By intent or injury, our youthful and new signings are getting a taste of the Premier League. In fact, Graham Potter has now used 29 different players and a minimum of 9 different starting formations this season. Even if we have been battered at times through the process, he is exploring which young players are capable of certain roles and perhaps already improving some aspects of their game.
The average age of our playing squad has dropped dramatically - we’re now sitting at a spritely 25.4 - while, for good reason, 38-year-old Thiago Silva still has our most league minutes played this season. And yet still, while winning 21 of our 27 matches against Crystal Palace all time in the Premier League, we were also on our worst run in 27 years. Numbers can be conflicting.
Prior to kickoff, different sources had us starting in a 3-4-3 with Lewis Hall and Conor Gallagher as wingbacks or a 4-3-3 with a midfield trio of Gallagher, Carney Chukwuemeka, and Jorginho. While the latter made the most sense from a historical perspective, a 4-2-3-1, with Gallagher assuming the deeper role next to Jorginho and playing quite well in the process, proved to be the lineup. This is one position in which Gallagher hasn’t particularly thrived, but his passing and especially his dribbling stats show that he was more than capable of those tasks with the space afforded in the middle from the open game play. In fact, the midfield was what won Chelsea the game, and Gallagher was instrumental in its effectiveness. If Potter is moulding him into the fierce midfield combatant we saw against Palace, that addresses one issue of major concern immediately.
Potter’s decision to mimic what Patrick Vieira was likely to start - they rarely deviate from the 4-2-3-1 - helped identify specific defensive roles that the younger squad would more easily fulfill while also giving them freedom to get forward. Having the safety net of Thiago Silva, the greatest free transfer ever, can never be overlooked - especially in the education of our youthful defense. The amount of league points Silva himself has secured or saved through sagacious play, goalline clearances, or just proper positioning is remarkable, but what he is undoubtedly doing behind the scenes is surely equally impactful.
Our quick and strong start did not overshadow the issues of the youthful left side, which found Lewis Hall caught out defensively on a few occasions - not dissimilar to Fulham match. In fact, coincidental with those turnovers, their xG timing chart rose to above ours for the only period after his mistakes between the 10th and 25th minutes. His potential is through the roof, but, while not having consistently played as a left back (or left wingback), he is not a permanent solution to that problem. Michael Olise was proving to be a menace to mark by drifting centrally or into the midfield, and it threw Hall off too easily a few times in the early stages of the game.
On that left side, Benoît Badiashile was given a proper chance to be analysed. Because Jorginho incessantly played safely and retained possession, Badiashile was put under high pressure to make good decisions on the ball, sometimes with minimal time to do so. He finished completing 72 of 75 passes, 5 of which were progressive, and the highest pass accuracy of all the starters (97%) It was not an unimpressive debut, assuming some of the minor mistakes on the ball were due to nerves of a new league, club, etc.
And even with a debutant as the base of that left side and young as they were, they had no problem possessing the ball. 37% of our attack came down that side, half of our progressive carries were on that flank, and the team pass map shows that, if we were stretching the width of the pitch or even the average length of our pass, it was via the left side.
And, as the timing chart above notes, the first half would continue in our favour as it wore on, as attempts from both Kai Havertz and Lewis Hall would accumulate an xG of near 1.0 between the 32nd and 42nd minutes. The willingness of our attackers to drop in and pick up space to turn with the ball and carry or pass the it progressively was that refreshing aspect of the reckless abandon from the early days of Potter’s reign. Even if Hakim Ziyech and Havertz were a huge part of our offensive push even prior to the goal, the youngsters around them were carrying their weight.
And because the game was so open and player positions and touches are quite literally spread all but evenly across the pitch, the team with smarter possession was bound to take advantage. Chelsea did play wisely with the ball, keeping an average pass streak of six largely due to us having twice the short passes of Palace. We also had more completed crosses and progressive passes, which is not necessarily something that could have been expected with our passive attacking nature of late. Still, we would head into the break level.
Crystal Palace have been abysmal at scoring away from home in the second half, with their single strike coming in the 95th minute to win against West Ham on the 6th of November. They had conceded 17 second half goals in the 17 games they’ve played this season, and that number only got worse by full time.
Both thankfully and ironically, despite nearly conceding from a corner in the last moments of the first half, we would only need nine minutes to score our second set piece goal in two games and fifth of the season. Even without the similar, strong start we had in the first half, the game was being won in the midfield and Palace had no control in the middle of the park. Jorginho was even able to get more on the ball in the second half, and Palace resorted to the single tactic of fouling.
Jorginho’s winning of a loose ball and transitioning it out to Lewis Hall on the left is what earned the corner that Havertz nodded home. Mount was making runs from the left to the right and everywhere in between, dropping into midfield while also running past their defensive lines. His heat map is literally all-encompassing of the Palace half. He was often providing a presence in the box and, smartly, on this occasion drifts wide to pick up the through pass from Hall, subsequently winning the corner.
In this game alone, Kai Havertz accumulated a .99 xG with only his head via 4 attempts and only .02 with his feet. We know he is tall, he does tend to get his head on the ball, but he is not particularly effective at scoring headers. He does offer positive aspects in a linked and fluid attack, which was on display against Palace, and he did show some edge in the second half of the match. That said, 5 league goals in 14 appearances, almost all as a starting striker, is not going to suffice. His shooting accuracy is not where any of us would want our starting striker’s to be, approaching 15%.
While all of the substitutions would be senior players in hopes of seeing out the win, the flow chart from Opta Analyst shows that, shortly after those changes, our play dropped and their effort of having taller strikers on the pitch hoped to steal a point. Still looking shaky on crosses, Kepa Arrizabalaga did make a few great stops and kept his clean sheet. Our time management helped kill the game, and finally we again secured three points.
That makes it 17 points from 9 matches at Stamford Bridge, hardly ideal, but when another win at home would make it 20 points in 10, we would actually be fifth in the league in points earned at home. We have 11 points from 10 matches away, a much greater concern. Let’s turn that around up at Anfield then?