Here Joe Tweeds previews the Southampton game this Sunday and picks an unorthodox Chelsea team to rekindle some of the spark that was missing in Basel.
Any momentum built by the excellent performance against West Ham has subsided in the wake of an extremely underwhelming display in Basel. While our qualification remains a positive it will be the manner of that achievement that disappoints Mourinho. We should beat Steaua Bucharest and qualify top – far removed from the debacle that was last season. Nevertheless, the inability to consistently string results and/or performances together is a concern.
Rotation could and perhaps should have been the answer for the Basel game. Mourinho himself essentially admitted to the mistake in his post-match interview. Lampard reminded people of his attacking quality when deployed in his more natural role at West. Conversely, his ability to play at that intensity twice a week is something no thirty-five year old possesses. While he was not the only lethargic component of a toothless performance, our midfield area is where we are currently lacking the depth to properly rotate. Options include the injured Marco van Ginkel, the unregistered Essien, the equally tired Oscar and the untested (at least for Chelsea) De Bruyne. In essence without doing something out of the ordinary Chelsea’s midfield three were the best available players to start. We might have gone to a midfield two but even then the players would have looked tired.
The problems with overstocking in attacking midfielders has been well documented and although wonderful depth is a great thing to have our engine room is suffering. With this in mind the timing of the Southampton game could not come at a less convenient time. Southampton’s transformation under Mauricio Pochettino has been nothing short of phenomenal and they perfectly highlight how backing a manager with funds who knows his stuff is worthwhile. They have a distinct Bielsa-esque philosophy and their position in the table reflects their burgeoning reputation.
What Southampton are exceptional at doing is pressing and ball recovery. Unlike others, where the pressing without the ball is relentless, Southampton will pursue the opposition until play migrates into their half. Once this happens they immediately drop back to form a very rigid and resolute defensive structure. Wanyama and Schneiderlin are crucial elements of this: Wanyama sweeps while Schneiderlin orchestrates their pressing game. Troubling for us is that Southampton have a tendency to be more aggressive in their pressing against “bigger” teams. This could certainly cause us problems.
The Southampton Team -
Goalkeeper – Artur Boruc is likely to continue in goal despite his bodged series of fifteen Cruyff turns against Giroud last weekend. It will be interesting to see his reaction as despite the magnitude of his mistake he has been in extremely good form for Southampton. Nevertheless, confidence is a fragile thing amongst the Goalkeeper’s Union and as Joe Hart’s decline attests it is difficult to predict a recovery with any certainty. He is quick off his line and a decent shot stopper but does appear to struggle to deal with long range strikes. A competent goalkeeper who hopefully has last weekend on his mind.
Defence – Southampton operate a system where in possession they are essentially 2-4-3-1, with the fullback’s so far advanced they are wide midfielders. Thus, having the pacey Clyne and Shaw operating in either fullback spot they have the perfect players to spring forward and support their attacks.
Shaw and Clyne are similar in their comfort as attacking fullbacks. Both extremely capable in possession they form a pair of modern fullbacks capable of both dribbling, crossing and linking play with equal aplomb. Their tendency to attack, particularly Shaw, does mean that Chelsea can get joy in transition by targeting the space Shaw (and Rodriguez) leave.
Quick diagonals to Hazard/Schürrle’s feet will see them receive the ball early and in space. In respect of Clyne this is arguably a game for Schürrle’s height as he does not have a lot of success competing for aerial balls. Wanyama has a tendency to drift to his right to support Clyne in the air so in turn this could and should create a small pocket of space for someone like Mata (hopefully) to exploit. There are continual spaces in behind either fullback, where they play so high, so I expect Chelsea to perhaps be more direct in their approach.
In central defence Lovren is touch and go to start but I have included him as he is arguably the best central defender in the league outside of the established Sky Six. He wins a lot of aerial battles, has a high passing completion percentage and regularly intercepts play. Similar to Luiz in the sense that his concentration span is something you would question, he is less comfortable having to consistently deal with intelligent attackers around him. Fonte is a solid option who will tend to clear his lines and simply re-establish the defensive shape around him: a threat from set pieces but not as much of a well-rounded player as Lovren is.
Midfield – Arguably the most impressive area of Pochettino’s team is the central midfield pairing of Schneiderlin and Wanyama. Their understanding is improving on a weekly basis and they are the crux of everything Southampton look to achieve in their matches. Wanyama is the athletic and powerful midfield screen whereas Schneiderlin is the energetic midfield general who orchestrates their pressing.
