They say attack is the best form of defence. Southampton certainly proved that old adage right, scoring a goal inside 16 seconds, partly through a defensive lapse in concentration from Michael Essien, and to a lesser extent, Petr Cech, but through Rodriguez’s rapid pressing from the off, a feature of Southampton’s game since the arrival of Pochettino, and this plan paid dividends immediately, Southampton’s all action pressure was rewarded, albeit with the help of a defensive lapse through Michael Essien.
As shown in the picture below, Southampton had cut off all pass options for Chelsea, which would have forced them into a long ball, relinquishing possession and allowing Southampton to play out from the back, as they like to do, arguably through necessity with Rickie Lambert on the bench for the visitors. Winning the ball high up the pitch is clearly of vital importance of Pochettino, having Rodriguez, Lallana and Osvaldo pressuring the defence, along with the attack-minded Clyne and Shaw, who are always willing to pressure both the wingers, and their respective full backs.
Southampton’s centre halves, Lovren and Fonte tended to split in two to provide wider options for goal kick, whilst Shaw and Clyne tended to push up the field to contest the longer balls and to feed off Osvaldo. Not only did this provide time and space for every player to move into, no matter who the ball came to, but it allowed Schneiderlin to drop into the gap between Fonte and Lovren in order to come short for the ball and play from the midfield, or to act as an effective buffer should Boruc make an error with his goal kick. Southampton succeeded in doing this for the first goal kick, but it worked less after that, as Chelsea began to wise up to Southampton’s actions.
And yet, for all their impressive defensive qualities, Southampton have scored only 16 goals this season, the lowest in the top 8. A significant part of the Saints’ goals (4) have come from set pieces, and whilst the defensive situation needs no altering, perhaps it could be argued Pochettino’s football is slightly too defensive oriented to reap the benefits attacking wise, though it’s a rather minor bone to pick, and a strong case could be made against Danny Osvaldo starting games, to see whether that would improve the goal tally of Southampton.
Unlike their opponents, Chelsea pressuring of the ball, at least in Southampton’s final third, was lacking, and at times, frustrating, choosing to adopt the playground attitude of everyone surrounding the ball rather than picking up available men and cutting off pass routes, as is shown below, as Luke Shaw finds acres of space on the far side. This is not to suggest that somebody should be sent to track all the way across the pitch just in case the ball is spread 60 yards to the left back, but it would seem logical to at least station someone relatively near him in case that did occur, especially considering the amount of space Shaw would have had on the far side, had the ball come his way.
The introduction of Demba Ba and Chelsea’s switch of formation to 442 helped the West Londoner’s cause to no end. First and foremost having two strikers up top gave Lovren and Fonte significantly more to deal with than simply Torres on his own, the fact that the other striker was Demba Ba meant the Saints back two couldn’t bully Ba off of the ball as easily they could Torres. This also allowed the duo to pull the duo apart, allowing for space, albeit not much of it, to be opened up for Juan Mata, who was now stationed in the number 10 role, to play balls either through or round the defence.
So what do you think? Do Southampton have the best defence in the league, the best defensive system, or both? Is their attack too stunted, if so, is it an issue of personnel, or tactics? Is 4231 the right formation for Chelsea this year, or is it the old style 433 that suits them best? If you’re interested to know the intricacies of Southampton’s playing style I would implore you to read Martin Lewis’ scout report on the Saints, explaining various facets of their play better than me.