Crystal Palace have been managed well by the guile of Patrick Vieira, once one of the elite midfielders in Europe, who has not only facilitated but emphasized the growth of our most outstanding loanee, Conor Gallagher as well. Accordingly, the midfield, sans the ineligible Gallagher, played a critical role in the outcome of this FA Cup semifinal.
Vieira pulled a Thomas Tuchel and had everyone (including Tuchel himself) under the assumption that he would go with his trusted 4-3-3, with which they had lost just one game since mid-February. Instead, he set up to mirror Chelsea’s expected 3-4-3. Tuchel’s own formational surprise was a relatively minor one, with Reece James deployed at right centre-back instead of wing-back, likely to account for the pace of Wilfried Zaha.
Palace’s mimicking of our lineup allowed the midfield to be indeterminate. Jorginho was being tracked or immediately pressed while on the ball and only successfully played passes via quick distribution, not something he is prone to do. Tuchel was trying to get him to play quicker, but it was not happening. And indeed, Jorginho had a poor first half despite a great multitude of touches, with a few errant passes and turnovers that drew significant attention as well.
Palace’s unfamiliarity with their formation and high press meant that there were open lanes to be had, but, as Tuchel reflected afterwards, they were not the lanes for which we had prepared and planned. As a result, the passes were not finding their intended recipients and the runs were being tracked better than we might have been expecting.
Similar to some games earlier this season, a man-marking scheme against our double pivot can lead to frustration. We largely rely on comfortable ball control in the middle of the park, especially while Jorginho plays, and Palace’s system prevented that. And with Mateo Kovačić needing to make way just 25 minutes into the game after a concerning, non-contact injury, Ruben Loftus-Cheek would play in his stead and further demonstrate the good and the bad of why the double sixes in Tuchel’s 3-4-3 are so critical.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek's game by numbers vs. Crystal Palace:— Squawka (@Squawka) April 17, 2022
100% take-on success
100% shot accuracy
5 duels won
2 fouls won
The match winner. pic.twitter.com/ggaOIaMSQi
Previously these analyses have been critical of Loftus-Cheek in one regard, his defensive positioning. As a double-six or deep-lying midfielder, he incurs more defensive duty and both his spatial awareness and marking have been suspect on many occasions, causing defensive breakdowns. His offensive drive is far more appealing than his defensive, and that proved to be the case once again.
In a role such as a wing-back or a No.8, where the emphasis is on offensive space and movement, and a significantly less (or less varied) defensive space to cover, he can thrive.
Ultimately, both sides would submit an absolutely banal performance in the first half. We weren’t capable of pinning Palace back thanks to our egregious turnovers, and our substantial periods of possession had minimal real impact or threat.
Tuchel’s half-time adjustment was shifting Mason Mount into a deeper position and pairing him as two No.8s with Loftus-Cheek. This pulled the Crystal Palace midfield out of shape, and consequently determined the outcome of the match.
Chelsea started the second half with over 80% possession while Palace hoped to compensate for the shift by throwing more men behind the ball. It was ineffective, and our press became more aggressive to steal back the ball higher up the pitch.
Our first goal comes directly from our increased midfield superiority being able to win the ball higher up the pitch with numbers forward. A goal kick is sent up to the halfway line where Alonso wins the header uncontested and sends it back towards Palace’s incredibly narrow defensive line. The second clearance falls to Jorginho and he nearly threads a ball to Werner, but the narrow line is there in cover. The problem is they have nowhere to clear but into pressure and that dooms them.
After the pressure on Tyrick Mitchell forces the turnover, Havertz gallops into the box. His cross finds its way to Loftus-Cheek, following up as a proper No.8 should, and the finish is powerful and precise for his first Chelsea goal since 2019.
That goal would prompt a few substitutions from Vieira, but his midfield changes would be hardly effective and we would be again immediately on the front foot via a deep turnover.
Chelsea’s unified press forces Jordan Ayew to turn the ball over to Antonio Rüdiger, who simply cannot avoid being an impact player in any game he plays. He would slide the ball to Havertz, who was again noticing correctly all game when he should drift deep or stay high, and his pass would find Timo Werner in space.
Werner’s touch, layoff, and one-two with Mount are precisely the aspects of his game that had been missing, though his goal-involvement record is still not too poor at all. The slight dink played forward slides in Mount, who himself cannot stop scoring and producing. Cobham!
This was the expected result and therefore should not be glorified beyond what it is. The real prize has yet to come and there are formidable and familiar foes standing in the way once again. Tuchel ought to be proud of his perfect semi-finals record, specifically with Chelsea, but we could use some improvement in finals as almost only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades...