A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s stunning come back against next weekend’s FA Cup semi final opponents.
Chelsea visited one of their favourite venues in their last Saturday lunchtime kick off this season this weekend. A Southampton side, led by recently appointed Mark Hughes as manager, awaited for The Blues at St Mary’s Stadium where Chelsea have won 7 times on their 10 previous visits.
But this is a troubled Chelsea team. Only 2 wins in their last 8 matches has seen them slip 10 points behind the top 4 and despite some spells of quality play, they are a long way from last season’s commanding form. Even when outplaying their opponents for most of their match and taking the lead, The Blues have recently not managed to hold on for all 3 points. This is despite Antonio Conte picking what most would class as his strongest line up.
In fact, with a top 4 finish extremely unlikely, it has started to surprise most supporters that Conte has persisted with similar tactics and similar starting line ups despite the lack of winning score lines. And as The Blues headed to the south coast to take on relegation threatened Southampton, the Italian manager still kept with his Plan A.
Andreas Christensen returned to the middle of the back 3 with Gary Cahill moving to the left hand side as Antonio Rudiger was rested (let’s hope it was nothing more sinister). Davide Zappacosta was also picked to start instead of Victor Moses on the right flank as Conte kept with the same formation and, as the match started, the same tactics.
For the first 20 minutes the match was evenly balanced. The Blues moved forward regularly at a steady pace, using a well trodden path with Alonso and Zappacosta pressing forward. But their play is too predictable and was lacking a dynamic cutting edge.
Once again the best example of this was when Cesc Fabregas had the time and space in the middle of the pitch to look up and aim a defence splitting pass to a colleague bearing down on the Southampton goal. But despite one of the best passers of the ball in the league and an assist making machine having the perfect chance to set up chances, there was minimal to no movement from the front 3. All too often Fabregas just passed the ball out wide instead of his favoured through passes.
Zappacosta’s better ability to cross the ball than Victor Moses meant the ball was reaching the danger area more often than in recent matches, but the Southampton defence marshalled Alvaro Morata very well for the most part.
However it was the Italian’s over attacking style that exposed too much space on Chelsea’s right. And it was a former Blue in the shape of Ryan Bertrand who was able to take full advantage. His powerful running and ability on the ball against an overly exposed Cesar Azpilicueta that created The Saints opening goal.
What then happened was very frustrating for all Blues supporters. At a goal down there was a distinct lack of impetus and desire from the Chelsea players to take the match by the scruff of the neck and get back on level terms.
No changes in personnel from Conte at half time meant there was little change in the style of the match. Chelsea’s best chances were probably Willian’s free kicks but he fizzed them in quite low and towards the near post leaving little room for a teammate to head the ball past McCarthy in the Southampton goal.
But, on the hour mark, a gloriously taken floating free kick from James Ward-Prowse invited debutant Jed Bednarek to double Southampton’s lead. It was a deserved score line for the hosts. They were far more hungry than the visitors in their play and were clearly trying their hardest to gain the points that will save their club from relegation.
Meanwhile the away support had fallen silent. This looked for all the world like another match against an unfancied side that The Blues will have laboured to defeat this season. So what transpired was a shock to all watching.
Conte introduced Pedro and Olivier Giroud in place of Zappacosta and Morata. Immediately the Spaniard injected some much needed pace in midfield, while the Frenchman was the perfect targetman. He regularly won headers and interlinked the play with his teammates very well.
With home nerves starting to fray, Antonio Conte appeared to have stumbled across a Plan B. His side were suddenly buzzing all around the home defence and thanks to a beautiful cross from Alonso and a bullet of a header from Giroud, some belief started to appear in the visitors play.
Then in quick succession, a delightful pull back from Willian set Eden Hazard up for an equaliser and a Cahill nod down set Giroud to slot in a winner and in just 9 minutes the score line was completely turned around. It was a very unexpected, but hugely welcome fight back.
But how did Plan B work? Yes, the home side became very nervous at the back as The Blues started to plough forward. That is more than understandable. They had not won in their last 8 home matches and are in the relegation zone and had conceded 3 goals in each of Mark Hughes’s 2 Premier League matches in charge.
Plan A sees the Chelsea players looking quite lethargic against the so called smaller sides. A lack of urgency without the ball sees them not close down their opponent’s possession and they retreat into their full defensive set up far more slowly than when they take on the likes of Barcelona. Whilst in possession there is a lack of movement from teammates to give passing options for who has the ball. Far too often the Chelsea players do well in possession without regularly being outstanding, meaning the next player in possession has to achieve even more with the ball and this all leads to a distinct lack of cohesion.
However with the injection of Pedro’s pace in midfield and Giroud’s battling prowess in attack, The Blues looked a different unit. Suddenly forward movement looks more threatening and the belief appeared back in their minds. A lack of hesitancy and a real determination to win the match can make all the difference.
Let’s not get carried away with the victory, but the fight back and how it evolved are very important, especially with our FA Cup semi final match next Sunday against the same opponents looming large. There will be a lot of talk about Giroud’s contribution in this match and his record against The Saints meaning he should get the start at Wembley but his role as impact substitute was all evident for us to see.
But it was great to see such a strong fight back, especially after an hour of apathetic disinterested play. At worst it gives the supporters belief that the run in to the end of the season could go better than previously expected. With 5 Premier League matches and the semi final showdown against Southampton still to come any hope that the season doesn’t just filter away will be good news for all in Blue.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue