Chelsea kept hold of their place as third in the Premier League with a dramatic 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday afternoon.
Their first Premier League match after being crowned champions of the world, donning the gold badge on their shirt for what will be the only time in England’s top flight, but it wasn’t an afternoon of celebration until Hakim Ziyech won the game late on.
Chelsea are still without first-choice full-back pairing Reece James and Ben Chilwell, but Cesar Azpilicueta and Callum Hudson-Odoi were also late absentees, meaning Thomas Tuchel had to get “creative” with his starting XI.
There was some confusion on social media when the starting XI was announced, as Chelsea fans tried to work out whether it was a back three or a back four. It turned out to be a back four, with Andreas Christensen at right-back, the third consecutive Premier League game that Chelsea have ditched their back three.
And once again, Ziyech was the man running the show for Chelsea, their most dangerous attacking outlet.
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Ziyech endured a frustrating first season at Chelsea last year, struggling to make his mark on the team under both Frank Lampard and Tuchel. In 39 games across all competitions, Ziyech played 1,900 minutes (an average of 49 per match) and scored just six goals. In his 28th game this season, Ziyech has reached 1,792 minutes (64 per match) and netted his seventh strike – and what may be one of his biggest.
As part of the general confusion before the game, Ziyech had been listed as a right-wing-back for those who predicted a back three for Chelsea, with Christensen the right-sided-centre back. And in the opening exchanges of the match that did appear to be the case, though more due to Christensen sitting deeper than Ziyech getting back to defend.
But then it became clear at Ziyech was the right-winger, having the freedom of the flank to himself as most of his teammates gravitated over to the left-hand side of the pitch. Rather than being the creator, he was the target man, the end goal for Chelsea’s attacks.
In his 90 minutes on the pitch, the Moroccan had 77 touches, the third-most among Chelsea players and the only two to have more were centre-backs Antonio Rudiger and Thiago Silva – understandable as the Blues spent a lot of time trying to build out from the back. He had more shots than any other Chelsea player (three), the second-most touches in the opposition box (five) and the joint-most dribbles completed (four).
Ziyech also made 18 passes in the final third, the second-most among Chelsea players and more crosses than any of his teammates (nine) though none of them created any chances due to the poor options in the box.
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Things were frustrating for Ziyech and Chelsea at Selhurst Park as Crystal Palace set up brilliantly to stifle the Blues and also control the game for large parts of the second half. But Ziyech proved he can be the man to rely on with two key moments.
The first came as Ziyech tapped in after Romelu Lukaku’s shot had been saved, which looked to have been the opener. But VAR correctly ruled that Lukaku was offside in the build up and Ziyech’s celebrations were short-lived.
Fear not though, as Ziyech stepped up again, at the far post from Marcos Alonso’s cross to neatly convert on the volley and give Chelsea a crucial three points.
Only Jorginho (nine) and Lukaku (10) have scored more goals than Ziyech for Chelsea this season, who did admit some difficulty in the different system at Selhurst Park.
“It was a difficult game with only a small number of chances. Then the best feeling to score in the last minute,” he told Match of the Day.
“It can be difficult for players to adapt to something new but that is what we have to do as players and be as professional as we can. In the end it is all about results.
“Of course it is hard but that is why you play football, to win trophies. That is what we are trying to do, won two already this season and still four to go.”
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Andreas Christensen right-back. Malang Sarr left-back. Some pre-match thoughts were back three, Ziyech as wing-back.
4-3-3 – Pulisic joining Kante and Jorginho in midfield
TUCHEL ON XI
“We need to be creative. I had the line-up pretty soon in my head, and we analyse Crystal Palace and when we saw who had the minutes in the last match, and their shape.
“It was not too difficult. We did not like that Azpi and Callum were out last minute but that is how it is.”