They did it the hard way. This time they weren’t aided by a fortuitous referee error – Chelsea came from behind to defeat Southampton, courtesy of Jose Mourinho’s tactical alterations in the second half.
It didn’t help that Michael Essien’s back pass led to Jay Rodriguez’s opener, 14 seconds into the match. Although Essien will receive criticism for Southampton’s great start, Branislav Ivanovic should’ve been goal side of the Englishman, while Cahill should’ve been positioned centrally.
The onus was on Chelsea to push forward and attack, but they struggled to bypass an impressive Saints press. Mourinho’s men received limited time on the ball – they fought in central areas, but found it difficult to create legitimate goal scoring opportunities. However their direct play did leave Mauricio Pochettino’s men wary on the break, yet the Blues weren’t playing to expectations.
Although Chelsea were disappointing in the first half, from an attacking perspective, Pochettino would’ve been disappointed as well. Pablo Osvaldo was able to freely drop into space between the lines to receive the ball, whereas Southampton was presented with several opportunities to increase their lead on the break. Shockingly, Pochettino’s men were unable to record a shot on target after taking the lead through Rodriguez’s goal. The away side often broke into great positions on the counter attack, but their decision making, final ball and the overall tempo in their play was poor.
Mourinho was forced to make his first substitution towards the end of the first half, when Oscar was unable to continue, which led to the introduction of Frank Lampard – thus pushing Ramires to the right flank for the remainder of the half.
Subsequently, Essien was removed for Demba Ba, as Mourinho went 4-4-2. The Portuguese manager stated he couldn’t risk Essien playing in such a defensive role – with a yellow card – for the entire half, as Southampton posed a threat on the counter attack. The Ghanaian lacked a bit of sharpness, but in terms of ball circulation, he’s been a better option than Lampard in a double-pivot.
However, Mourinho’s decision to go 4-4-2 saw Chelsea implement a well-rounded direct approach. Ramires was given license to drive forward when the opportunity presented itself, while Chelsea played more long balls into Torres and Ba – simply to evade Southampton’s press. Pochettino’s men were now pegged back into their half, as they didn’t want to gamble pressing high – with Chelsea now possessing more attacking players in their third – and replicating their first half approach would risk a chance of being overrun in midfield.
At this point Mata become more of a prominent figure. In the past we’ve seen the Spaniard drop deeper, having a significant impact playing balls over the top into the striker. In the second half, Mata freely drifted into midfield to play these dangerous balls – several of Ba’s goals were created in that manner last year. Coincidentally, Mata’s delivery from corner kicks was also exceptional, as they led to Gary Cahill and John Terry’s goal. And while the out of favour Spaniard impressed going forward, he was equally exceptional without the ball, as he worked hard to nullify Luke Shaw’s threat from left back.
Chelsea’s direct balls from deep unsettled Southampton’s backline, who were fairly comfortable in the first half. Nathaniel Clyne nervously gave away throw-ins, while Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren couldn’t cope with Torres or Ba’s threat upfront. Nonetheless, It was Torres and Hazard’s direct runs that led to a free kick and corner, prior to both of Chelsea’s goals.
Mourinho then introduced John Obi Mikel for Torres as Chelsea flipped to a 4-3-3. Whereas minutes prior, Pochettino moved to a 4-4-2 sacrificing James Ward-Prowse – Southampton’s main threat in wide areas – for Steven Davis, and Rickie Lambert for Morgan Schneiderlin. Southampton continued to push for a winner, but they lacked a threat in wide areas, and with Mikel present, Chelsea was more equipped to withstand Southampton’s threat on the counter.
Likewise, the unshackled Ramires was a key performer in the second half. His energetic forward runs, and will to track back to break up Southampton’s counter attack was impressive – the Brazilian completed a game-high 10 tackles. And while Ramires’ rampaging run in injury time was dispossessed, his persistence to win the ball back, allowed the Brazilian to play a scintillating ball towards Ba, which secured all the points for the Blues.
Mourinho flipped his formation three times throughout the match, as Chelsea worked extremely hard, to make up for a poor first half. A combination of energy, strength, and direct play, displayed why the Blues are tipped as title contenders. Chelsea lacks an identity, and they’re not playing to Mourinho’s standards, but the Portuguese manager showcased that his side’s flexibility can be enough to mount a legitimate title push.