Pochettino had Hooiveld fit to start this game but Lallana was forced out of the game via a late knock in the days before the game. So there were two changes in the Saint’s XI from the Liverpool game. Puncheon replaced Lallana, playing on the right flank and pushing Rodriguez to the left. Additionally Davis replaced Ramirez, probably with the aim to add more steel to the midfield battle.
On the other side Benitez made several changes, hinting his focus is at the FA Cup clash on Monday. Compared to the previous game against West Ham Chelsea’s XI he included seven new players. Only Cech, Azpilicueta, Lampard and Moses remained. Crucially, key players like David Luiz, Ramires, Hazard and Mata weren’t starting. The latter was out of the match squad whilst the other three were on the bench.
Southampton’s starting game plan was as per usual. The shape was 4-2-3-1 with two attacking full-backs and the usual diversity on the flanks. On the left Rodriguez tried to move infield and act as a secondary (and sometimes even as the primary) direct attacking threat. On the opposite flank Puncheon tried to mix his position more – sometimes receiving the ball down the flank before cutting infield, sometimes making sudden lateral bursts off the ball to help overload the space between the lines. Up front Lambert was his usual self – trying to roam all over the attacking third, acting both as a creator and a finisher.
In midfield there was a slight tweak. With Davis spending more time closer to the midfielders than to the attacking players effectively he was more of a third midfielder (hence making the formation more of a 4-2-1-3). This was not only due to his natural tendencies to join the midfield battle before trying to push vertically later on, but because of Chelsea’s strategy (discussed below). In principle Gaston Ramirez is a player who prefers to stay higher up and create from closer to the attacking players, often drifting to the flanks to help create overloading and nice passing triangles (see the opening goal a few weeks ago against Liverpool). So, with this in mind, perhaps Pochettino preferred the additional midfield solidity offered by Davis, most probably expecting Chelsea to be closer to the team lined-up last week against West Ham.
It wasn’t a surprise that the home team tried to replicate their usual strategy. The team tried to be positive in possession, offering the now usual fluency on the ball. The movement was coherent and involving the well-known patterns of the front players interchanging at will, the full-backs bombing on and two of the midfield trio adding additional midfield runners late on.
Based on this it was more interesting how Chelsea will approach this game. In a way the starting XI hugely influenced what the initial strategy would be. With the team missing the quartet of important players as noted at the start, arguably Benitez’ hands were tied. As a result the starting central quartet (the centre-backs and the double pivot) were all players missing mobility. This meant that there is no way the team would try to be a match for Southampton’s pressing game out of possession and fluid nature of their attacks in possession. Add to this only Oscar from the attacking band of three is on paper capable to influence any resulted possession battle and it was almost impossible to imagine how this starting XI could go toe to toe with the home team’s nicely gelled unit.
So the only suitable and logical strategy that this Chelsea’s XI could have been able to execute was the one selected by Benitez. The players were told to stay in two banks of four and defend deep. The obvious aim was to try to compress the space in their own half where Southampton would try to build their attacking moves. Chelsea weren’t focused on possession as this meant they would be an easy target for the home team’s fierce closing down process. Instead they happily let the Saints dictate the play focussing on just keeping the defensive lines tight and compact. This was an approach that on paper was the most suitable given the starting players and especially the central quartet. Chelsea kept a deep high-line, hence limiting the chance to be exposed with simple balls in behind or around.
In attack, given the pacey wingers and the fact that Oscar stayed closer to Torres, the away team had the numbers and the type of players to be able to pounce on any chance to break forward. This suited the team’s idea to lure Southampton even higher up the pitch and increase the space left in behind their rather slow and agility lacking centre-backs. With Oscar staying higher up and the double pivot trying to be closer to the back four there was an even bigger gap between the two banks of four and the front duo. This meant that the possibility of Chelsea getting a hold of the ball (even if they would wanted to) was drastically limited. The majority of the team’s possession was in deep areas, when the players opted against sending quick direct balls down the channels for the attacking players to chase down. However, this only served to inflict needless pressure on the backline as every time a player passed backwards or sideways to the nearest defender the home team immediately sent players to close down.
Everything seemed to be going on according to Chelsea’s plan. Although dominating in terms of possession and territory, Southampton failed to transform their dominance into sustained pressure and constant flow of penetrative attacking moves. There were a few better attacks but nothing so dangerous or that Chelsea’s defence couldn’t handle.