Southampton’s pressing starts initially from a front two and they will look to close down both centre backs and goalkeeper all game long. To this end we should hope that David Luiz is fit. Not only does he have the ability to beat someone pressing him with the ball at his feet, but his passing ability should enable us to negate this initial wave.
The second wave of pressing is where Southampton’s midfield and Schneiderlin in particular shine. If we manage to pass the ball beyond their first wave Schneiderlin will pounce on the recipient. I would advocate Mikel playing as he has the control, strength and ability to direct the ball into space and away from Schneiderlin without losing possession high up the pitch.
Schneiderlin will aggressively target the man with the ball and look to block passing lanes where possible. This works in conjunction with Shaw/Clyne blocking the wide channels and Rodriguez and/or Ward-Prowse looking to move more centrally to condense the middle of the pitch. When it works, it works wonderfully; Schneiderlin is the key in this respect.
Forwards – I have gone with Osvaldo in this but it could easily be Lambert who starts as the focal point. While Southampton’s style is very modern in terms of their ball winning philosophy their use of the ball can be described as economical. When they win the ball they want to get the ball forward as quickly as possible. They are by no means a long ball team but Schneiderlin’s wonderful range of passing (Cabaye-esque) means he can ping a ball to his striker quickly.
Pochettino likes his striker to be an effective target man who brings in the quality players around him. Osvaldo is not only capable of playing aerially but also linking play, he is exceptionally strong and his overall style of play makes him a huge asset during counterattacking phases of play.
If Lambert starts his qualities should be well known to most Chelsea fans. He is particularly strong, works exceptionally hard and gives Southampton a physical edge up front. This may or may not play into Terry’s hands.
Rodriguez and Lallana are almost certainties to start for Southampton. Lallana is very Oscar-like in that he contributes an enormous amount defensively as well as possessing a great technical ability. Along with Schneiderlin his ability to recover the ball is fantastic and if he does pinch possession high up the pitch then he will cause serious problems for our defence.
Rodriguez has all the pace and work rate to make Southampton’s system work properly. He likes to cut inside when in possession frequently so ensuring our central midfield is prepared for this is crucial. We cannot afford the mental lapses and lethargic play from our midfield/defence again.
Overall – Southampton are a team that play a particular way and will rarely stray from their press first strategy. They do concede a lot of tactical fouls around the halfway line and this is something that will no doubt frustrate on Sunday. If we are not on point and Southampton are then this could be a game that we struggle with.
Biggest area of concern is in midfield. The laborious nature of our more attack minded players, the tiredness on display in Basel and the patently obvious inability to play the strongest three in more than one game a week is worrying. If Mourinho was bold we could completely negate Southampton’s pressing by playing two more technical players alongside Obi Mikel. This is not a game that will be won by power but by our speed of thought and play.
Key Themes –
1. Avoid the press – the times Southampton struggle to impose their harassing style upon opponents is when they face extremely intelligent passers in midfield. Very technical players capable of swerving pressure with their first touch and accelerating around the corner and incisive forward thinking passers are their Achilles heel.
While it is something that has been mentioned repeatedly by fans (and tried when required) moving Oscar deeper could solve this obvious issue. Lampard is in need of a rest and if Ramires has a similar game to the one in Basel then Southampton will smother our midfield and the game will become very difficult.
Similarly, and although I have been critical of his attitude (perhaps harshly because I expect a lot from him and want him to deliver), I would take a risk and move De Bruyne centrally as well for this game. If Mourinho feels he needs to ring the changes and recognises where our most likely issue will come from then De Bruyne as a number 8 would certainly work.
Using Mikel as the base and utilising the superior passing/dribbling skills of De Bruyne and Oscar either side of him might just work. It will be highly unlikely but certainly fit Mourinho’s need to shake things up somewhat.
The benefit of beating the second wave of pressure from Schneiderlin is the chasm of space it opens up in terms of passing lanes. If De Bruyne evades Lallana and/or Schneiderlin he immediately has a diagonal ball to Schürrle or Mata/Hazard open. Shaw, in particular, is susceptible to be caught out as he has the less defensively minded Rodriguez ahead of him.
2. Wide areas – the biggest hole in the Southampton system is the space left out wide in transition. The moment Chelsea retain possession Southampton’s players are likely to be narrow and as such the flanks are going to be where we see most of our joy. If you can frequently beat their pressing system by playing two passing/technical midfielders we should be able to peg Southampton back regularly.
