The Season Just Gone
A campaign of two halves: in the first, under the odious and talentless Neil Warnock, Crystal Palace were completely rudderless and appeared nailed-on relegation certainties; in the second, under the marginally less odious but significantly more talented
Lt. Frank Drebin Alan Pardew, the Eagles were absolutely magnificent and looked like established giants.
Clearly relishing the chance to work as an actual football manager rather than Mike Ashley’s underpaid Professional Fall Guy,
Drebin Pardew took to the job with gusto, displaying the sort of tactical, motivational and man-management skills that had been conspicuously absent for most of his time at Newcastle United. As a bonus, he also managed not to headbutt any opposition players or call any senior managers "f***ing old c**ts".
Perhaps more impressive than the results under
Drebin Pardew was the manner in which they were achieved. Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha exploded into life, while striker Glenn Murray’s return to prominence added another dimension to their play. Mile Jedinak was dominantly decisive in central midfield, while for the first time in years Scott Dann began to look like a competent footballer. All in all, Drebin’s Pardew’s reign was an unqualified success.
The Season Ahead
What a difference a year makes. In August 2014, Crystal Palace’s target was survival. After playing so well in the second half of last season and then having one hell of a summer transfer window, many Palace fans are hopeful of a top-half finish. The signing of Yohan Cabaye felt like a watershed moment: in an instant Palace went from rag-tag band of patronised overachievers to serious Premier League outfit.
The change has been evident in their starting line-ups: the undoubted heroes of 2014-15, Jedinak and Bolasie, have played 26 and 64 minutes of this season’s 270 respectively. While there’s no reason to think that either is finished at Selhurst Park, it’s testament to Palace’s upturn in fortunes that they’ve won two of their three games without relying on apparent key players.
That said, Palace still look a few rungs below the very best sides. They competed nobly against Arsenal but ultimately committed basic defensive errors that cost them dear. Additionally, both Norwich City and Aston Villa will feel that they were hard done by in the games they lost to Palace, such were the scoring opportunities they created. If the Eagles are to get a result against Chelsea, their concentration levels will have to be markedly better.
Drebin Pardew came in, Palace have played a very flexible 4-2-1-3 with a higher line than most sides and a hard-working midfield trio, but they have adapted their system on a game-to-game basis. The main attacking idea has been to give the ball to their wingers as soon as possible, but with a central pairing of Cabaye and McArthur we will probably see them develop a more cerebral passing game in the middle of the park.
Drebin Pardew has spoken repeatedly about his studies of José Mourinho’s management style and his rebirth as something of a tactical mastermind should come as little surprise. Drebin Pardew has set his side up to be as solid as possible without the ball and as devastatingly incisive as possible when it turns over, and he has done an extremely good job.
So much so that Chelsea will have to be much better defensively than they’ve been so far this season if they’re to keep a clean sheet here. If Wilfried Zaha switches flanks to line up against Branislav Ivanović, or if Bolasie returns to the line-up to face him, it could be a very long afternoon indeed.
Arguably Palace’s biggest strength is their high level of organisation: this enables key individuals to use their flair and pace as much as possible, making them hard to predict and therefore very difficult to defend against. Aside from Leicester City, Palace have probably been the Premier League’s best exponents of organised chaos in this calendar year.
A long-term strength remains in their ability to both win and score from set pieces. They were among the division’s top scorers from set plays in 2014-15 and it will be a surprise if the routine that led to Damien Delaney’s decisive goal in the season opener against Norwich will probably go down as the most creative of the season.
Given Chelsea’s current defensive vulnerability, as well as John Terry’s absence, Palace will probably be disappointed if they don’t score – when was the last time a visiting team at Mourinho’s Stamford Bridge expected to score?
If there is reason to be optimistic for Chelsea it’s that Palace’s defence has been distinctly porous this season. They have allowed an average of 16 shots on their goal per game, the league’s fifth highest figure (Chelsea, incredibly, have the fourth highest). Indeed, the Eagles’ defensive system as a whole appears to be collapsing: their figure of 15.7 tackles per game is the Premier League’s third lowest figure – and for a side which has averaged the fourth lowest possession figure, that’s really bad. Perhaps even worse, they have committed the most fouls per game.
Their inabilities to prevent the opposition arriving in dangerous positions in front of their goal and to win the ball back regularly and fairly are probably due to the absence of Jedinak. The rather more attacking Cabaye and McArthur just don’t have the skillset or inclination to do that much dirty work. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the barrel-chested Australian returned to the team for this game, with Cabaye being pushed forward into the number ten position. It’s almost certain that another open display will see Chelsea run riot.
With Terry and Oscar absent, Mourinho’s eleven more or less picks itself. On the other hand,
Drebin Pardew has plenty to think about. He may well go with an unchanged line-up in a bid to improve his team’s cohesion and fluidity, but don’t be surprised if Jedinak comes in to toughen Palace up.
With Chelsea’s recent displays patchier than Steve McClaren’s hair, expect Mourinho to focus entirely on getting the result. A relatively boring 2-0 Chelsea win awaits.