Crystal Palace have been playing some well-orchestrated football under Patrick Vieira’s guidance this season. They have been exciting and attack-minded, and have a better goal differential than many of the teams above them in the table. They are also similar to Chelsea in that they have drawn far too often, 6 of their last 11 to be exact.
Vieira certainly wants his teams to have the ball while controlling both possession and tempo, and they made it clear in the opening phases of the game that they were not happy to concede the ball to Chelsea. Equally, the game finished close to level in most statistics (with our fouls being the glaring exception).
Palace switched up their starting lineup, opting against their usual 4-3-3 with a 4-2-3-1, likely due to the forced absence of our most outstanding loanee midfielder, Conor Gallagher. As a result, Michael Olise (once also of the Chelsea youth system) slid into a traditional No.10 role and attempted to be both the link from front to back as well as an attacking threat. He showed his potential straight away, shimmying past Rüdiger for a shot on the counter in the 7th minute.
Chelsea were nominally in a 4-3-3 that often played as a 4-1-4-1, with Kanté moving up centrally, and were set on using the absolute maximum width available: 80% of our attacks came down the flanks, split evenly between the two sides.
Anything played centrally (usually through Jorginho) was immediately ushered wide by the overwhelming Palace presence in the midfield, which they controlled for long periods while we had only Jorginho routinely holding that space. Width was to our advantage, and a couple far post crosses would create our first and highest xG chance — but of course didn’t actually produce our goal.
The aeonian Thiago Silva began the play from the back, passing to Ziyech, who quite literally had his heels on the touchline for much of the afternoon. Ziyech then slips a nicely weighted pass into the path of N’Golo Kanté, who runs down the right then plays it back to Ziyech. Through fortune and some poor defending, he is given an opportunity to play in one of his many scrumptious crosses on the day. He whips it in left footed and, with Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku occupying defenders in the middle, it finds Christian Pulisic at the back post completed unmarked.
It wasn’t an easy finish — the cross deflected off of a head and Pulisic couldn’t quite fully adjust to add to his personal tally of 5 goals (in 6 appearances now) against Crystal Palace.
Unfortunately, Pulisic also didn’t have a great night out in general. He had the second lowest pass completion of our starters, according to WhoScored?, with only Lukaku worse.
Unbelievably, Lukaku only had 6 passes, completing 4. But our passing accuracy in general was low (82.5%), and there were constant turnovers due to our lack of presence in the centre of the park, making the game much more open than it should have been.
There’s been incessant talk about Lukaku’s lack of touches (just 7 in the game), but a more damning stat is that his pass reception percentage was just an incredibly low 18% (5 of 28). And while he did occupy the centre halves to create space for runs into the box by wide players and midfielders, his only shots were taken after running offside. He keeps stretching defenses at the seemingly wrong times.
There is not one simple reason that it hasn’t been a smooth transition for Lukaku. When he wants a deep pass from our back line or midfielders, the ball is often on the foot of a player unable or unwilling to make that pass. And of late, it does seem that the directive has been to take the ball wide and send crosses into the box, so many times we’re not even looking for Lukaku’s runs, however viable (or not) they may be.
Our next and only other chance that commanded any sort of true xG came through Kanté again stepping up into the half-space, this time running through rather than running wide (since Ziyech was out on the touchline already). Malang Sarr, driving infield from left back, demonstrates that he can indeed play a perfect pass, but unfortunately Kanté’s finish is anything but perfect, his shot driven hard straight at the goalkeeper rather than simply placed into a corner.
As has been the case too often lately, an uninspiring second half with our attack petering out gave Palace a chance to grow into the game. Repeated turnovers and sloppy passing only empowered that, as did the increasingly terrible officiating. Tuchel credited “solid” defending for the eventual win; Thiago Silva & Co did not break and kept a most excellent and welcome clean sheet.
Tuchel made a triple change in the 74th minute, adding some needed balance to the midfield with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovačić coming on for Kanté and Jorginho, plus Marcos Alonso replacing Sarr on the left side.
The changes had immediate effect. Kovačić, with his first touch of the game, conjured a through ball (at last!) for Lukaku to latch onto, drive at goal, and unleash a powerful shot, which, while parried, fell kindly to Ziyech to tap into an open net. Alas, replays would show Lukaku a step offside, continuing his misfortunes.
But just when it looked like all hope of three points was lost, Ziyech dug us out of trouble yet again, converting once again on a low-xG chance from the narrowest of angles after yet another deep cross from the flanks, this time by Marcos Alonso. Ziyech is flourishing in his preferred position on the wing, justifying the faith shown in him. A goal for the third consecutive Premier League match topped off a wonderful all around performance (7 ball recoveries and 7 duels won!).
Hakim Ziyech’s game by numbers vs. Crystal Palace:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 19, 2022
7 duels won
7 ball recoveries
5 touches in opp. box
1 shot on target
The match winner. pic.twitter.com/4XYhQBvrse
Tuchel thus avoids going three away league games without a win since taking charge, and despite making his changes late, he made decisive and game-changing ones. In Tuchel we trust.