Once again this season Chelsea struggled against, with all due respect to Crystal Palace, lesser opposition. Chelsea’s struggles against lesser teams have become increasingly noticeable for the past two seasons, specifically at home, and the run continued against Palace, despite the win, scrappy as it was.
The majority of teams coming to Stamford Bridge do not play out of the back or don’t have the confidence to try and play Chelsea at their own game, choosing to attack them on the break via a long ball rather than sustained passages of possession and building up attacks gradually, rather than the luddite ball up the pitch hoping to find a tall striker. Palace defended deep and (sensibly and effectively, for the most part) nullified Chelsea’s attacking threat which, as usual resulted to passing the ball around the 18 yard box, to try and stretch a deep Palace defence, which remained disciplined and resilient, a hallmark of Pulis’ sides. Chelsea’s 70% possession looks like domination from the home side, but Chelsea were doing very little with it, just passing around the 18 yard box trying to carve out opportunities. As the picture below shows, Chelsea 10 chances mainly came from layoffs from which players tried to shoot from distance, such was Palace’s defensive stability.
Palace’s defensive solidarity was coupled with their refusal to allow Chelsea any time on the ball, as shown in the picture below, once Mata gets the ball, 4 Palace players instantly close him down to win the ball back and play it up to Chamakh for Jerome to feed off of. A frustrating note for Chelsea fans will be the lack of Ivanovic, or Willian, who was also on that side. If either had been there, it would have allowed for an option to attack Palace by getting in behind their defence and whipping balls across the six yard box for Torres. Alas, Chelsea attacked through the centre time and again, this is most evident by looking at where the majority of Palace’s enormous 35 clearances came from, the middle of their 18 yard box, or just outside of it. If this isn’t strong enough evidence that Chelsea forcing moves down the middle isn’t working, then I don’t know what is. It seems any team with an organized and deep defence leaves Chelsea floundering, especially when their strikers are not collectively pulling their weight in terms of goalscoring and putting away the few chances they receive every game.
And yet, playing the ball out wide does not seem to be the solution. Namely because, with the exception of the erratic Demba Ba, who isn’t the most regular of starters, Chelsea don’t have the target man who can score from crosses regularly as Didier Drogba once did. Fernando Torres plays best when he can run onto the ball, or at least when it’s at his feet, so crossing the ball seems a useless endeavour. Not that Chelsea have particularly effective crossers in their fullbacks, with Ivanovic’s crossing failing to find a Chelsea man against Palace, and Aziplicueta only completing one. Crossing clearly isn’t a viable option for this diminutive, tricky Chelsea side, so why do Chelsea keep persisting with wayward crosses against deep defences?
The absence of Andre Schurrle was telling. Alongside Eden Hazard, the German is the only member of Chelsea’s attack who offers any alternative to the tiki-taka that Chelsea look to implement, with his driving runs pressuring opposing fullbacks, and even more oddly for a Chelsea player, completing crosses and offering another dimension when deep set defences remain at their most stubborn. Chelsea fans will hope he will be included in the future, though not necessarily in place of the industrious Willian, who was impressive in both attack and defence all night. Chelsea will need to find a plan B if the Premier League trophy is to return to West London.