Problems Mounting in Midfield
It’s safe to say that none of our away games this season have been well-played. In this latest instance, despite only having ever lost once before in the Premier League at St. Mary’s since it’s opening in 2001, Chelsea put in a diseased performance on a diseased pitch. This is now the first successive away PL defeats suffered by Thomas Tuchel, which, despite the distractions of incoming and outgoing transfers and the overt emphasis players are placing on minutes to determine World Cup selection implications, have raised plenty of eyebrows about decisions being made with starters and substitutions.
Southampton themselves haven’t been firing on all cylinders either this season, but have had arguably more consistent results than we have and thusly now sit above us in the table. They started the first two games of the season operating out of a back three, but after a crushing loss to Tottenham and a draw against Leeds, some semblance of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 has steered them to better results since.
Tuchel was short in right-sided defense due to a knock to Trevoh Chalobah and an illness to Reece James. He also had a weakened midfield due to the injury to N’Golo Kanté, a not yet match-fit Mateo Kovačić, and a suspended Conor Gallagher (not to mention the countless CDM’s that we have since offloaded). The result was a starting lineup that was atypical and slightly awkward in formation, not to mention some players who were also actively seeking moves away before the transfer window closes, and an extremely young bench, also filled with players seeking moves away. That mood transposed to the pitch, well, at least after we nabbed our opening goal.
I would have to say that in the opening phases and indeed up and until we scored – if we disregard the tremendous amount of midfield turnovers rampant throughout the game and our new reluctance to ever pass to Mendy resulting in more hoofed forward balls than we’re used to – Chelsea were the better squad. There were 4 chances created with some really attractive linking between players between the 11th and 21st minutes that should have given us the lead before we even took it.
The first chance is created through some clear understanding between some of our players but a bit of indecisiveness on Raheem Sterling’s behalf. After a punt from Gavin Buzunu, Thiago Silva easily wins the header and pings it straight to Mason Mount. Let’s hope there was some communication between Mount and Kai Havertz, because Kai’s run and Mount’s overhead pass are done to perfection. Havertz turns upfield and finds Sterling, who has a brilliant passing option to Mount, who had sprinted into the open space created by Havertz dragging his defender out. Sterling either doesn’t see/hear Mount, who is clearly pointing to where he wants the ball played, and pauses on the ball long enough for one of Southampton’s many tactical fouls on the day, killing the play.
In the second circumstance, with one of only three progressive passes he completed on the day, Jorginho finds Mount in a pocket of space. His pass to Mount is rather underhit, so Mount improvises and makes a one-touch pass on the half turn to pick out Sterling. Sterling does everything right with his first touch, taking him inside of his marker and into a pocket of space to have a shot. Unfortunately, on his weaker left foot, he doesn’t make clean contact and drives it into the ground on its way towards goal, making the save much easier.
In the third instance above, and mind you all of these are within a ten minute time frame, again Havertz and Mount link up exquisitely, and this time there is no doubt it was intentional. A clever back heel from Havertz releases Mount down the flank. Picking his head up, he spots Ziyech and Sterling both near the penalty spot and knocks a firm but bouncing pass in their direction. Ziyech’s shot is weak and blocked, despite falling to his magical left foot, and once again our incisive passing is wasted.
The last chance shows again how there were actually a plethora of bright attacking movements prior to our goal, and Chelsea were playing more directly than Tuchel typically instructs (or than we typically do), but we are lacking that finishing quality of a genuine striker. Sterling and Ziyech play a nice little one-two, with Sterling curling his run around his mark. He takes it towards the touchline and hammers it across the six yard box, where both Mount and Havertz were directing their runs. Mount brings his run perhaps just slightly too far outside the near post anyway, but his sliding attempt is deflected out for a corner.
Note that from the four circumstances above, all three of the which resulted in shots (so not the first example above) were taken from inside their box and central locations. In fact, our xG shot map (below) shows how many of our chances were from inside the penalty area, but Southampton had defenders back and in proper positions to block our attempts and minimize damage.
After Sterling got his goal, Chelsea conceded on another set piece, another corner. James Ward-Prowse has an absolutely magical right foot, and his clear objective was to wing balls into our six with pace. To counter, Chelsea crowded that area and didn’t employ any true man-marking while doing so. The fact that Raheem Sterling is the only player not crammed in there to start while Southampton have three players around the outside of the box and at the back post. In fact, there were only two Southampton players in the box to begin and only one making a run towards it. Why that was a bad marking scheme is easily seen in the images below – the players around the box in threatening positions and the number of Chelsea players marking the same space are glaringly obvious issues.
Conceding immediately after scoring in two consecutive games is a true let down, but the bigger let down is that the midfield play was completely disjointed. We had 68% possession, an average pass streak of five, and yet if you look at all that possession and the locations in which the match was played, it is clear that there was no link from the defense to offense (perhaps aside from those ten minutes mentioned earlier). 72% of the game was played either in our defensive third or the middle third, and our pass map shows that we were preferring to play sideways and backwards rather than forwards – we finished with only 3 completed ‘key’ passes according to Total Football Analysis.
Tuchel also made some questionable decisions regarding his substitutions, and obviously that is not referencing Kovačić for an injured Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Shifting to a back three with Christian Pulisic at right wingback made our game all the less potent. If the midfield was disjointed prior, this was a step in the wrong direction. Ben Chilwell and Armando Broja came on as well as Pulisic, and Jorginho, Azpilicueta, and Havertz (whose last touch was a header that he really should have done better with) made way. Broja had an admirable and lively introduction to the game, but the service to the front was lacking – unsurprising considering that our formation at this point looked something like a 3-1-6 with Kovačić really the only holding midfielder.
The scoreline would have been even worse had the ageless and amazingly aware positioning from Thiago Silva, who could be seen as the sole bright spot on the day.
While some of this is due to injuries and suspensions and our misfiring strike unit (Mount had scored in his previous three trips to St. Mary’s and Havertz had scored in every game against them he’d played), the glaring need to reinforce the CDM position (of which Tuchel had two recognised on the bench has faith in neither…and are now no longer with the club for this season, loaned and sold) in the absence of N’Golo Kanté is clear. Let’s hope one of these young players we have bought or brought in on loan can plug that leak immediately, otherwise this ship may sink.
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