As we head into another international break with the unsavoury taste of defeat in our mouths, it is time for us to assess the damage from the defeat at Stamford Bridge. Here’s what we learnt from the disappointing performance.
1. Not even the most optimistic Palace fan would have expected the Eagles to muster up a significant points return from a run of fixtures against Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester and Chelsea, but that hasn’t stopped old problems rearing their ugly heads once more. Palace looked particularly toothless at Stamford Bridge, where they failed to force Kepa Arrizabalaga into a save until the dying embers of the game. Roy Hodgson had set his team up to defend so deep that there was no realistic chance of the visitors ever being able to build up a head of steam. Wilfried Zaha once again spent most of the game running away from the Chelsea goal rather than towards it, while Jordan Ayew looked increasingly isolated and lost up front. When those two are off their game, there is a genuine concern over where the goals are going to come from. Penalties aside, none of Palace’s midfield three have done anything to suggest that they are about to go on a goalscoring run, while the Eagles’ delivery from set pieces is among the least threatening in the league. The fact remains that Palace are failing to create openings from which there is a high percentage of scoring; there is still too much hinging on the ability of individuals rather than a coherent plan of attack. Indeed, after a steady start to the season it is an ominous sign that only Watford have now scored fewer goals than Palace this campaign.
2. Has anyone seen Plan B? No, not the musician, but anything resembling an alternative to the way Palace have approached the games against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. Given the quality of the opposition, most teams would probably err on the side of caution, but there’s playing it safe and then there’s doing what Palace did at the weekend. There was very little against Chelsea to suggest that Palace were looking to get out of Stamford Bridge with anything more than a 0-0 draw; there was even a sense that they were happy to escape with a 2-0 defeat. Even when Palace went 1-0 down there was no sign that the visitors were going to go in search of an equaliser. Instead Hodgson brought on Jeffrey Schlupp for James McCarthur before replacing Cheikhou Kouyate with James McCarthy. Meanwhile Christian Benteke, the striker who recently signed a one-year contract extension with the club and was the only attack-minded substitute in the matchday 18, remained rooted to the bench. We all know by now what we’re going to get from Hodgson’s Palace – pragmatism, discipline and rigidity – but that doesn’t stem the disappointment when the manager fails to respond to the circumstances of the game. We are well aware of our limitations, but after six seasons in the Premier League Palace fans can be forgiven for wanting to see a tad more ambition even in fixtures such as these.
3. When Hodgson hailed having an injury-free squad at his disposal during his pre-match press conference on Friday, you could have guessed there and then what was going to happen next. Given Palace’s lack of replacement at right back, Joel Ward is probably the one man after Wilfried Zaha who the Eagles can least afford to be out injured, but those fears were realised just half an hour into the game on Saturday when the Englishman went down holding his groin. Martin Kelly has been brilliant this season and it seems almost unfair that he will now have to deputise in a position he is far from comfortable in. For Palace, it will also limit their ability to attack down the right because Kelly isn’t blessed with the pace to make the same overlapping runs that Ward does. Palace took a risk in not replacing Aaron Wan-Bissaka over the summer and are perhaps fortunate it has taken until mid-November for them to pay a price. The best Palace can hope for is that Ward’s injury isn’t as bad as it looked and doesn’t keep him out for too many games after the international break.
4. It’s probably safe to assume now that Max Meyer and Victor Camarasa were not Hodgson’s signings. Both players have struggled to force their way into the manager’s plans this season and their omission from the squad on Saturday reflected badly on the club’s transfer strategy. Meyer and Camarasa are arguably the two signings that have generated some semblance of excitement among Palace fans in the past two summer transfer windows, both of which have otherwise been bereft of any reason to get carried away. The issue in leaving both of those players out is that Palace’s squad suddenly looks even more one dimensional than it did already, while it also limits Hodgson’s ability to change the flow of a game by calling on a creative player from the bench. The former England manager might have opted for more defensive options against Chelsea given the nature of the opposition, but should Meyer and Camarasa continue to miss out it will create another problem that needs addressing in January.
5. Palace are in dire need of the international break. This run of fixtures was never going to be straightforward, but the Eagles have spent the past four games chasing the ball without getting much in return for their efforts. It has quickly spiralled into an energy-draining, confidence-sapping spell which Palace will be glad to see the back of after a rampant Liverpool visit Selhurst Park. For all of the criticism that has been thrown in Hodgson’s direction in recent weeks, perhaps the saving grace is that Palace have at least been picking up points against the teams around them this season. That was one area in which Palace struggled last campaign, and if they can rediscover some of that early-season form starting with the game against Burnley then sacrificing games against the league’s elite might not seem like the biggest disaster after all.