The result suggested Crystal Palace had suffered at the hands of the expensive newcomers in Chelsea’s attack. The reality was different. For 45 minutes, it felt like nothing had changed: Chelsea were worryingly short of invention on the ball and yet another home game was threatening to turn into a tedious grind against negative opponents.
It was two defenders who calmed the nerves, giving Chelsea a win built on patience and persistence. Ben Chilwell, signed to solve their weaknesses at left-back, broke the deadlock with his first goal since his £50m move from Leicester. Soon after he turned provider, crossing for Kurt Zouma to shatter Palace’s resistance.
It was a good afternoon for Chelsea’s maligned back-four. Zouma was commanding alongside Thiago Silva in central defence, ensuring that Edouard Mendy did not have to make a save on his first league start, while Chilwell’s flying display showed why Frank Lampard wanted him. “Ben was fantastic,” the Chelsea manager said. “He looked like he’d played for us for a long time.”
While Chilwell already looks comfortable, other parts remain a work in progress. This performance was hard to read. Chelsea won 4-0 without sparkling as an attacking force and Lampard was unhappy with their efforts during a tepid first half, pointing to a lack of movement and penetration up front.
It is going to take time for the attack to click. Hakim Ziyech is yet to make his debut and Christian Pulisic has just returned after injuring a hamstring when Chelsea lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup final last season. As for the intake from the Bundesliga, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner are still adjusting to the pace of a new league.
In that context it was not a surprise Palace were able to frustrate Chelsea for long spells. Their caution was predictable and Chelsea lacked ideas. Werner was quiet on the left and Callum Hudson-Odoi, starting in the league for the first time since February, did not play with enough aggression on the right.
For a while Chelsea made it easy for the visitors, sending in crosses for Mamadou Sakho and Cheikhou Kouyaté to head away. The only threatening moment came when Havertz led a counterattack and found Werner, who shot straight at Vicente Guaita. Otherwise it was all very tame, with Tammy Abraham feeding off scraps up front.
Chelsea emerged with more intensity after the break. Hudson-Odoi started to run at Palace, showing why Bayern Munich wanted to sign the teenager on loan.
“There is no definitive answer,” Lampard said about the interest. “By Monday we’ll know. It has to be right for everybody. At the minute I want Callum as part of my squad.”
Hudson-Odoi was involved in the opener, forcing an error from Sakho. César Azpilicueta’s deflected shot looped into the air, Abraham’s pressure led Kouyaté into making a poor header and Chilwell, urging Werner to move aside, arrived on the run to thrash the loose ball past Guaita.
Palace’s plan was in tatters. While there were some lively moments from Eberechi Eze on the left, Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew were starved of service. “Three of the four goals were down to errors,” Roy Hodgson said. “I didn’t think our attacking play was very good.”
Chelsea doubled their lead when Chilwell crossed for Zouma to head home, before Abraham won a penalty after duping Tyrick Mitchell with a smart turn. Jorginho sent Guaita the wrong way from the spot.
Then came a flash of class from Havertz, fooling Sakho and winning another penalty. Abraham went for the ball. Azpilicueta, the captain, told him to move aside and Jorginho beat Guaita with an identical spot-kick.
The pieces were falling into place. With six minutes left Lampard replaced Hudson-Odoi with Pulisic, who almost scored during a brief cameo. Given space to breathe, Chelsea will surely improve.