17 August 2015

Crystal Palace post-mortem: Where did it almost go wrong?

It wasn't supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be a thing of beauty, not this, this abomination. Once we had grafted the keeper Čech onto the attack that was Arsenal, the reasoning went, we would at long last slake our thirst for glory. Two matches in, it's looking like it's all but gone off the rails already. After the abomination that was the opener against West Ham, some among us (chiefly me) had expected a rabid response, woe betiding any and all who found themselves in the path of the gathering storm. For a short while on Sunday (emphasis on short), it looked like our lads would arrive at Selhurst Park and lay waste to the Eagles. That didn't quite come to pass, so what gives?

It's not often you see the right winger on the left. At least the heel-flick...Oh.
While we can chalk up the loss to West Ham as a result of us taking them for granted, the same can't and be said of Crystal Palace. We knew that a loss at home had to be followed by a win away regardless of the opponent, and stretches of the first half showed that. By the time Özil finally found a way to bounce the ball off a teammate and into goal, Giroud obliging him, it did look indeed like our day. We were dominating possession and creating chances. But for a few rusty chances from Alexis, an equal number of last-ditch blocks or tackles, and even-more far-too-fancy flicks and touches, we might have gone into halftime with three of four goals. However, we went into halftime level, thanks in no small part to some nifty work from Palace and the fitful relationship between Čech and the men in front of him.

At one level, it seems almost as if Kos and Per have relaxed just a bit, secure in the assumption that Čech will clean up any messes left behind by whoever's in front of him. However, a quick glance at Ward's goal highlights the difference(s) between Kos and Cahill and Terry (and Ivanovic, while we're at it). Watch any stretch of film involving those three, and you'll see time and again that each defender squares his body to the shooter, arms tucked behind his back. While this strips the defender of some agility and balance, it maximises his width while negating any hand-balls. On Ward's shot—as with Zarate's shot a week ago—Kos shies away from the shot, simultaneously blocking Čech from seeing Ward's feet and the ball while refusing to block the ball's path. An otherwise-tame shot becomes much more difficult to save, and the sequence highlights several differences between Chelsea and Arsenal, both in terms of tactics and technique. If Čech has failed to impress thus far, chalk that up to him playing behind three defenders who square up versus two who turn their backs.

Further up the field, we face a deeper dilemma, one that derives, ironically, from depth. Arsène, facing the otherwise enviable task of shoehorning too many midfielders onto the pitch, again went with Ramsey on the right with Coquelin and Cazorla in the defensive midfield. All too predictably, Ramsey drifted central, then left, all but daring Palace to pour forward on our right flank. Fortunately, Bellerín was more than up to the task (with support from Coquelin), denying Zaha and Bolasie in equal turns. That duo, by the way, interchanged far more often than Ramsey did with Alexis, begging certain questions about how well Ramsey was communicating with Alexis while roaming so far afield. Then again, he did largely forsake the "shoot-first" mentality that has become a hallmark of his ever since the resurrection of 2013-14. Then again, it seems as if he's been so busy chasing that resurrected form that he's become a bit of a chucker, heaving shots hither and yon no matter how wasteful. Wonder-strikes such as those against Liverpool and Galatasaray have done him no favours, and that's an issue to revisit on its own later on.

Before leaving the right wing alone, it's worth asking: where's Walcott? Surely, the man of the newly-minted, £140k per week contract will deliver? Not if he never gets a sniff of the pitch. While it's a testament to Ramsey that Arsène saw fit to find room for him in the XI, one was to wonder what Walcott might have done to Crystal Palace. No, he's not a defender at the level that Ramsey can be, but what would Walcott have done to pin back Bolasie and Zaha, not to mention how he would have abused Soaré, who had more than he could handle on the rare occasions when Özil wandered wide-right?

Meanwhile, Monreal, who's not been offered a new contract, continues to dominate the left wing to the point that Gibbs, once a darling of the Three Lions set, can only count on club-cameos such as Sunday's 82nd minute appearance.

At certain positions, then, it seems like we suffer from an overabundance of options (just about anywhere in midfield) while struggling through a dearth of them at others (DM, CF). It's not often that I look a gift-horse in the mouth, but this is one result that poses more questions than it answers.

On paper, this should be a squad poised and ready to make mince-meat of most if not all of the opposition. Speaking of the "if not all" category, a newly determined Man City disemboweled Chelsea, so we at least stand above the Chavs for now, but that's a far-cry from the braggadocio with which we opened the season. If anything, Chelsea's early-season struggles throw down a gauntlet of the transfer-variety. Mourinho's minions have now conceded five goals in two matches, a draw at home and a humiliation away. Yes, it's early days in the Prem, but the transfer-window is sliding ever-downward. What combination of results will motivate players, managers, and owners alike to step up in order to reach even further down in search of inspiration?