Anyway, there was one particular problem that after the opening ten minutes first occurred and started to grow alarmingly. Initially the away team showed admirable discipline to adhere to what seemed to be the team’s overall strategy. The two banks of four kept the space between the lines and each player covered well and squeezed nicely. But after a few attempts to break forward the players slowly started to gear up a bit, being more open and focused on sending players forward. The counter-attacks happened around the tenth minute showed that Southampton are leaving too many gaps in behind. The first counter-attack included only Moses down the right, Torres through the middle and Marin bursting down the left. The next one included the trio but both fullbacks were present too. A few minutes later it was also Lampard busting a gut to head into the Southampton’s defensive third too. From an attacking perspective it was something that started to threaten the home team. But defensively it meant the away team’s initial strategy started to be more blurred and cracks quickly started to open up.
The main problem was that as much Chelsea were carrying more and more threat on the break, the reverse transition (from attack to defence) started to leave the team too open structurally. Not only this, but given the lack of mobility there was the huge risk the away team to be easily cut through from the middle of the park. Quickly the weakest links started to appear.
Mikel holding his deeper role well enough, but with Lampard now more inclined to help any potential attacking move; and gaps started to appear between the lines. Southampton didn’t need a second invitation and their general fluidity, constant interchanging and additional help of two midfielders pushing from deep started to dangerously overload that space and completely overrun Mikel. On the flanks, whenever Chelsea were caught out of position – trying to transition back to their defensive mode – the home team’s fullbacks were brave enough to immediately push forward and overlap down the flanks. On the right Moses had the athleticism and mobility to at least track back Shaw and a few times purely physically to stop him – given he initially let the fullback goes past him. But on the left Marin was too sluggish and frankly unable to deal with Clyne’s pace and physical build. So not only were the central areas starting to bear major advantage to Southampton but one of the flanks constantly offered attacking width and additional threat.
All of this logically resulted in the opening goal in the 23rd minute. Following yet another build-up involving a series of passes all over the pitch, Chelsea were drawn out of shape and forced to again leave too much space between the lines. Lambert drifted to the left flank with Shaw already being there on the overlap. This allowed Rodriguez to move infield and exchange a one-two with the pushing forward Davis and head into a one-on-one situation with Cech, which resulted in the opening goal. It should be noted that Puncheon was also infield, making the numbers of the players completely unmarked in the space between the lines to the staggering three (see the below image). It should be noted that this situation was the perfect example of the problems Chelsea had protecting the space ahead of the back four. In this situation Mikel was surprisingly trying to press from higher up the pitch, rather than sluggishly moving back to his supposed defensive position. Lampard was doing the same and as it could be seen from the image they were both already bypassed by Davis and Puncheon. At least this situation showed the willingness of Moses to track his man back (Shaw).
It could be said that Chelsea defended rather resolutely up to this moment, allowing only a couple of really dangerous attacking moves. Given Southampton’s growing all-round dominance (possession – at one point it reached 73% – and territory) Chelsea should be praised for allowing so few attacks to threaten Cech directly. The general deep position of the eight players behind the ball meant the Saints were forced to spend the majority of their possession in deeper areas. As much as they are a good passing side, under Adkins and now Pochettino the team remains more dangerous when given opportunity to attack directly, able to exchange quick and sharp short passes going forward. But the away team’s growing indiscipline and positional problems eventually caught up with them, effectively allowing Southampton’s strengths to shine through. The goal situation was the first time the home team managed to overload Chelsea properly, spreading their players in attack, allowing the usual interchanging process and runners coming from deep. But it proved decisively efficient.
To the end of the half
Nothing really changed in the next ten minutes. Chelsea continued to handle Southampton well enough, forcing them into continuing passing in rather deep and unthreatening positions. The home team – as traditionally after they go up in the score line – were happy to just keep the ball and try to calm the proceedings with the aim not to allow the opposition a chance for a quick response.
In fact it was actually the away team succeeding in sending forward passes, predominantly down the flanks. Still this period was more of a stalemate with neither team assertive enough to dominate the proceedings.
