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

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Chelsea with the ball

Chelsea’s overload at the back, ability to hold the ball in midfield, and width allowed them to have control with possession during open play and not allow Palace the chance to cause problems with their pressing. This allowed the Blues to quickly take the ball forward into the final third to create a number of good opportunities to score.

During closed play from Chelsea’s goal kicks, Palace could attempt to press high in an organised way, which would result in them forcing some mistakes and winning the ball in and around Chelsea’s box. Their pressure would begin through the front two placed either side of defender Andreas Christensen and shifting over to the side of the ball; so when the ball was played to Gary Cahill, Alexander Sorloth moved across to pressure him (and blocking the pass inside to Christensen) while Christian Benteke narrowed towards Christensen from the far side. From behind, the four midfielders set out to cover Chelsea’s wing-backs and central midfielders, moving tighter to mark around the side of the ball.

Throw-ins would again provide an opportunity for Palace to press, although they wouldn’t be as aggressive from their midfield line during these situations. With the midfield more cautious, Chelsea could use space in their own half well by playing back to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, spreading the backline around the box, and then finding the central midfielders with space to turn, brake pressure, and force Palace to drop back.

Chelsea v Crystal Palace - Premier League

When Chelsea had the ball in open play, Palace had little chance of pressuring effectively, and when they did attempt to press, they caused their own problems by opening up and providing Chelsea the opportunity to play forward.

As Chelsea then advanced from midfield, wide areas provided the platform to quickly move the ball forward into the final third. With wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Davide Zappacosta moving behind Palace’s wingers Jeffery Schlupp and Andros Townsend, they would pressure the fullbacks into decisions to move out to get tight to them early — leading to early crosses into the box with fewer numbers to defend — or remain inside and allow them to have the space to take the ball forward. This was amplified when, in situations such as when Willian positioned himself to the left of Patrick van Aanholt, providing another problem for the defender when considering which decision to take.

Central passes inside to the front three, particularly with Willian and Eden Hazard dropping into space, would allow advancement on the wings through drawing Palace’s defensive shape inside to open the space on the outside. Furthermore, it could push Palace deeper back into their own box, where the wingers would then drop back on the sides of their box to provide further support for defending Chelsea’s wing-backs.

From the final third Chelsea could continue to cross, but against more numbers, and Giroud could often win the first ball in the air, either to shoot or knock down the ball for a second ball inside the box. Azpilicueta began to have space to attempt his early crosses into the box, and Chelsea could attempt to create through the middle with quick combinations and dribbling, leading to a number of good chances and going into the second half with a 2-0 lead.

Chelsea v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Second half

Palace began the half with more aggressive pressing, which forced a mistake and lead to a chance to score. With the ball they were more patient in their approach, as they would take the ball up through the midfielders and switch the ball from side-to-side, rather than go directly to the frontline — while Chelsea held back and waited for counters. In doing so, they provided Wilfried Zaha, who entered the game as a substitute to Christian Benteke at half-time, with the opportunity to receive the ball in and around the box to use his dribbling to create and win set pieces; as well as for Van Aanholt to overlap on the left to put crosses into the box and later go on to score.

By taking the ball forward they could pressure Chelsea high when they lost it, which had positives and negatives. It would provide them with more opportunities to press Chelsea than they had in the first half; to disturb Chelsea’s control with possession, and to win the ball high to sustain attacks — unlike in the first half, when they couldn’t keep the ball consistently. On the other hand, when Chelsea broke through the initial pressure, Palace were open at the back. The speed of Chelsea’s counters would lead to clear opportunities to score, but Palace managed to prevent them through a number of blocks.

Palace’s final significant change was to switch to 4-3-3 by bringing on Jaïro Riedewald for Schlupp. Riedewald and James McArthur acted as the wide central midfielders, with Zaha and Townsend (later Lee Chung-Young) wide in attack, and Luka Milivojevic kept in the centre of midfield. This would see them have the extra man in the middle to find space in order to keep the ball for switches, moving the ball to Zaha more regularly, and committing numbers into the box for crosses.

Chelsea v Crystal Palace - Premier League

Conclusion

Chelsea dominated the first half with a number of chances to score, where they could quickly take the ball into the final third consistently in order to create. Palace relied upon a number of blocks to limit the lead, and improved in the second half with more patient possession. Both Chelsea and Palace had opportunities to score in the second half, and with Chelsea unable to extend their lead to kill the game, they left themselves in a difficult situation to see the game out with Palace pushing to draw the game late on.