Chelsea met Southampton at Stamford Bridge in their first Premier League game of 2019. They were looking to build on away victories over Crystal Palace and Watford and strengthen their position in the top four places. Southampton came into this match fresh from defeat against Manchester City but looking to build on some positive performances under new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Southampton operated slightly differently in this match depending on the game situation. When they had possession of the ball Stuart Armstrong would push higher than his defensive position, which was to the left of a midfield three. This left James Ward-Prowse and Oriel Romeu as the two sitting midfielders providing protection to the Southampton back three.
Even though Armstrong formed part of a midfield three in defensive moments, he was still positioned slightly further forward than the other two. The intention was for him to be able to support the front two of Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings. At times Redmond would drop slightly deeper towards the right side of the midfield in an attempt to negate the attacking threat of Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard on Chelsea’s left-hand side.
With Southampton keeping two men forward, Chelsea had to always keep an extra defender back in possession, usually a full-back. This limited their attacking threat from wide areas.
Chelsea’s build-up play
Chelsea were put under pressure by Southampton, especially when they passed back to Kepa Arrizabalaga. They were able to play out of the press relatively easily due to the positional superiority they had. With Alonso moving into wide areas unmarked, by the time he was pressed he had time to look up and assess what options were available further up the pitch. The movement of the midfield three provided passing options around the ball which enabled Chelsea to escape from pressure.
Chelsea were able to break occasionally with speed and more direct running but the final ball was often missing. In the 14th minute, they regained the ball in a central area with Southampton committing players to the attack. The ball was played into Willian, who had long-term Real Madrid target Hazard making a run in behind the defence. The pass was poor and over-hit though, allowing Angus Gunn the opportunity to sprint out of his box and clear.
Four minutes later, Chelsea worked the ball out from defence excellently once again. An opportunity to exploit space arose as the three Southampton midfielders aggressively attempted to win possession back. The ball was quickly transferred wide to Alonso who had moved forwards in support. Once again though, he over-hit his cross into the box.
Poor midfield positioning
This was a recurring theme throughout the match, which greatly limited Chelsea’s ability to create any quality chances. Far too often all three of Chelsea’s midfielders were positioned between Southampton’s forwards and midfield. This lack of staggering meant it was difficult to advance forward and have sufficient options around the ball. Either Hazard or Willian dropped to receive the ball in the space between the midfield and Southampton’s defensive line.
The lack of staggering in Chelsea’s midfield allowed Ward-Prowse and Romeu to remain close to them as they didn’t have to concern themselves with any passes between themselves and the back five. When a pass was played into Chelsea’s front three they were often left isolated. As a result, they had to resort to maintaining possession until further support arrived. This also gave Southampton a chance to retreat and position players behind the ball.
Lack of appropriate options
There doesn’t appear to be a midfielder in the Chelsea squad capable of positioning himself between the lines consistently. To be able to receive the ball in these areas requires extreme technical ability as pressure is often applied by the opponents from multiple angles. Kante certainly isn’t suited to this role as his strengths lie in regaining possession and his ability to cover vast areas of the pitch.
Ross Barkley, Reuben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic have all failed to consistently show they have the required qualities to play in the number eight position for Sarri. All three of them have had moments where they have excelled but more often than not they flatter to deceive. This is an area that Chelsea must improve as it’s affecting the entire team.
A lack of forward runs
The biggest tactical concern for Sarri is the amount of forward running without the ball his players do. Put simply it happens very rarely with this Chelsea side. This includes the two number eights, both full-backs and the front three. Looking back at clips of Napoli under Sarri, this is the most noticeable difference between the two sides. When Napoli had the ball in midfield they had players like Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon making runs forward. They threatened the space behind the defence and players like Allan would move forward into the spaces this created.
Against Southampton, time and again Chelsea defenders received the ball and there was nothing in the way of forward movement. The ball was circulated between the two centre-backs and Jorginho all in front of the Southampton defence and midfield which made it very easy to maintain their shape.
One of the front three had to start making runs to threaten the space in behind and down the sides of the defence. Most of the time this won’t result in the player receiving the ball. What it will do though is cause one of the defenders to be dragged out of position. The space created by this movement would then allow somebody else to move into this area with more time and space on the ball.
Neither Olivier Giroud nor Alvaro Morata are likely to threaten any teams in behind. Neither has any great pace, and they both tend to come towards the ball. It was interesting in the few matches that Hazard played upfront that his movement was a lot better than both of them and it seemed to create more fluidity from the front three.
It was interesting hearing Sarri’s comments after the game in which he hinted that Chelsea need to sign a striker. He will be hoping that this happens in January if Chelsea plan to keep hold of their top four place.
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