It took two tries but after having a goal called off, a wonderful finish from Hakim Ziyech lifted Chelsea to a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday. Thomas Tuchel made some curious lineup decisions but ultimately was bailed out by a triple substitution of Marcos Alonso, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Mateo Kovacic who replaced N'Golo Kante, Jorginho, and Malang Sarr and changed the complexion of the game.
The match really was fairly even with Chelsea eventually pulling out the win behind 9 shots and 1.18 expected goals which was mildly better than Palace's 7 shots and 0.78 xG. The reasons Palace were able to run Chelsea close begin with Tuchel's lineup decisions. Sarr is a good place to start as the young center back was deployed on the left side of defense instead of Alonso. Whether he was the left back in a back four system or the left wing-back in a back five is a little bit in the eye of the beholder, but regardless in a Tuchel system that wide defenders need to push the pace and deliver killer balls into the box. Sarr wasn't able to do that and only creating two chances. Defensively, and in possession, he wasn't at the top of his game either completing zero tackles or dribbles.
Sarr wasn't bad but he didn't influence the game and that caused an imbalance on the left side that the Blues needed a bit of magic to recover from. Christian Pulisic was playing as a ten who was supposed to interchange with Kai Havetz on the left wing in the final third. But instead of the fluid interchanges that Tuchel wanted, the trio of Havertz, Lukaku, and Pulisic formed a Bermuda triangle where attacks went to die.
Lukaku only had seven touches in the match while Havertz and Zieych routinely took up more advanced positions than the 124 million dollar striker.
7 - Romelu Lukaku had just seven touches against Crystal Palace, the fewest in a single Premier League game for a player with 90+ minutes played since this data is available in full for the competition (2003-04). One of those touches was from kick-off in the first half. Quiet.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 19, 2022
There's not necessarily wrong with Lukaku coming short to facilitate other attackers running beyond him, but there is something wrong with doing that, never touching the ball and also not effectively acting as a decoy. And since Chelsea only had nine total shots, it's not like the other attackers were feeding off of acres of open space created by Lukaku's movement or anything.
It seems like some of these lineup choices were made so that Pulisic could get on the ball more and it seemed like it would work when he was played in front of goal only nine minutes in. He was generally active, attempting six take ons in the first half while taking 37 touches and shooting twice. But in the second half, it would've been understandable if you forgot Pulisic was playing when, still stationed in midfield, he saw only 17 more touches, didn't shoot, and only completed five passes in the final third. Instead of being direct, Pulisic was more of a black hole in the second half while it was substitutes Loftus-Cheek and Alonso who pushed the pace. Alonso played a peach of a ball leading to Ziyech scoring in the third consecutive match for Chelsea.
So, while all's well that ends well, an 88th-minute winner against Crystal Palace isn't what this Chelsea team or this lineup was built for. Even with Mason Mount missing the match due to an injury, Tuchel's fixation on playing careful possession football has strangled their attack. Chelsea have only scored six goals in their last five league matches, leaving them to walk a tight rope where it's a clean sheet or bust.
During this period, while Lukaku has scored in the FA Cup and Club World Cup, but he hasn't gotten the job done in the Premier League at all. He hasn't scored in Chelsea's last four Premier League matches despite playing all but 10 minutes and he's only accumulated 0.71 xG across those matches. It's enough to make you wonder whether Lille will cause problems in the Champions League round of 16 thanks to Lukaku's lack on incisiveness up top. Fullback Reece James may rejoin the squad in training next week, and before his injury he was instrumental in helping give Chelsea a dynamic different look, and he's getting healthy none to soon because the lack of a backup plan has caused issues so far this season.
Ultimately, moving attackers around to get the best out of Lukaku should be a priority as he is a game-changing talent when on. Lukaku was central to Inter's Scudetto win last season mainly playing in a front two but he has rarely had Timo Werner or Kai Havertz alongside him with Pulisic, Mount, or Ziyech creating behind them.
What Saturday made clear, however. is that if Tuchel isn't willing to make the changes that might bring the best out of Lukau, he needs to simply not play him. Performances like the one against Palace simply aren't good enough, and Chelsea have plenty of striking options who will manage to at least get on the ball double digit times. With the title race already run for Chelsea, a slip up in Champions League isn't something that Tuchel can afford or the Blues will be on the market for a new coach sooner than later.