Once you beat the initial phase of pressing Southampton have a tendency to collapse into a rigid defensive structure. The game in theory becomes more akin to how the majority of teams set up against Chelsea – defending resolutely and looking to spring their own counterattacks.
By drawing Shaw or Clyne out of position (they will look more like left and right midfielders than full backs) the movement to get in behind is quite simple. Runners from deep and into the channels can merely run onto a clipped ball that in theory sets them into acres of space. Wanyama will likely sweep with a centre back but the immediate space is enough to hurt Southampton, particularly if there are blue shirts in support.
3. Energy – Southampton are an extremely fit, aggressive and well drilled team who will be entirely fresh for their trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. To state Chelsea looked out on their feet in Basel is putting it too plainly. I do genuinely fear that we may be overrun in midfield if Lampard, Ramires and Mikel all start once again. When fit and fresh this midfield is capable, but when one falls below standard they all suffer. We looked like we were playing with a rugby ball.
You cannot feasibly compete against a side who play at such a tempo with anything other than totally fresh players. If Basel can smother our every touch and limit us to such a shoddy performance then it is not a stretch to assume that Southampton could very well top that and make things even more complicated for Chelsea.
Truthfully, if we match their endeavour and opt for a more technical and youthful side I believe we can negate all their strengths and turn the match into one where we dominate possession and territory. Failing to recognise our shortcomings in Basel will play even more into Southampton’s hands and this is a game we must win.
My side –
I must admit the likelihood of this side actually being picked is absolutely 0%. I’ve written about the balance of the team enough recently without the need to repeat myself. I expect Mourinho to potentially rest Lampard and use Mikel/Ramires in a midfield two. Likely to see Schürrle, Hazard and Oscar start. With Ivanovic at right back and Azpilicueta at left back. This is also quite likely why I have no future in football management.
My own thinking is much in line with what will bring the most tempo to our play, add creativity and actually use players to hurt Southampton. Not registering a shot on target against Basel must mean that Mata starts. I can buy into Mourinho’s need for defensive solidity to a point, but building a team around Mata to protect him (with legs, not physical players) will function properly.
Using Mata in a support striker role and less as a right winger works in this instance. Azpilicueta has the energy and quality to get up and down the right flank to better effect than Ivanovic. He also provides the defensive quality to cover for Mata independent of the midfield area. Nevertheless, using De Bruyne as the right central midfielder provides the capability of him swinging wide to give an outlet and help control the midfield. His passing is crucial to beating their midfield pressure and his energy (having barely played and with a point to prove) should be superb.
Now that Mata is sufficiently covered you play to his strengths as a support striker. Allow De Bruyne and Azpilicueta to offer support out wide and in De Bruyne’s case trust his intelligence to give Mata an option on the ball if required. Without question we miss Mata’s creativity in the final third. I am a huge Oscar and Hazard fan but Mata does things no one else in this side can do. We have all seen what Oscar offers from deep – wonderful touch, great vision and excellent passing options.
The option of playing De Bruyne and Oscar deeper is something that will never happen. However, I would promulgate technical ability over industry and let Oscar/De Bruyne play their way around the Southampton midfield. The combination of dribbling ability and superb first touch would commit Southampton to making more fouls than they normally do as they counter the effects of two ball playing central midfielders. We might actually move the ball quickly for a change.
The options off the bench are also crucial here. Hazard to inject quality (although I would never normally advocate making him a substitute); Ramires to solidify; Ba for the direct route and the on field rotation options of pushing Oscar or De Bruyne further forward. You could even mirror Southampton’s shape and push De Bruyne as a right wing, dropping Oscar more centrally next to Mikel.
Granted this is unlikely to happen but after the Basel game we need a spark and he wears our number ten shirt. You protect him in this shape while offering more technical quality than we typically have. Trust the younger players to work defensively and compensate for whatever perceived faults Mata has. My team is an extreme deviation to one side, but there are certainly ways of incorporating Mata that I want Mourinho to employ. This is not Mata FC, far from it, but not registering a shot on target is criminal and needs to be improved upon.
However, if Mourinho lines up as expected we need Ramires to have an exceptional game. He will be under pressure as soon as he comes into possession and unfortunately you never quite know which Ramires is going to turn up on the day. If Oscar starts he will need to pull Wanyama and Lovren into positions they are uncomfortable venturing. Hazard must get at Shaw/Clyne and Schürrle’s pace/directness must be exploited early.
Likely Chelsea XI: Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Mikel, Ramires; Hazard, Oscar, Schürrle; Torres.