While at times predicting a Thomas Tuchel formation was difficult, Graham Potter will likely throw us for a loop more often. Known for tactical flexibility, there were predictions of a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2 (correctly), and even, per the American broadcast, a 3-5-2 projected once the starting names were announced. At Brighton, he often switched between three and four at the back depending on the flow of the game. This squad does seemingly have the ability to do that, if properly coached in it. Pleasantly, the ability to confuse not just punditry but opposition in regards to a starting XI is fantastic. Patrick Vieira had to make slight adjustments through the opening minutes to deal with Potter’s compacted midfield, as Mount and Havertz were dipping in between the lines of the defense and midfield to offer passing lanes.
With personnel not dissimilar to the lineup fielded against Salzburg, the only changes being Wesley Fofana for César Azpilicueta (to counter the speed of Wilfried Zaha) and Ben Chilwell for an ill Marc Cucurella, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see that same shape to this squad. This time around there was a bit more of a traditional back four, but Potter is certainly tasking his back line to shift according to the attacking side. There was also significantly more urgency in our passes, and long balls were being attempted by both holding midfielders and Thiago Silva, whose accuracy was simply outstanding. In fact, aside from Mateo Kovačić with 10, Silva had the second most progressive passes (9), while Jorginho sits at a lowly one (though he did attempt a few more). And in this regard, Jorginho was quite ineffective in general, adding an abysmal 76% pass completion rate. And in this regard, he was quite useless on this occasion, causing his removal after only 55 minutes for Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The formation was indeed a 4-2-2-2, with a heavier dosage of attack down the right, which forced Chilwell back into a makeshift back three while the offensive nous of Reece James was maximised by pressing deeper down his flank. Chilwell much more often tried to link centrally than down the wing. That residual presence of the ball on our right side was initially disastrous for Fofana, who was visibly uncomfortable and unsure of his passing from the off. Especially as it would be inevitable that our centre backs would be often on the ball shaping into a back 2 while the fullbacks pushed on in possession, unlike Silva, Fofana initially refused to hit the ball long (diagonally, centrally, or even laying up softies to Reece James if he had pressed far down the flank.)
And while James was unbelievable both offensively and defensively on that right side, even eventually forcing Wilfried Zaha to play on the opposite flank, Fofana would like to forget the first 15 or so minutes. While it should be noted that his game dramatically improved as it wore on, he also had nearly nowhere to go but up from a disastrous start. On the goal, he makes three poor decisions and finds himself entirely responsible for the concession.
In the first instance, he tries to play a forward pass to Jorginho when there is no reason to force the ball back into that pressure. Any number of other passing options would be better. Upon realising that mistake, he steps towards the ball, a wrong move with only Silva and Chilwell in cover. He should either step into the lane and take a tactical foul or immediate begin his own retreat to goal. Possibly the most annoying part of this would be that the assist came from the highly pestiferous Jordan Ayew, who was fouling his way all around the pitch and troubling our back line with incessant pressing. Fofana’s final mistake is failing to intercept the singular threatening crossing lane to Odsonne Édouard. Potter identified the lack of conviction and addressed it with our young, new defender during the unfortunate injury to Nathaniel Clyne - happily, the player responded positively.
After their goal, they grew in confidence and had a few short corner routines that were menacing to our defensive set piece organisation, something that has needed improvement since the end of last season. Our insistence on crowding our own goalmouth prevented any sort of pressure on their short corners until they were able to threaten from a greater scoring position. The cross in the above circumstance was threatening enough, but there is no marking at all on the players outside of our box (from where opposition has recently scored) and Sterling and Aubameyang are in no man’s land.
And once again while we were in fact dominant on the ball, with 84% possession and a high tempo in the opening 15 minutes, our possession does not immediately equate to goals - hence why we were 1-nil down in those same first 15 minutes. The unfamiliarity of the roles and coordination between the midfield and striking pair was patent, and that was all the more clear due to our best chances being from long balls over the top. Those long balls happened to be quite fruitful, leading to a few of our corners, and indeed the one which eventually begat our goal.
A clever corner routine was fluffed by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, despite doing a tremendous job of losing his mark behind our centre halves. The play was cleared long but recycled across the back to Reece James. His long ball is easily won by Thiago Silva, having stayed forward - something he has done now in both games Potter has managed - and Aubameyang makes no mistake the second time, sending us in level at the break.
The second half was much less possession-oriented, and there were some slight adjustments made by Potter at half which allowed that situation to complicate itself. The formation seemed to shift into a 4-3-3 with Havertz on the right and Sterling on the left of Aubameyang, while Jorginho anchored a pivot with Kovačić on his right and Mount on his left. This mirror of what Patrick Vieira had been using simplified their midfielder’s defensive roles, essentially man-marking in the midfield. Potter sacrificed this for the hope of some semblance of synchronicity across those three up top, but that was hardly working.
The introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek (56th minute) for Jorginho prompted another slight adjustment, where it seemed to be a 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot of Loftus-Cheek and Kovačić, while Mount slid up into a no. 10 role. If we look at both the timing of the substitutions/tactical shifts and the attacking threats in the second half, there were temporary surges after each one. Palace were resilient and, essentially until our next set of changes in the 76th minute, took advantage in regaining some substantial possession (we dipped to a low of 52% between the 60th-75th minutes), resulting in their ability to pose a threat with our two-man holding midfield.
The additions of Armando Broja and Conor Gallagher only slightly increased our possession (from 75-90 minutes we still only had 56% overall), but again there was a surge in our xG and threat. While we could wax poetic about Gallagher’s finish, he hadn’t been entirely effective or involved prior to that, finishing with only 4 of 8 passes completed and 9 touches. But he did seize upon an opportunity to shoot himself into Chelsea folklore, and take nothing away from the postage stamp finish.
The most notable problem from this game, despite some period of frantic and untidy play, must be the poor finishing. Once again, with the amount of shooting positions we are getting into but the low quantity hitting the target or even accumulating valid xG, Potter may seriously want to have the rest of the lot take a cue from Gallagher - have the confidence to come on and bury the 0.03 opportunities they’re given (or those that are even greater).