Talking Tactics

How intelligent Palmer can exploit open spaces against Man Utd

By Adrian Clarke 4 Apr 2024
Talking Tactics Cole Palmer Chelsea v Man Utd

Adrian Clarke on why the Chelsea star will be able to take advantage of Red Devils' problems out of possession

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be influential in Matchweek 31.

Player analysis - Cole Palmer

It feels as if Chelsea’s Player of the Season Palmer could be the man to exploit Manchester United’s defensive frailties at Stamford Bridge.

The Blues have not beaten the Red Devils in the Premier League since 2017, a run of 12 matches.

Yet after watching Erik ten Hag’s side concede 20+ shots in six of their last eight top-flight matches - and 31 in their 1-1 draw at Brentford – they may fancy their chances of ending that barren run on Thursday.

Palmer, 21, has been a revelation since joining from Manchester City last summer, producing 13 goals and eight assists.

In red-hot form, the England international is certainly performing well enough to make the visitors pay if they do not shore things up defensively in west London.

Analysing the errors

Sixteen of the 31 efforts Brentford produced against Man Utd last weekend came from set-piece situations.

Uncertain in their marking set-ups, lacking decisiveness and communication, United consistently lost the first contact whenever a ball was put into their box.

Simple free-kicks from deep like this one (below) caused them problems, for example. From Mark Flekken’s lofted pass, Bryan Mbeumo struck against the crossbar.


The concern for Man Utd is that this was not a one-off issue at the Gtech Community Stadium.

As Fulham’s Calvin Bassey recently proved when escaping his marker to score in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford, the Red Devils are far from comfortable defending corners and free-kicks.

In fact no Premier League side have faced more shots from dead-ball situations than United, who have conceded around three times as many efforts as Man City and Arsenal.

Shots faced from set-pieces 23/24
Team Set-piece shots faced
Man Utd  157
Sheff Utd 146
Luton 140
Burnley 138
Man City 56
Arsenal  53
Unstable structure

In general play Ten Hag’s side have also been too open.

Midfielders have not worked hard enough to track the runs of their opposition counterparts, central defenders have been slow to react to danger and shape-wise they have left themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks.

A top-class technician like Palmer, who has created a team-high 42 chances, is good enough to may them pay if improvements are not made.

Most chances created for Chelsea 23/24
Player Chances created (inc.assists)
Cole Palmer 42
Conor Gallagher 41
Enzo Fernandez 27
Raheem Sterling 26
Malo Gusto 25
Nicolas Jackson 25

The move that led to Alex Iwobi’s winner against United started by Fulham’s corner flag, but a quick break triggered by Adama Traore saw the visitors create a 4v2 overload in the blink of an eye.


Man Utd’s midfield did not show great awareness or desire to defend for that goal, and it was a similar situation against Brentford last time out.

With too much space between the lines, Yoane Wissa was able to drift into this pocket of space untracked (below), to set up Ivan Toney for one of his nine chances.


Palmer loves to occupy these areas and will need to be shackled significantly tighter at the Bridge on Thursday evening.

Substandard stats

Across the last eight matches United have collected 16 points, but their attacking talent and some stellar displays from Andre Onana have covered for some loose off-the-ball work.

Facing an average of 20.6 shots per match, Ten Hag’s side has been opened up regularly, and in a variety of ways.

Man Utd shots faced breakdown
Last eight matches Shots faced
General play 98
Corner 39
Set-piece 14
Fast break 9
Direct free-kick 5

Over the course of the season this has been a recurring issue.

Before Matchweek 31 began, only three Premier League teams had faced more opposition shots, and two of those clubs are in the relegation zone.

Shots faced 23/24
Team Shots faced
Sheff Utd 525
Luton 518
West Ham 504
Man Utd 498
Arsenal 244
Man City 238
Palmer tailor-made to shine

Chelsea’s Palmer must be one of the front runners to land this season’s PFA Young Player of the Year, consistently delivering goals and assists for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.

His nickname "Cold" Palmer is apt, as he is usually ice-cool with his finishing, particularly via a deadly left foot.

United know all about his ability to drift past defenders into goalscoring positions, as he scored a fine solo goal against them earlier on this season.

Palmer goal

Eleven of his 13 strikes have been with his left boot, notching once every 141.8 minutes with a conversion rate of 26.5 per cent.

When space opens for Palmer to shoot, he often goes low and hard towards the bottom corner, as shown on the shot placement map below.

Palmer shots

Neither side will be happy with their league position or form ahead of this encounter at Stamford Bridge, with United sitting sixth and Chelsea 12th, but each has enough forward talent to hurt the opposition defence.

Palmer, with seven direct goal involvements in his last four outings in all competitions, is sure to relish the opportunity to make hay against a Man Utd side that are producing a low standard of work, when out of possession.

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