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It was a famous day for Southampton. It was a miserable one for Chelsea. Buoyed by their opponent’s early-season troubles, the Saints marched in to Stamford Bridge knowing that there was never a better time to be travelling to Mourinho’s fortress. But just how did Southampton undo the Chelsea game-plan? How did Chelsea come to concede three goals at home in the Premier League for the first time under the “Special One”?
Chelsea 1-3 Southampton
Chelsea: Begovic; Azpilicueta, Terry (c), Cahill, Ivanovic; Ramires, Fabregas; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Falcao (4-2-3-1)
Southampton: Stekelenburg; Bertrand, van Dijk, Fonte (c), Cedric; Wanyama, Romeu; Tadic, Davis, Mane; Pelle (4-2-3-1)
The formations threw up some fascinating talking points before a ball had even been kicked. With former Chelsea youngster Oriol Romeu reinstated to the first team, it was clear that Ronald Koeman’s side were preparing themselves for a defensive strategy, one of patient passing and strong zonal marking. Considering the strength of the Chelsea front four, it was a natural decision. Otherwise, Koeman sprang no surprises and made no changes from the convincing 3-1 home win over Swansea the previous week.
It was within the ranks of the home team that the most interesting changes lay. Mourinho had answered calls from the stands to bring captain John Terry back in to a floundering back line in place of Kurt Zouma – a decision which struck me as odd as soon as I saw the team sheets. Ramires took the place of Nemanja Matic after a less than convincing start to his season, with the perennially off-form Radamel Falcao leading the line in place of the suspended Diego Costa, and Loic Remy. Perhaps more interesting was the decision to – once again – keep faith with Branislav Ivanovic. Mourinho told his players a few weeks back he was sorry he only had three subs available to him, because he’d like to replace six. He certainly didn’t replace six here.
Kurt Zouma’s disposal was the biggest decision here, though. Knowing the style of the Southampton front three, with burly Graziano Pelle linking up with the blistering pace of Mane and Tadic, it seems bizarre that the younger, fitter, stronger Zouma was dropped in favour of a much slower pairing of Cahill and Terry. Whatever Mourinho’s reasoning, it didn’t pay off.
The opening few minutes are always tricky to analyse as teams begin to bed in, understand their roles and put their plans in to practise, but this game was perhaps the hardest to analyse early doors – from a Chelsea perspective at least. While it was clearly from the early proceedings that the front four of Chelsea were set up to move and rotate, to disrupt a notoriously well-organised Southampton back line, the ploy hardly had time to grow and evolve to a point where one could extrapolate ideas, patterns and tactical movements.
Two styles of play epitomise Chelsea under Mourinho – free flowing, one-touch attacks, and solid, organised, possession-based defending. The opening ten minutes were clearly attempts at the former, but as with any game, it wasn’t yet coming off. The balls through were being cut out, the attackers dispossessed and the flow disrupted by good Southampton pressing and structure. This was abandoned, however, as soon as the opening goal went in.
Romeu’s return to Stamford Bridge had started well enough, until the Spaniard cynically tripped Eden Hazard mid-mazy run, as so many defenders have been forced to in the past. The resulting free kick was to be taken by Willian, who had already scored three direct free kicks in his past three games. As the ball swung in, it became clear it was heading for the sweet spot, and there was nothing Stekelenburg – or even two or three Stekelenburg’s – could do to stop it. It was a sweet strike and a top quality goal, but perhaps it came too early for Mourinho’s men.
From here out, the Chelsea game plan changed, and lasted long enough for analysis. The object was clear – now it was time to switch to defensive Chelsea, or “boring Chelsea” if you don’t recognise the correct term. Good-in-the-tackle Willian was set a little deeper to aid the ailing Ivanovic against the assaults of Mane and Tadic, Oscar set deeper to help keep possession tidy and controlled, Fabregas and Ramires pushed back to the half way line where the centre backs would be in any normal game, and Terry and Cahill sitting even deeper.
The above screen grab shows just how defensive Chelsea became when in possession; Oscar rejoining Ramires and Fabregas in central midfield to provide cover and options, Cahill and Terry deep with Ivanovic returning to position just out of shot. It was clear that Chelsea were ready to play on the counter, utilising the pace of Falcao, Hazard and Willian as the Saints inevitably pushed forward for the equaliser. The issue is, that’s not what happened.
Southampton maintained their shape and structure, and as the game grew the Saints began to press more and more, springing on missed passes, mistakes and hesitations. The midfield battle was clearly rattling the Chelsea players, and the pace of Mane and Tadic was too much for the back line. Ivanovic had a torrid time out on the right – whenever Mane or Tadic found themselves on the left, they cut inside to take Azpilicueta out of the game. On the right, though, they took Ivanovic on, and more often than not, left him for dead. After 35 minutes of trying to keep a strong shape, shut down space and still contain the runs of Mane, Tadic and Davis, Chelsea’s defence was in disarray.
Here, Mane has managed to draw all three central midfielders away from the other red and white shirts, and even Azpilicueta – who may well have been told to man mark Mane as the only player in blue who might be able to match his pace – is being pulled in field. Space gapes on Pelle’s left side, where Cedric is set to bomb on.
