego Costa. Palace will probably stay with a relatively settled XI, although Joe Ledley’s more rounded skillset could see him preferred to the more dynamic Jason Puncheon in the middle. Alternatively, Ledley could play instead of Zaha, with Puncheon moving out to the right.

CHEPAL

Prediction

Chelsea will do what Chelsea do and find a way to win. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Palace landed some decent punches, but it would be a massive shock if Chelsea found themselves sprawled out on the canvas at any point. 3-1 Chelsea.