Chelsea 2-2 Southampton: Flanks critical
Chelsea threw away a two-goal lead at home to fall further off the pace in the Premier League.
The home side was sent out in their regular 4-2-3-1. Frank Lampard and Ramires occupied the midfield duo with the regular trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata occupying the band behind new signing Demba Ba, who made his first league start. Southampton lined up in a 4-3-3, or perhaps more accurately a 4-1-4-1. Jay Rodriguez was supported by Guly Do Prado on the left and Jason Puncheon on the right. Jack Cork played the anchor role behind Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis.
The most obvious feature of the game was the home side’s extreme narrowness. It has been a problem before, throughout the season, but often Chelsea can play their way through the opposition just by the sheer quality of their playmakers. That said, Rafael Benitez tends not to play the three fielded today together, preferring to bring in width and energy of Victor Moses for one of the trio. However, today the three were played together, and it resulted in an incredible lack of width from the team. The entire front six were at times squeezed into a box between the Southampton midfield trio and the centre-backs.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if Chelsea were committed to getting their full-backs forward, but Ashley Cole was reserved in his movement. Cesar Azpilicueta was better, and a constant out-ball. However, Guly and Puncheon tracked the Chelsea full-backs well; the two Southampton wingers made a combined five tackles or interceptions. The end result was that Chelsea had little width high up the pitch, and the Southampton defence was able to narrow to contain them.
That said, it didn’t do them much good in the first half. Chelsea got players forward and dominated possession. When they got some width, they threatened, and when Azpilicueta got forward and put a good cross into the area Ba lashed home a deflected shot. It was an illustration of just how much more threatening Chelsea looked when they could widen the Southampton defence. The second goal demonstrated how Chelsea’s flooding of the centre of midfield can occasionally work: they broke forward – with Mata cleverly stretching the defence with an outside to in run from the right – and with Chelsea four on five against the defence, Hazard arrived with a late burst from midfield to finish Ramires’ rebound from the crossbar.
Southampton play to their strengths
Though Chelsea were ahead, their tactics meant they they were constantly vulnerable. Southampton had a constant route of attack down the flanks, and Rickie Lambert’s introduction finally gave them a focal point on which to base their forays forward. Their first goal was a great illustration of that: Nathaniel Clyne, playing with no direct opponent due to Hazard’s narrowness, received the ball on the right as a Chelsea attack was broken up in their own half. Hazard attempted to track back, but had to run diagonally from the centre of the pitch, and then missed his tackle. Clyne skipped past and planted the ball onto Lambert’s head, with the ball looping beyond Cech.
The away side’s second goal was again based around play down the flank. Azpilicueta was caught too far up the pitch – though it’s hard to criticise him, since all he was doing was trying to give Chelsea some much-needed width – and Southampton left-back Luke Shaw was released down the left, sprinting from deep within his own half to the edge of the Chelsea area. His cross was behind Lambert, but found Puncheon coming inside on the right. The winger had enough time to steady himself, flick the ball up and volley home. It was a goal indicative of several problems with the Chelsea team; not only was it conceded from the flank, but the double pivot in front of the defence was nowhere to be seen. Ramires had ventured up the field, and Lampard’s poor positional awareness resulted in Shaw’s cross taking him, Cahill and Azpilicueta out of the game in one fell swoop.
Benitez lacks options
With the game locked at 2-2 and the field opening up, both sides were in need of inspiration from the bench. Nigel Adkins had made his three substitutions, bringing on Gaston Ramirez for Guly Do Prado on the left and replacing the poor Steven Davis with Richard Chaplow in midfield, as well as the aforementioned change of Lambert on for Jay Rodriguez. All three subs were like-for-like, but all three strengthened the team. Lambert, of course, changed his side’s entire attacking impetus, Ramirez offered another creative spark to offset the loss of Davis, and Chaplow offered good running and fresh legs in a congested area. In fact, the entire Southampton bench seemed well-balanced, with a centre-back and a full-back supplanting two hard-working midfielders and two game-changers in Lambert and Ramirez, as well as the obligatory sub keeper. From such a bench, Adkins could make attacking or defensive subsitutions depending on how the game panned out.
Rafael Benitez, however, didn’t have such a luxury. The majority of his bench were defenders: Paulo Ferreira, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Ryan Bertrand took up four of the seven slots, as well as Petr Cech’s understudy Ross Turnbull. The final two subs were Marko Marin, a player who has flattered to deceive for Chelsea on the limited amount of minutes he has had so far for the club, and Fernando Torres, who needs no introduction. Short of adding Bertrand as a left midfielder for width – though Bertrand is more a hard-working, defensive-minded wide man when deployed high up the field and as such not exactly an attacking substitution – Benitez had no ways of changing his team’s shape from the bench. Marin is certainly a player who can be described as an ‘impact sub’ (though one feels that’s less of a compliment than a reason why he doesn’t start) due to his quick feet and pace, but he enjoys cutting inside far too much for the situation Chelsea found themselves in. In the end, Benitez compromised, sticking Torres on for Lampard, dropping Oscar back into the pivot, moving Mata inside and putting Torres wide. It was an attacking move on paper, but solved absolutely nothing from a tactical point of view.
Southampton were good value for a draw. They attacked down Chelsea’s vulnerable flanks constantly, and had good balance to their team. Shaw and Clyne were able to get forward, safe in the knowledge that all of their midfield trio were capable tacklers and positionally sound, to support their wingers. Guly and Puncheon had contrasting games, but both were hard-working and tracked back to help their full-backs. In short, Southampton had two balanced wings with four players able to help each other out, both in attack and defence, in a game dominated by flank play.
The home side, however, looked short in a number of areas. Firstly, their attempts at flooding the midfield, whether it was the intention or otherwise, was mostly ineffective. With Southampton’s three midfielders sitting deep and shielding their defence, there was little space in that zone, and Chelsea’s attempts to play through it mostly ended up fizzling out. Moreover, there was little width or verticality to their play, and when there was, Chelsea looked threatening; the first goal came from Azpilicueta’s width, and the second from Hazard and Ramires’ verticality. Ramires actually had an excellent game considering what he was working with. Naturally a hard-working box-to-boxer, he’s versatile enough to fulfil a number of roles, and today played in the double pivot with Frank Lampard. In a pivot, each player has the responsibility to cover for his partner. If one should go upfield, the other covers, and vice-versa. However, Lampard is not a pivot player, and his constant attempts to get forward and make his trademark late runs into the box when Ramires was already supporting the attack left Chelsea’s defence vulnerable, and one such occasion led to them conceding the second goal.
The final problem with Chelsea was the subs bench. Southampton had a varied bench and Adkins knew how to use it effectively. Benitez has been controversial with his use of his bench over the years, but in this match it plainly wasn’t his fault. Chelsea’s squad is far too thin to play to the level their supporters expect – and more importantly, their chairman demands – and as the season reaches its critical point Benitez will need reinforcements, and quickly, if he hopes to challenge the Manchester duo.