For 45 minutes, it felt like nothing had changed: yet another home game was threatening to turn into a tedious grind for Chelsea.
They were short of ideas and inspiration in attack, even with Timo Werner on the left and Kai Havertz in the No 10 role. Crystal Palace, stubborn and resilient, were looking comfortable.
Yet Chelsea passed their test of patience, breaking Palace’s resistance when Ben Chilwell struck his first goal in blue since joining from Leicester City in the summer. It was a good workout for Chelsea’s maligned back four. Kurt Zouma settled the game when he headed in a cross from Chilwell and it turned into a rout from there, with two late penalties from Jorginho giving Frank Lampard’s side a comfortable win.
For all the focus on Chelsea’s defensive failings, it should not be forgotten that they remain a work in progress in attack. They huffed and puffed during plenty of home games last season and there were times against Palace when they looked blunt up front, creating little despite dominating territory and possession during a tepid first half.
Palace’s approach was designed to frustrate: they squeezed the space and Chelsea looked worryingly short of invention for long spells, even with Havertz given freedom to roam and create. Werner was quiet and Callum Hudson-Odoi, starting in the league for the first time since February, did not have many opportunities to show why Bayern Munich want him to sign him on loan.
It was worrying for Lampard to see his team relying on crosses for long spells. Palace’s centre-backs, Mamadou Sakho and Cheikhou Kouyaté, were comfortable with the aerial barrage and it was telling that the only moment when Chelsea looked threatening came when a rare attack from the visitors broke down, allowing Havertz to carry the ball 60 yards and find Werner, who aimed his shot too close to Vicente Guaita.
Yet Chelsea emerged with more intensity after the break and the breakthrough arrived shortly after. Hudson-Odoi attacked down the right and found César Azpilicueta after a miscued clearance from Mamadou Sakho. Azpilicueta’s deflected shot looped into the air, Abraham pressured Kouyaté into a poor header and Chilwell, screaming for Werner to move aside, arrived on the run to thrash the loose ball past Guaita.
Palace’s organisation disappeared and their plan was in tatters. While there were some lively moments from Eberechi Eze on the left, Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew were quiet up front. Thiago Silva and Zouma were comfortable in central defence for Chelsea, ensuring that Edouard Mendy did not have to make a save on his first league start.
Chilwell was also impressing on the left, defending well and flying up the flank to provide balance, and the England international was involved again when Chelsea doubled their lead. A fine delivery was begging to be headed in and Zouma obliged, rising high to glance the ball high to Guaita’s left.
Chelsea poured forward in search of a third and were awarded a penalty when Tammy Abraham duped Tyrick Mitchell with a clever turn. Jorginho hopped, skipped and calmly sent Guaita the wrong way from the spot.
There was time for Havertz to produce a flash of class, winning another penalty after beating Sakho with a lovely piece of skill. Azpilicueta, the captain, moved Abraham aside and Jorginho beat Guaita again.
The pieces were falling into place. At 4-0 Lampard brought off Hudson-Odoi for Christian Pulisic, last seen going off on a stretcher when Chelsea lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup final in August. With players like Pulisic easing their way back into contention, Chelsea are surely only going to improve.