Behind Frank Lampard’s pretty reserved celebrations and touchline demeanour on Saturday afternoon under a drizzly Autumn day in West London, he would have been delighted to witness such an assertive performance from a Chelsea that have looked anything but in the opening weeks of the campaign.
All of Chelsea’s games so far this season have posed different questions, exposed different flaws and heightened the sense of uncertainty surrounding the club’s fortunes this season following pre-season optimism with the flurry of new faces.
Balance has been the ever-present issue facing Lampard with his willingness to continue the extroverted attacking freedom expressed last term whilst also improving a defence which conceded 54 goals in the Premier League last season – the highest tally for a team in the league’s top ten. The success against Roy Hodgson’s stubborn Eagles was derided by some sections of the media as unimpressive for its lack of exhilarating action, but for anyone whose watched the frantic nature of Lampard’s uncertain side, this performance was music to their ears.
The midfield was key to solving a lot of Chelsea’s issues, and even if we just focus in isolation on the Palace game Lampard’s decision to pair Jorginho with N’Golo Kante added the right blend of mobility, guile and intelligence to help Chelsea maintain a calming rhythm in possession through the Italian Regista, but also gave Chelsea the safety net of Kante’s immaculate interceptions and speed to cover a wide area to put out any fires. The two worked in tandem, allowing both players strengths to elevate to the benefit of their team. Jorginho in full flow is a wonderful talent to watch with his smooth touch on the ball, the range of passing which saw him find Ben Chilwell charging forward on the wide left or Tammy Abraham through the middle later in the opening period to keep the Palace backline guessing.
Behind them Lampard stuck with four of the back five that begun the midweek League Cup defeat to Spurs in the Carabao Cup, adding much needed continuity to an area that has lacked it in Lampard’s time as Head Coach. There was also a heavy French speaking influence over the back four including Premier League debutant Édouard Mendy, with Cesar Azpilicueta, Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva all able to communicate in the same language. Unfortunately Ben Chilwell would have to settle for Del Boy’s book of French phrases to make do, although on his 100th Premier League appearance, communication did not seem that much of an issue as he scored his first goal for the club and set up the second for Kurt Zouma in a pretty exemplary display.
Although the first goal wasn’t aesthetically pleasing in its creation, the finish left little doubt with Chilwell larruping it past Vicente Guaita. A fullback with the natural acceleration of the 23-year-old has been sorely missed on the left of Chelsea’s defence for far too long and adds a dynamic Lampard did not have to luxury of using last season. 100% of aerial duels won for the England international demonstrated his defensive capabilities out wide to sniff out any Palace attacks, frequently cutting out diagonal balls to his side.
The appreciation throughout the game of Chelsea to accept to the reality that they would have to remain patient against a regimented low-block and bide their time for the right moment to pounce. Lampard spoke about how the team’s eagerness had dried up in the latter stages of the first half as the flow of clear-cut chances was cut short by Palace’s astute backline and urged to them to be more daring in the second half. This was the key ingredient missing from the Blues lacklustre second half against Spurs which led to game to swing in an eventual defeat, today would be different.
The “dark arts” or “game management” as its referred to in some corners may not be the cleanest issue to shine a light on but for a club that used to have it in spades, Chelsea have lost the ability to be coy with their fouling. Too often in a turnover of play, blue shirts have been easily bypassed and attacks have been accepted as part of the afternoon’s entertainment rather than a threat to Chelsea’s desire to win. Against Palace Chelsea players frequently made smart fouls at the right time to cut Palace’s flow on the rare occasions they wandered up the pitch. It allowed Chelsea’s shape to remain intact and cut out the dangerous transitions Lampard’s men are famed for conceding.
Chilwell spoke in the week of the team’s focused work on the training pitch to improve structure at set pieces and it seemed to be paying off anytime the visitors won a corner or free kick to swing into Chelsea’s box which was defended comfortably. After his defensive error at The Hawthorns last time out, Thiago Silva showed much more of the pedigree expected, commanding his area alongside Zouma and impressing with ball distribution too completing 107 out of 111 passes at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. His adaptation to the Premier League at the age of 36 cannot come quick enough for Lampard and with his leadership in a defence that majorly lacked it last season, plus the intelligence of danger awareness which the Blues lost in spades when John Terry left in 2017.
The excitement of Chelsea supporters should be not only what was on show but equally for what was not as a stacked bench containing the game changing talent of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Olivier Giroud demonstrated the impressive depth in options the west Londoners now boast. With the Wizard of Amsterdam Hakim Ziyech still to debut on the Fulham Road too, there is still much to come from Lampard’s squad in what is going to be a slog of a season when the need for depth has never been more valuable.
Much will be made of the attacking quality in Chelsea’s ranks failing to transform into the Harlem Globetrotters four games into a long season, but given Palace exposed all of Manchester United’s weaknesses two weeks ago in a devastating counter-attacking performance, the certainty in Chelsea’s victory should be seen as the perfect remedy to the early concerns of Lampard’s difficult second album.