LONDON — When listing the issues he encountered while adapting to life in England, Hakim Ziyech once included the act of learning how to drive on the left-hand side. Saturday’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace was a reminder that he has always been more comfortable on the right, producing the match-winning moment a minute from full-time that enables Chelsea to keep looking up at Liverpool and Manchester City with a sliver of optimism, rather than over their shoulders at the scrap for a top-four finish.
It also extends a promising run of Premier League performances that suggest the 28-year-old could yet make a success of his time in England, having often looked like an inconsistent misfit since arriving from Ajax in July 2020 for an initial €40 million.
– Report: Ziyech’s late goal lifts Chelsea to win at Palace
Ziyech scored for the third league game in a row at the end of a 90 minutes that typified the false dawn feel to his Chelsea career. With 16 minutes remaining, Ziyech thought he’d opened the scoring when reacting smartly as Palace substitute goalkeeper Jack Butland parried away Romelu Lukaku’s left-footed drive. VAR had other ideas, adjudging Lukaku to have strayed offside in the build-up.
Chelsea appeared to be heading for a stalemate in a game that never truly settled, somehow reflective of the turbulence London had encountered the day before as Storm Eunice caused damage throughout the capital, before Ziyech struck again. Substitute Marcus Alonso’s raking cross found Ziyech, drifting in off the right wing, at the far post and he steered a smart first-time finish past Butland for a victory that keeps the Blues in third place, seven points behind Liverpool and seven clear of Manchester United.
The fact they are isolated in the league to that extent is a reflection of both the superior quality Chelsea possess compared to most of the rest, but also an absence of the attacking cohesion the two teams above them so often show. With Manchester City kicking off against Tottenham later on Saturday, Pep Guardiola’s side had scored 61 goals prior to kick-off, three fewer than Liverpool (64), though both are miles clear of Chelsea’s 49.
Inevitably, this only increases the scrutiny on Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea’s €115m solution to this problem. It isn’t often a world champion can walk around London in anonymity, but that’s exactly what Lukaku did on Saturday afternoon. The Belgian forward had just seven touches in the whole game, the fewest number in a Premier League game for a player involved for 90 minutes since records began in 2003. One of them was to start the game at kick-off.
Lukaku scored in both the semifinal and the final as Chelsea won the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi last week, an achievement interpreted as a sign of progress in his efforts to make the impact expected of him but every time there is a step forward, it is often followed by a display like this.
Shaka Hislop feels Chelsea could play more to Romelu Lukaku’s style but still feels the striker should be offering more for the Blues.
Tuchel believes the recent schedule, specifically transitioning from dry heat in the Middle East to rainy, windswept single-figure temperatures in south London, is to blame for the collective malaise.
“We come from [a significantly hotter place]we have six players with a cold from the AC on the plane,” he said. “We have jet lag, the guys come from jet lag that they had in Abu Dhabi. We have almost no players who slept well in Abu Dhabi because of the temperature and the time difference so it is the same here. If you think we have had a normal week to prepare, I can just tell you it is not like this. We’re trying to survive at the moment.”
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Chelsea’s travails in Abu Dhabi would undoubtedly leave their mark, but the issues in attack evident here long predate that trip.
Perhaps one issue slightly underplayed is the impact of missing all four wing-backs: Ben Chilwell and Reece James have been missing for a while through injury, while Cesar Azpilicueta and Callum Hudson-Odoi – a makeshift alternative – both sustained problems in the club’s final training session yesterday and Alonso was only deemed ready for the bench. Malang Sarr is arguably Tuchel’s first-choice option as a left-back in a back four but Tuchel opted to move away from his preferred 3-4-2-1 shape, perhaps mindful of the threat posed by Wilfried Zaha in particular.
Christian Pulisic was used in a role largely unfamiliar to him, operating as a number eight in a deeper, central role to minimal effect. There was a lack of natural width that cost Chelsea a degree of potency; Ziyech produced a few dangerous moments, whipping in crosses from the right in his trademark style, but it felt significant that the goal came late on when Tuchel reverted his system with a triple substitution and Alonso, from deep on the left, found a cross which the Moroccan converted.
“It is a huge, strange mix of reasons why I did not over-expect, performance-wise,” said Tuchel. “This is where we are. I know that we can play better — we were least solid defensively. We told the team at half-time not to lose faith and keep going like in a cup game, maybe this one chance will come again and be decisive.”
That prophecy turned out to be correct. Chelsea have excelled in the cup competitions, but to challenge for the Premier League, they need more in attack than this.