Coming off a successful campaign in the Champions League, winning the group, and avoiding the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSG, and Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea again play at home, but this time against a team with a much different pedigree in Crystal Palace. Palace have found life in the Premier League quite difficult since their promotion and have undergone a manager change in the process. Results have been better as of late, with four clean sheets in five matches, but the task still remains massive for a team who has recorded just 4 wins and 1 draw to this point in the season.

Jose Mourinho will enter this match as a happy manager. His squad needed just 1 point to win the group and avoid a nightmare draw for the first knockout round. Chelsea got 3 points with the type of 1-0 victory that Mourinho sides have made their trademark in group stages. It was a very professional performance from the Blues, and Mourinho should be pleased that the mental development of his squad seems to be taking root.

For Palace, the arrival of Tony Pulis has seemed to bring immediate benefits. For a side that was shipping goals left and right and couldn’t buy a win, Pulis has brought a belief and defensive structure that has allowed them to start to climb out of the relegation hole. However, they still have a mountain to climb to avoid relegation and a match against Chelsea will represent their most difficult opposition since the beginning of November.

There’s not much to really say about Palace other than the overall quality is just not there.
This is not a criticism of Ian Holloway. In fact, I like Holloway, and I think that he did a very good job to get Palace promoted last season. However, if you look at the squad, there’s an inherent lack of overall quality that the possible £63 million from TV revenue couldn’t cover. The fact is that for a club that was nearly out of business a few years back, getting to the Premier League is quite a feat. However, they may have gotten promoted a bit too soon, as their squad hasn’t quite recovered from the problems that administration brought.

Palace’s difficulties were complicated by a transfer strategy that seemingly had no direction. The thought was that they were trying to buy top-quality Championship players in case of relegation, but they were quoted ridiculous prices. As a consequence, Palace bought so many players, many of whom nobody had heard of, and couldn’t possibly name them all in the 25-man squad.

Essentially, this is a match that the Blues should win, simply because Palace isn’t a side that should give them problems on paper. But matches aren’t played on paper, are they?

Tony Pulis’ effect on the dressing room is apparent.
Ian Holloway’s departure from Palace led to a managerial search that resulted in the appointment of former Stoke manager Pulis. Holloway had done wonders for that side in the Championship, but I think the stress of the lack of transfer policy and the pressure of all the defeats started to wear on him, and departure was imminent.

Pulis has come in and brought a bit of a positive, successful pedigree in the Premier League to Palace, along with the ability to structure a defence that is hard to break down. Chelsea have seen the effect that Pulis’ style has on a side after just playing Stoke last week. The physical style that was the hallmark of Pulis’ tenure was still evident, and it remains part of that squad today.

At Palace, he’s inherited a much different side than he had at Stoke, and it might be his reclamation project. While at Stoke, Pulis always talked about how he wished that his team could play a more expansive game, but the make up of the squad didn’t allow him to do so. Now he inherits a team that can play the ball in an attractive way and doesn’t necessarily have the physical specimens that he had at Stoke.

Pulis is best remembered from his time at Stoke for being a manager of a football team that played like a rugby team. While it was ugly, it got him results and earned promotion for Stoke, while also solidifying their place in the league. However, those players aren’t at Palace, and it will be interesting to see exactly how he shapes this team.

Where Palace do have some quality is up front and wide, but not really at the back.
Palace do have a bit of quality about them, but it mostly lends itself to attack and not defence. This unbalanced squad is probably why Palace were shipping so many goals. While the attackers are decent, you wouldn’t really consider the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Kevin Phillips, Jimmy Kebe, and Jason Puncheon to be truly world-class, so against the run of fixtures they had early, they were always going to struggle to score. The problem was they conceded in the process.

However, even though those players aren’t really considered top-class, they are still very talented. Against teams of similar quality, they can one or two goals, but their defence cannot concede more than that. Simply put, you won’t see Palace putting four past anyone this season.

However, one of the things that they may be able to look at exploiting is set pieces. Chelsea’s main weakness over the past two games has been from the set piece, conceding four goals from the set piece out of the six conceded over the last two matches. For whatever reason, the set piece organization hasn’t been good, and it’s not like Palace have a lot of tiny players.

If there’s one thing Pulis is good at, it’s organizing set pieces.

The curious case of set piece failures.
This may be a strange look at who to place the blame on for set pieces, but I tend to not look at individual player errors, unless they’re blatantly obvious errors. Instead, I tend to think that the blame for problems on set pieces tend to fall on three players: the goalkeeper and the two center backs. In essence, no matter how much you train for set pieces, the actual organization of that defence should come from a combination of these three players, and it’s up to them to get it right.

Over the past four goals, all three have had errors in judgment, i.e. when to attack the ball, when to come from the ball, where to station players such that the ball doesn’t bounce in the box, etc. If you’re conceding goals like that, somewhere that communication and organization has failed. As I wrote last week, I think some of it comes down to mental fatigue and an inability to rotate the center backs. With David Luiz’s injury and ineffectiveness at reigning in his free-form style of play for Chelsea, it’s meant that Mourinho has relied solely on John Terry and Gary Cahill for many weeks without changing that back two. I think some of the concentration errors may be coming from a bit of mental fatigue, and with Cahill now injured, it’s time for David Luiz to prove that he’s capable of playing center back in Mourinho’s system, or the club may have to look to move him on in January.

What do we do with Petr Cech long-term?
While much of the blame for conceding goals doesn’t fall directly on Petr Cech, the emergence of Thibaut Courtois as a world-class goalkeeper is making this a question that has to be answered. Cech has been a wonderful servant to the club, and without some of his saves, I don’t know that Chelsea enjoys half the success that we’ve seen. However, we’ve seen this season and last season that there are occasional dips in form and decision making that most goalkeepers go through. Most goalkeepers, though, don’t have a 21-year-old emerging world-class goalkeeper nipping at their heels who was named Goalkeeper of the Year in La Liga while on loan, and who has a giant list of teams lining up for his services.

The interesting thing is that this shouldn’t be a situation that Cech is unfamiliar with. In 2003, Chelsea trialled a then 21-year-old Cech and signed him from Stade Rennes as an understudy to 31-year-old Carlo Cudicini, eventually taking over for due to an injury to the Italian, leading to Cech displacing Cudicini, who was still very talented at the time.

This time, the 31-year-old Cech has a 21-year-old Courtois stalling on an extension to his Chelsea contract and wanting to return to Stamford Bridge if he can get regular first-team football and not to sit as an understudy. With two world-class goalkeepers still on their books, it will be interesting to see what happens to Cech, especially since Mourinho had the same decision when he took over in 2004 and made the choice of the younger man. Could history repeat itself?

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