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Chelsea 3-1 Crystal Palace, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

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Crystal Palace hang tough before Chelsea’s superior individual quality makes the difference

First half

The first sign that Palace were prepared to deal with Chelsea’s tactics, and certainly not allow the Blues to start the game on the front foot, came straight from the opening kick-off, which Chelsea like to hit long down the left flank. Palace played this perfectly by dropping Kouyaté back to win the first ball in the air against Alonso, and tracking Willian’s run around the outside with McArthur, before pressuring the ball to force a mistake and start an attack. For most of the first-half, they were similarly effective against Chelsea’s possession.

Whenever Chelsea got the ball, Palace would play compact and deep defensively to invite Chelsea onto them, getting the fullbacks to move forward and open up spaces for counters. Palace brought the midfield and front two back to defend around their box and moved well to the sides to cover Chelsea’s attempted overloads (fullback, wide midfielder and central midfielder covering Chelsea’s three), while the striker on the side which Chelsea were attacking would also move over to provide extra support — he would also be in a position to receive the ball with space to move into for counters, separating away from Chelsea’s central defenders.

Palace were weaker defensively and gave up chances when they tried to maintain their position in midfield or higher up — wide midfielders further forward instead of protecting the fullbacks. They couldn’t match Chelsea’s numbers at the base of their possession to press them effectively without opening themselves up, and at the same time by staying in midfield Chelsea could quickly find long passes to the wings for Willian to take on Wan-Bissaka 1v1 and put a cross into the box (the early chance for Pedro) or find the fullbacks moving forward early to again attempt crosses into the box (Kanté to Azpilicueta in the buildup of the first goal).

For counters, Palaces relied on winning the ball back through interceptions. Zaha would then hold onto the ball to get out of their half (where he would have multiple defenders on him), and they’d use their speed to get behind Chelsea’s backline. For the most part Chelsea’s reaction to losing the ball was great, where they pressed in numbers and with a high amount of aggression. However, there were still moments where Chelsea’s midfielders gave the ball away through a mistake or Palace could recover the ball by forcing Chelsea inside from the left and intercepting the long horizontal switches to Kanté or Azpilicueta and launch their quick counters.

Second half

Palace started the second half with more aggression and higher pressing from midfield, which opened up spaces for Chelsea. But by maintaining pressure in midfield, Palace were also in better positions to counter upon winning the ball, and by using their own vertical passing sequence (up-back-through), break through to score an equaliser.

After the equalizer, Palace continued to pressure high when the distances were short, but were also more often content with dropping back, as they had done successfully in the first half — achieving a much better balance. Chelsea began to threaten through set pieces, before Hazard and Kovačić, for Willian and Barkley, made an instant impact on the game, where Hazard both won and took the free kick from which Morata scored his and Chelsea’s second of the game.

Pedro extended Chelsea’s lead soon after, which then allowed Chelsea to comfortably maintain patient possession to see out the game and wait for any openings and chances. There were a few opportunities to increase the lead, especially for Morata at the end, but the two-goal advantage was enough to secure the three points.

Conclusion

Crystal Palace defended well in deep areas and had a couple of opportunities to use their speed during counters. For the most part, Chelsea weren’t able to play with the ball at the speed, but when opportunities opened up to advance on the wings they took them and created chances. Palace came back into the game during the opening stages of the second half and equalised, but the changes Chelsea made from the bench saw them quickly retake the lead, before extending it to put the game beyond Palace.