However, in a spell of two minutes – 33rd and 35th – the teams exchanged a goal apiece, both following a set-piece. It should be noted that from a technical perspective both goals were terrific strikes, especially Lambert’s direct free-kick that gave Southampton the lead again.
Suffice to say the Lambert’s goal sucked any potential momentum that Chelsea might have enjoyed after equalizing via Terry’s header following a corner-kick. Meanwhile it gave the home team a renowned confidence and mood to go on and again establish their dominance. The intensity in their passing and general movement was again hitting a higher gear, the players were obviously enjoying going into team moves exchanging passes, participating in sharp give’s and go’s. The home team also managed to transform their possession into higher, more meaningful zones closer to the opponent’s third. Southampton failed to create anything dangerous in terms of direct chances for goals but they carried their positive momentum very well, right to the end of the first half.
The start of the second half
The second period started with a half-time change. Davis replaced Boruc between the sticks due to some injury troubles. Strangely after the game it was announced it was due to illness, so probably it was already pre-planned he will last only one half.
The second half started with both teams looking to keep the ball and use it in order to just move it around and wait patiently before deciding how to proceed further. The change was most notable in Chelsea’s behaviour, given they started the game with the aim to sit deep into reactive banks of four and look to threaten via counter-attacks. This helped the team keep more possession and therefore more attacking focused. Not only this, but the team’s whole shape and players’ duties were tweaked.
Benitez obviously instructed his players to push up and keep a higher defensive line. This helped pin back Southampton’s passing flow and force them away from the ‘hot zone’. Additionally Lampard and Oscar’s roles looked different. The former were seemingly granted permanent attacking freedom to step forward and operate higher up the pitch. The latter now started to roam much more and try to connect the midfield and the attacking lines, now acting more as a permanent third midfielder from between the lines.
Meanwhile Mikel was stationed just ahead of the centre-backs helping them solidify the gaps appearing in that very zone in the whole of the first half. All of this resulted in an improvement of the whole team’s shape, with more passing angles and movement – patterns suddenly opened up. The players started to relate smoother to each other on and off the ball. All of this resulted in Chelsea claiming a dominating position, slowly but assertively. In the meantime the home team had problems getting out of their half as the away team seemed more determined to win the ball back by improving their closing down and will to engage their opponents.
The last half of hour
With Chelsea’s dominance starting to grow, Benitez opted to make a change in the 61st minute in order to carry out and even improve the attacking momentum of his team. In came Hazard, replacing the poorly performing Marin. The Belgian went to the right flank, meaning Moses was moved to the left.
This further more helped the away team assert their dominance and start putting their host under constant attacking pressure. But the more Chelsea pilled forward, the more Southampton started to drop deeper, going into their alternative defensive mode with their lines narrower and closer to each other.
This is something that Southampton, under Pochettino, are doing impressively whilst executing their attacking strategies and patterns of play. In this scenario the team is generally using Lambert as the target-man for the direct balls from deep, aimed at him to control and hold up higher up the pitch in order to relieve some of the pressure. This was evident throughout the second half, alternating the way Lambert was fed and as a whole participating in the team’s attacks. In the first half he was taking part in the team’s attacks based on interchanging and short passes, now he was fed directly from the keeper and the centre-backs with longer balls. His hold-up play and the way he performed as the lone striker in terms of receiving the ball was impressive, but once controlling the ball he was too rushed to pass the ball. This often meant his passes were misplaced and the team’s attacks quickly broke down, giving the ball back to Chelsea who quickly tried to again storm forward.
Although Southampton impressed defensively – in the same way they did against Man City and Liverpool – it could be said Chelsea actually failed to impress offensively. Initially Southampton kept their more attacking mentality at the start of the second half, having their shape and players behaving in the same way as in the first half. It was the introduction of Hazard that prompted Pochettino to told his team drop deep and focus on being defensively solid.
