Victor Moses’s importance to Chelsea was underlined as a change to a 3-5-2 formation against Crystal Palace left Antonio Conte’s side unsettled as they dropped three vital points in the title race.
Quick-fire goals from Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke, after Cesc Fabregas had clipped Chelsea into an early lead, have given renewed hope to the chasing pack in the Premier League after Palace ran out 2-1 winners at Stamford Bridge.
Before Sam Allardyce’s men pulled off one of the shock results of the season, Chelsea boss Conte had suffered fewer injuries than any other manager this season. He had also made the fewest changes to his starting line-up of any boss in the Premier League but he was forced into a huge one against Palace.
Moses, who has emerged as the perfect right wing-back under Conte, was missing due to a calf strain and his absence left Chelsea unbalanced as Pedro looked awkward as a back-up.
Pedro was focused more on his defensive duties than his attacking abilities and he was one of many players who were uncomfortable as Chelsea were carved open down the right-hand side for Palace’s second goal.
The Spaniard’s positioning, in turn, affected N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta, who were all over the place as Zaha and Benteke’s link-up led to what proved to be the winner.
Chelsea’s midfield and forward line wasn’t as fluid or incisive with the switch to 3-5-2 and it may need some fine-tuning before the 3-4-3 can be abandoned again in the future.
In fact, Pedro was dragged into three different positions over the course of the 90 minutes as Conte looked to Michy Batshuayi and Willian to answer his side’s problems.
Conte urged calm after the second goal, but his Chelsea players faced a situation that they hadn’t seen for a long while, chasing a comeback after conceding twice. Aside from the loss of fluidity, Conte’s men also lacked their usual ruthlessness in front of goal, a character trait that has defined Chelsea’s incredible run in the league.
Diego Costa hasn’t quite been himself since the offer from Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian. He missed several sitters, including a point-blank range strike in the 22nd minute, while his second-half header from an Eden Hazard cross was wayward.
The Chelsea striker may be on the verge of a second half of the season blip, with Hazard looking increasingly like he will be his side’s go-to man in the final weeks of the season.