With less than three days to go until the transfer window closes and leading into an international break, Chelsea welcome Crystal Palace to Stamford Bridge in a London derby that might be just as important for both teams. With Palace and Chelsea both having high expectations for this season, both teams could do with a convincing performance on Saturday to give them a bit of confidence with a two-week break coming up for most.
For Crystal Palace, expectations have been lifted in part by the change in fortune the club saw when Alan Pardew took over the reins as manager, but also by one major acquisition in this transfer window. Last season, Pardew took over a team sitting in 19th position with just 17 points from their first 20 matches and took them on a massive run to the end the season, recording 31 points in their last 18 matches for a total of 48 which was good for 10th place.
Not only did he secure a finish in the top half of the table, but he brought a bit of excitement to Selhurst Park, which was sorely missed after the departure of Tony Pulis at the start of the season, but after the terrible results the team had under Neil Warnock.
That kind of finish has a knock-on effect, and by retaining key players such as Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon, and Glenn Murray, Palace put themselves in a position to maintain a challenge for a top-half finish this season. The icing on the cake, though, was the arrival of Yohan Cabaye from Paris Saint-Germain. The French international left the Premier League in 2014, sealing a move to the French capital from Newcastle United at a time when he was one of the best midfielders in the league. His arrival back at the English capital to play under Pardew, his old manager, speaks volumes about his respect for Pardew, but also the appeal of playing regularly in order to be part of the Euros next summer.
For Chelsea, this match is a bit different. Last week against West Brom might have been the most fluid and dangerous they’ve looked this season in attack. However, at the back, there’s still a bit of work, and perhaps something missing. Manager Jose Mourinho will be pleased to have 3 points and a win this season, but he’ll be concerned with the frequency and the manner in which they’ve conceded goals. Perhaps that is why Mourinho has appeared edgy recently, though his nerves have calmed down with the arrival of Pedro last week. A win at home would be another nice step towards regaining their mojo and would also leave a better taste in their mouths going into the international break.
Crystal Palace have all the tools to exploit Chelsea’s main weakness at the moment – pace.
Last year, Chelsea’s defence was imperious, conceding the fewest goals in the Premier League. This season, that same defence with the same players has looked out of sorts and is conceding goals at a rate that will not please their manager.
In part, one of the Blues main problems is a lack of pace at the back. Now, the one main weakness in Chelsea’s defence over the past few years has been outright pace, particularly pace against the back four. If there’s one way to attack that defence over the past few seasons, it was to get in behind the midfield with tricky or pacey players and run at the two center backs in one-on-one situations. For all John Terry’s fantastic ability to play positionally and read the game, he’s never been particularly quick and prone to being exposed by pace. Likewise, his partner, Gary Cahill, isn’t exactly a speed merchant himself and can be exposed in the same manner. And so far this season, Branislav Ivanovic looks like he’s slowed a bit and wide players are now able to use pace to negate his physicality.
That’s not necessarily a weakness you want to have when coming up against Palace, who have pace and trickier in their wide players in Wilfried Zaha and Bolasie, and a bit of skill in the middle with Puncheon. The only thing that Palace might be lacking is a center forward with pace, as Sergio Aguero, Bafetimbi Gomis, and even Salomon Rondon showed can be useful against the Blues’ defence.
Dealing with pace will be the key, particularly as Crystal Palace are away from home.
Expect Palace to try to play on the counterattack, particularly because of the danger of pace and because they’re away from home.
The big danger against Palace will be their willingness to play on the counterattack. Last season, it wasn’t as much of an issue because Palace’s central midfield pairing wasn’t terribly convincing in terms of triggering that attack from deep. Last season, it was James McArthur, Mile Jedinak, and Joe Ledley rotating through center midfield, with the first two players more along the lines of ball winners and Joe Ledley as the passer. The problem was none of them possessed the consistency of passing in midfield, meaning that players like Bolasie and Puncheon were asked to be the main trigger points on the counter.
This season, that midfield is much more solid with the addition of Cabaye. So far this season, McArthur and Cabaye have played together in midfield in each of the first three matches and have looked like a good partnership. The big key is Cabaye and his ability to combine his range of passes, vision, and control of tempo with an ability to win the ball, taking some of the pressure off of McArthur as the sole ball winner, as he tended to be alongside Ledley.
Given Chelsea’s weakness to pace at the moment and their tendency to push Ivanovic higher up the pitch, I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the counterattacking play involves Cabaye playing diagonals to Bolasie to try and get in behind Ivanovic, or at least get a chance to run at him. It’s imperative that midfield three be aware of this and keep pressure, especially Willian, who is likely to start in that central role behind Diego Costa.
However, is Crystal Palace’s defence equipped to handle the pressure if they sit back and try and counter?
This is one of the main issues with Palace this season. They’ve been able to keep a tight midfield setup, but their defence has had one or two problems with giving up chances. Now, luckily for Palace, their opponents haven’t really been terribly efficient in front of goal, but there’s been a mistake or two amongst them this season that wasn’t as noticeable last season.
Scott Dann and Damien Delaney were never the quickest partnership, and much like Terry and Cahill, have shown a weakness to pace, but last season, Joel Ward and Martin Kelly provided decent cover in a flat back four. This season, however, Ward hasn’t looked particularly convincing defensively and Kelly was replaced toward the end of the season with Papa Souaré who hasn’t performed well, either.
A bigger problem for that defence has been the hand injury to Julian Speroni. Speroni hasn’t featured for Palace yet this season, and in his absence, Alex McCarthy has been handed the start between the sticks. McCarthy has had his share of problems in goal so far this season and is fortunate to have not been punished for more than 4 goals, especially given that Arsenal fashioned 20 total shots in a 1-2 Palace defeat. Against the Blues, that defence, including the keeper will have to stand firm against not only the movement of the Blues, but the strength of their players on set pieces.
Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic must play better.
When you look at Chelsea, you can pick any number of players who have underperformed, but two players have really stood out from their form last season – Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic.
It’s no secret that Cesc Fabregas hasn’t performed well since January, but defensively, he’s always been a bit of liability. That was covered a lot last season by playing a third midfielder, but it was also covered by the brilliant display of Matic as a shield for the back four. He protected that group and covered their weakness to pace. But this season, he’s been a bit slow to react to things, but worse, he’s been wandering around the pitch, sometimes getting forward, and not providing the same role as he did last season. I’m not sure if those are his instructions or not, but the fact is that it’s made our midfield look disorganized at times, with people chasing the ball all over the place, and it’s also exposed our back four to one-on-ones. Given all that, it’s not surprising we’ve seen two red cards for professional fouls in three matches.
Right up there with disappointing performances is Ivanovic. Last season, you could argue that Ivanovic was the best right back in the league, both in attack and in defence. This season, he looks off the pace, and worse, as if he’s lost a bit of quickness and pace. Granted, Ivanovic has never had a lot of pace, but he was quick enough to recover against attackers and used his strength to stay tight to his man. This season, he’s getting outright beaten for pace and has been a liability on the right, to the point that at 31, he’s now facing calls for Cesar Azpilicueta to go back to his natural right-sided position to bring more solidity to the line. In this match, Ivanovic must play better, or he might have a lot of questions to answer, especially if Bolasie, Puncheon, and Zaha begin to have their way with him.