The more concerning news was the centre back pairing, who were unable to handle anything the Southampton front three were offering. Neither Terry nor Cahill could catch or contain Mane’s bursting runs, and certainly neither could find a way to martial Graziano Pelle. The big man bullied the backline all game long, shrugging off their attempts to hold him back or out-muscle him. Southampton looked far more composed and comfortable in their style than Chelsea, and eventually, they got their rewards.
Finally Southampton capitalised on the slack Chelsea back line. Fonte’s diagonal ball from deep took half the side out of the game, pulled the centre backs apart and opened a gaping hole for on-running Steven Davis. Their final chance to deny Southampton a chance was Cahill out-muscling the big Italian target man, which he failed to do. Pelle coolly chested the ball in to the path of Davis, and not even the covering run from Ivanovic could save Chelsea from conceding. You’ll also note Fabregas in the centre of the picture, not tracking the runner, and Willian ignoring the lurking Ryan Bertrand just out of shot. Across the board, Chelsea had lost their men, lost their composure, and lost their lead.
At half time, both managers played their hands and made a substitution, with Ward-Prowse replacing Romeu for the Saints, and Matic taking Ramires’ place for the hosts. Both players had already been booked in the first half, but their replacements were for different purposes; Ward-Prowse’s introduction signalled an attacking shift in Southampton’s approach, as Koeman sought more killer balls to Pelle like that which created the opening goal. Mourinho, however, was looking for some steel, another guard to martial the strength and speed of Pelle, Mane, Davis and Tadic.
The front four of Chelsea had been largely removed from the game after the opening goal, but came more in to the game in the second forty-five. After a flurry of four shots in ninety seconds from Southampton just after the break, Chelsea had their chances, too, with a floated cross just evading Falcao’s head and of course, that controversial penalty call.
The second Southampton goal epitomised everything that had gone wrong in the Chelsea defensive plan. Here, you can see FOUR Chelsea shirts all occupied by Pelle – Ivanovic and Willian aren’t even looking at Tadic and the space he can now operate in on the near side, and both Matic and Fabregas have both lost track of Mane. The Senegalese nips in to the gap, Pelle drops the ball in the hole left gaping to his left, and then, worst of all for Chelsea, Terry fails to handle the danger. Mane’s pace and balance is too much for the captain, who falls to the deck and watches on as the striker claims his fifth of the season.
At the other end, Southampton were showing Chelsea how to defend, too. The lines were sharp, the space ahead was cut off and the front three were going to need to bully their way past Fonte and van Dijk if they hoped to get some room – something that Hazard, Oscar, and Falcao are not really up for.
Southampton continued to press higher up the field, pushing the ball back towards the now increasingly nervy back line, giving Mane and Tadic and Davis the license to run and frighten them some more. Eventually, of course, Chelsea caved again.
Once again the Chelsea back line were unable to handle the direct running of Sadio Mane, who, as you can see, manages to draw every single retreating blue shirt central. A well placed pass to either Tadic or Pelle takes the entire defence out of the game, and that’s exactly what happens. Mane lays the ball in the feet of Graziano Pelle, who fires low in to the sweet spot and claims a rare away goal, taking his seasonal tally to seven in all competitions. Chelsea’s centre back pairing had been lain to waste by the pace of Mane once more, and with Azpilicueta nowhere to be seen, there was no-one left to deny the Italian international a well deserved goal.
The final nail in Chelsea’s coffin was hammered by the hand of Jose Mourinho just a few seconds later. Now needing the chase the game with everything they had, Mourinho made the bold decision to sub the sub – Matic was replaced by Loic Remy, and the game began to peter out. Southampton were content to maintain the ferocious pressing style and keep the ball away from their opponents, and even had another chance through Tadic. In truth, Chelsea offered little – a team bereft of confidence and ideas, with a fan base so far removed from these sorts of issues they’ve forgotten how to react.
The press and wider football community will continue to debate Mourinho’s post match comments long in to the international break, but the Portuguese has once again deflected the criticism. He may have picked the wrong fight after accusing officials of being “scared” to give Chelsea decisions after the Falcao penalty claim, and out-right refused to comment on the two far more convincing decisions that went against the Saints, but he has deflected it once more nonetheless.
What should and surely will concern him more is the complete disarray of the Chelsea back line at times, which consistently failed to learn its lessons. Pelle was too strong, Mane too quick, Tadic too tricky, and the defence too well drilled. It’s easy to see why Jose wanted to quicker and younger John Stones. He’d walk past Terry and Cahill in to that defence right now, and few would complain.
As for Southampton, they continued their recent revival in convincing style. For as poor as Chelsea were, Southampton were every bit as good. The structure across the team was impervious, and man to man, the Saints performed their jobs efficiently and calmly. The front three continue to develop a potent chemistry, Romeu takes another step toward filling the boots of Morgan Schneiderlin, and with the back four now established and fit, the defence looks as strong as it did last year. With this win, Southampton have now become the first team to put three goals past Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, and have also matched the “Special One”’s heaviest home defeat. The last time to beat Mourinho 3-1 on his own patch? Barcelona. And while the headlines may belong to Mourinho’s meltdown, the Saints will be quietly content with statistics like that.
Written by Ross Bramble