Chelsea’s problem was that despite the changes made by Benitez were all logical and aimed to improve the team’s attacking potency, the team simply failed to transform the possession into meaningful attacks. Hazard’s introduction meant another capable dribbler and creative passer which meant – at least theoretically – he is there to help his team open up the opposition. But surprisingly he was too individualistic and direct. In the last game against Newcastle he and Mata were the driving force behind Chelsea’s efficient dominance against the packed West Ham’s team. It could be said that the missing of Mata and the failing of Oscar to replicate the Spaniard’s overall input minimized and somehow isolated Hazard. But the Belgian too often went for the dribble and the solo runs with the ball, several times neglecting a teammate in a better position to receive the ball and search a better continuance of the whole attack. The majority of Hazard’s passes were simple sideways passes, often made when he couldn’t go for the dribble and was obviously crowded. Statistically this made his passing input efficient as he didn’t lose the ball so often but in reality the momentum of the attacks were often lost by the time he opted to pass the ball.
The situation in the 78th minute was the perfect example of Hazard’s input – or lack of – in this match. He picked up the ball deeper on the right, then sped forward to reach the byline going past a couple of opponents. Then instead of cutting the ball back to one of the three well positioned runners arriving into the box (Torres nearest him, Lampard around the penalty spot and Moses slightly to the far post) he opted to do something that probably was aimed to be a shoot towards the goal, and the chance had gone by.
Anyway, the bigger and crucial problem was that Chelsea failed to send a player in good goal-scoring positions. In a way this could be attributed by the failing of the team to involve Torres in meaningful attacking moves and create decent chances for him to try to finish. But the real downside was the team’s general lack of ideas going forward. Torres at least tried to drop deep and be involved in the build-up play, drawing Southampton’s centre-backs out of position and trying to open space for the wide men and Lampard to exploit and sneak into. Still, as a whole the team were ponderous in possession, initially too quick to pass the ball higher up but then lacking ideas on how to penetrate the opposition.
It wasn’t due to a lack of movement or not enough bodies heading into attacking positions. As time went by Chelsea generally attacked with no less than seven players, leaving only Mikel and the centre-backs at the back. But too often the main idea seemed to be going for the take on and then simply whip a cross or try a hopeless shoot. For all the possession in the last hour – Chelsea completed around thrice more passes than Southampton – the away team simply failed to create any meaningful chances.
The other two changes made by Benitez served well in isolation but failed to provide the missing spark. In the 72nd minute Ramires replaced Mikel. Presumably the idea was the Brazilian to offer more mobility at the back, not only to cover better against the growing threat Southampton posed on the break, but to stick Lampard permanently higher up the pitch. As such Chelsea’s triangle appeared more like a 1-2, rather the usual for their manager 2-1. Four minutes later Benayoun replaced the underperforming Oscar. He looked lively and tried to drift wider to help his team create triangles down the channels and encourage more passing oriented team moves. But by the time he tried to improve his team’s lackadaisical mood in attacks the home team had already started playing with nine players behind the ball, all of them occupying the space in their third.
In the 85th minute Pochettino improved the stability of his team by replacing the tired Davis with Fox. The left-back went as defensive left wide midfielder with Rodriguez going to the right. The youngster Ward-Prowse, who in the 62nd minute replaced Puncheon on the right flank, went central to make the shape more of a flat 4-5-1. Southampton rather comfortably saw out the game with Chelsea managing only a couple of situations that threatened more due to their chaotic nature rather than being well thought and executed attacking moves.
In a way it could be said that the fact Benitez opted to rotate his team so heavily, he indicating where his priorities lie, meaning the clash lost a big part of its anticipated tactical brilliance. Arguably with Luiz, Ramires, Hazard and Mata all starting – Chelsea’s strategy and tactics would have been completely different, resulting in a more interesting and evenly matched battle throughout.
Still, the game offered enough interesting fragments and decent entertainment. Southampton continued to impress with their all-round style. They were as usually impressive going forward, then sat deep and defended resolutely. Once again massive credit must be given to Pochettino for improving his team’s performances at both ends of the pitch.
Meanwhile Benitez and Chelsea could feel at least partially hard done by, given the team’s initial suitable strategy (given the selected players) was largely working, even if having certain obvious downsides. Chelsea were probably unfortunate to first concede from the very first really dangerous attack and then concede another goal so quickly after they managed to get an equalizer. But the way they failed to turn their second half possession dominance into meaningful chances was the real reason they didn’t have a standing chance to get at least a point from this clash.
Pochettino continues to impress, whilst Benitez and Chelsea move onto a semi-final with Manchester City after defeating Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarter Final at Stamford Bridge. The victory may justify Rafa’s tinkering with the side against Pochettino’s Southampton.