Potter hits Tuchel problem
Graham Potter and his coaching team had plenty of time to prepare and plan for Chelsea’s trip to Crystal Palace. And the decision was taken to move away from the fluid 3-5-2 shape utilized against Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League in Favour of an attacking 4-3-3 at Selhurst Park.
That meant a back four of Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell. A midfield three of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount. And an attacking trio of Raheem Sterling, Kai Haverts and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It took some time for Chelsea to settle into their shape – and by that point, they had fallen behind after Oddone Edouard finished neatly at the back post. Yet Potter’s side did concoct several neat spells of possession that ended with shooting opportunities inside the Palace penalty area.
That in itself is progress. Far too often this season, Chelsea have become frustrated and ultimately beaten by well-organized, deep defensive blocks. The problem, however, with playing a back four is what happens out of possession. It’s something Thomas Tuchel knew only too well.
The former Chelsea head coach favored a back three for important tactical reasons. The first was it ensured Thiago Silva – now 38 years old – wasn’t pulled out into wide defensive areas where he is less comfortable. And the second was that the 3-4-3 shape protected Jorginho’s inability to cover space in midfield.
Jorginho’s lack of mobility is nothing new; he has enjoyed huge success at Chelsea and with Italy in spite of it. But Palace were able to cause Chelsea several problems in the opening 45 minutes because of the space Eberechi Eze, in particular, was able to exploit against the Blues’ No.5.
It was no great surprise that just eleven minutes into the second period, Potter opted to replace Jorginho with the more physically domineering presence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. That enabled Chelsea to gain a greater foothold of the contest and the controlled possession, although admittedly did not fashion much until Conor Gallagher curled home a stunning late winner.
Potter wants Chelsea to be adaptable. How feasible that is without a true defensive midfield presence in the side remains to be seen. “We need to be careful with change because things have to be consistent,” the Blues’ head coach said explaining the 2-1 victory.
“How we play is consistent but at the same time, we have 12 matches in six-and-a-bit weeks, so it will be difficult to keep consistency in terms of selection. We have to stay open-minded, but we need some consistency in how it looks and what we are trying to do on the pitch. But at the same time, we have to pick a team we think can win.”
Individual errors remain
Throughout the early weeks of the campaign, a recurring theme has been the number of mistakes that have been punished by opposition forwards. For example, in Potter’s opening game in charge – the 1-1 draw with Salzburg – Silva failed to clear a routine pass forward and Cesar Azpilicueta lost Noah Okafor in the penalty area.
It was a similar story at Selhurst Park for Palace’s opener. Fofana gave possession away cheaply in Chelsea’s own half and then didn’t get back in position quickly enough to cover the run of Edouard, who was left with a relatively simple finish at the back post following a Jordan Ayew cross.
The Frenchman wasn’t the only defender to make a potentially costly error. There was one instance in the opening period when Chilwell was caught on the ball on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area and Silva had to come across, cover, and concede a corner. The angry glare and head shake from the Brazilian said it all.
But Silva was then caught out himself. He tried to ease beyond Jordon Ayew only to come under pressure from the Palace forward. The Centre-back hit the turf and grabbed the ball, but referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a free-kick to the home side and Silva was shown a yellow card.
VAR did check as to whether it should be a red card for Silva for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Ultimately, they felt the on-pitch decision was correct, although that was admittedly a fortunate call for the Blues. “I think it’s one that we’ve been fortunate with,” accepted Potter.
“The fact it is quite a way from the goal has maybe helped us a bit and there are covering defenders. But I can understand Patrick’s [Vieira’s] frustration.”
Kepa puts down marker
It was in Tuchel’s final game in charge, the 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb, that the third act of the Kepa Arizabal story at Chelsea began. The Spaniard replaced the injured Edouard Mendy and has now started three consecutive matches for the Blues for the first time since January.
What’s more important, though, is Kepa’s display at Selhurst Park was one imbued with confidence. He produced two fine stops to deny Eze and also showcased his reconstructed confidence by coming out to collect two corners without a moment’s hesitation.
Mendy, who has been Chelsea’s number one goalkeeper since his arrival from Rennes in September 2020, may not be ready to face Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday evening and that will give Kepa another chance to stake a claim as to why he should now be the first-choice goalkeeper at Stamford Bridge.
Importantly for the Spain international, he has a fan in Potter. “I thought Kepa did really well,” the Chelsea boss said yesterday. “He made a couple of big saves but also, his distribution in terms of his decision-making was really strong. You need players to step up and perform and Kepa did that today. So I am really happy for him.”