Cole Palmer saves Chelsea again but Mauricio Pochettino needs so much more

Cole Palmer’s penalty was enough for victory  (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Cole Palmer’s penalty was enough for victory (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

This nervy 1-0 win over Fulham ensured Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea enjoyed three league wins in a row for the first time as manager of the club. It was still badly needed relief after the midweek Carabao Cup defeat to Middlesbrough, and all the more crucial given they now face three games that could define their entire season. There’s the return in the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup fourth-round clash against Aston Villa and then another difficult Premier League game away to Liverpool. They needed this.

They also, very evidently, need Cole Palmer. In a first half where nobody could seem to play a pass that wasn't flat and everyone looked unable to do anything that might hurt the opposition, the playmaker saw a fraction of space in the box and slipped through the most insightful ball. It is what Chelsea have been badly lacking, beyond this game.

Here, the ball made its way through to Raheem Sterling, who went down rather easily under a challenge from Issa Diop when he maybe could have taken it on and shot. It didn’t matter, fortunately for Sterling, Pochettino and the team. A penalty was given and Palmer again found the net.

It was right he was the scorer and the match-winner. He made the difference. The clear evidence from this game, again, was that Chelsea need more help alongside him. They still don’t hurt teams enough.

Palmer’s first-half penalty was decisive (Reuters)
Palmer’s first-half penalty was decisive (Reuters)

The match had been so dull up until the penalty that one of the main points of interest was a live promo for a film, Argylle. It was quite the use of the platform. Here, it meant a few actors in green jackets periodically standing up – conspicuously placed in the usually expensive seats behind Pochettino – and reading a book, pretending to look at imaginary watches or pretending to brush their teeth. You can add your own line about passable impressions.

This had been a passable impression of a football match, although the goal just before half-time did enliven it. With Fulham forced to open out, and Chelsea playing with that bit more assurance, there was at last more of a sense of what Pochettino wanted.

Perhaps the most concerning thing about the first half after Tuesday was how little they had been creating. It was a very flat display, the ball appearing to perpetually just come back to Enzo Fernandez, who would then pass it into a mass of Fulham bodies. On one occasion, the Argentine opted to shoot from distance, only for it to soar well over. It was as close as Chelsea got. Harry Wilson did force a good save from Djordje Petrovic in the same type of move that caught out Arsenal on New Year’s Eve.

The penalty changed more than the scoreline, though. There was the more familiar pattern of play, which consisted of Chelsea having a lot of the ball around the box but being fairly imprecise with it. This is why they need Christopher Nkunku, and why they’re looking for another forward.

Palmer was a rare bright note in a flat Chelsea display (Getty Images)
Palmer was a rare bright note in a flat Chelsea display (Getty Images)

There were so many efforts where someone couldn’t quite get on the end of it or the actual effort was frustratingly wayward. Levi Colwill’s blazed shot over was among the worst illustrations of that, especially as the box seemed to open up for him.

Conor Gallagher did offer the next moment of real quality after Palmer, as he took the ball down in the box and tried a wonderfully curving effort with the outside of his foot that hit the other side of the post. It was reminiscent of Javier Zanetti’s effort against England in the 1998 World Cup. The game at that point wasn’t so bad that there was time to search for nostalgia, it was more that it was such a distinctive effort.

There was all the more edge to it since that was when the game came alive in terms of suspense. Fulham started to up it. Chelsea hadn’t made the game sure. Raul Jimenez should have scored when Andreas Pereira broke down the left. The forward’s shot was tame and low, though, allowing Petrovic to palm it away more easily than the goalkeeper probably expected. Former Chelsea man Willian then shot narrowly over with a free-kick from just on the edge of the 18-yard box.

This was finally the match we’d been waiting for. Chelsea’s young subs were desperately hacking the ball away. It was a world away from Palmer’s precision. Chelsea still look like they need more to keep this going, and certainly over the next few weeks.