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Crystal Palace 2-1 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

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Crystal Palace become latest team to manage to disrupt Chelsea’s usual 3-4-3 flow

Palace’s early pressure

After such a poor run of results (seven games, seven losses, zero goals scored), any sort of positive start from Chelsea could have killed off any sliver of belief or confidence remaining at Crystal Palace. Without such a start however, Palace were able to gain a foothold in the game, cause problems for Chelsea’s ball possession, find spaces during counters, and, at long last, score their first Premier League goal of the season early on the in game.

Crystal Palace used their front two players to press Chelsea from the front, shifting side to side to close down Cahill and Azpilicueta advancing on the outside, and get close to the near side central midfielder as well. So, if Cahill advanced with the ball on the outside, Zaha would be pressuring him from inside (to block him going back to Luiz) and Townsend would move across to close down Bakayoko for any potential pass to him.

Behind them, Palace maintained a close and shifting midfield four to primarily block forward passes to Hazard and Willian on the side of the ball, and also prevent the wing-back from playing the natural around the corner pass forward.

The way Palace defended against the wing-backs caused Chelsea problems for a couple of reasons. First, Chelsea typically play the pass to the back foot of the wing-back, where they would be pressured from behind (drawing their man forward) and play the first-time pass inside to the frontline. But instead of pressuring immediately, and especially on Chelsea’s left, McArthur would hold his narrow position to both block the inside pass to Hazard and to allow Alonso to have a touch on the ball before closing him down—forcing new solutions and preventing the automated play. Then, by Palace blocking the typical forward pass here, Alonso would have to pass the ball inside to Bakayoko, creating an area of pressure from multiple directions around him in his attempt to play a forward pass or carry the ball forward (Townsend from behind, McArthur after leaving Alonso and switching him to Ward).

By causing problems for Chelsea’s possession, Palace could pick up the ball and launch quick counters. Their front two (Zaha and Townsend) had a lot of mobility, and could find spaces on the outside to receive the ball to take it forward. Both of them were also more than capable of dribbling with the ball past an opponent, allowing them to individually create chances for themselves (such as Zaha for the second goal) or draw multiple opponents towards them to open space for passes to supporting runners.

Chelsea with the ball

One way Chelsea found a solution for Palace’s pressure on the left and get the ball to Hazard, was to have Hazard drop deep to collect the ball, hold it under pressure, before switching play to the right. Since Palace’s midfield shifted over to the side of the pitch where Chelsea had the ball, the far side of the pitch would be open for either the wing-back to carry the ball forward into space or to attack the fullback 1v1.

A second way to find Hazard was for Alonso to move higher up to the last line, drawing McArthur further away from Cabaye. This would give space for Cahill to carry the ball forward and force Cabaye to make a choice between covering Bakayoko, who was free ahead of him, or Hazard, who was in the open space on the the outside of him. For Chelsea, these situations were even more advantageous, since Hazard could quickly turn and attack the backline with the ball.

Chelsea could also bypass Palace’s front two from goal kicks by going short up the middle—Zaha and Townsend would split wide to follow Cahill and Azpilicueta, leaving David Luiz free in the middle to receive, turn and carry the ball forward. From there he could play diagonal passes out to the wing-backs in space.

In the final third Chelsea were able to create chances in a variety of ways: the Azpilicueta cross into the box (but Batshuayi made the wrong run); Fabregas playing a pass over the top to Hazard moving into the box; crosses from the right when Alonso was inside the box in Hazard’s position; and the quick corner, before either team were fully set up for Bakayoko’s goal.

Second half

Chelsea had much greater control of the game in the second half, and managed to create more chances through long shots, crosses, and long passes behind; but were unable to finish them.

For long periods Palace had no out ball when they won the ball or played long—as their pressure dropped off and Chelsea’s possession increased. The home side dropped deeper and deeper and put more men behind the ball, including Townsend dropping back into midfield to support the defensive effort.

Where Chelsea couldn’t find the long passes over the top in the first half, they improved with the changes in terms of finding the runners (Pedro and Zappacosta the best at this in their positions at Chelsea), but offsides cost them. Musonda also found himself in on goal from a pass over the top, but couldn’t finish the chance.

Batshuayi going off for Pedro didn’t help at all, as moving Hazard to striker removed his influence from the game and instead placed him in a similar situation to what Batshuayi had for most of the game—when Hazard had success at striker last season, he was dropping into midfield for the ball.

Zappacosta was able to find space on the right numerous times in the second half, where he could carry the ball forward, move inside to shoot, and put crosses into the box—but the numbers Palace had back to defend made it difficult to complete the crosses.

Since Zappacosta was finding a lot of space on the right—the last being a long pass from Cahill out to Zappacosta, where he a played a low cross for Hazard—Palace made a change to bring on Puncheon for Schlupp to cover him, which provided them with fresh legs for defensive stability.

Further stability was added later on with the double change. All three roles replaced were required to cover a lot of ground with intensity, as well as being responsible for supporting attacks with the ball. Schlupp covered his role alone; Cabaye and McArthur would switch with each other when needed.

Conclusion

Crystal Palace prevented Chelsea from finding some of the usual passes forward from the wing-backs, forcing Chelsea to try to find different solutions—which Chelsea didn’t handle well early on. Along with that, Palace taking the early lead lifted the pressure of not scoring off them and imbued them with renewed confidence.

Despite going behind again just before half-time, Chelsea created more than enough good situations to score in the second half, but were unable to convert them into goals. Palace also continued to create chances of their own, along with making the necessary changes to regain defensive stability (especially Puncheon to cover Zappacosta) to see out the result.