Yet again the headlines had been written, and yet again the Saints tore them up. Chelsea were expected to roll into town to pick up a win which would maintain their push for a Champions League spot before heading back to London to prepare for the much more serious and challenging task of facing Man United in the F.A. Cup on Monday. Southampton dominated the first half and held Chelsea at bay fairly comfortably in the second, giving them a valuable three points which rockets them up the table and has fans confident that survival can, and will, be achieved.
While the papers will no doubt say that Chelsea were poor, and purely focus on Chelsea’s display, that would be doing Southampton a huge disservice and would not be a fair reflection on the game at all. If the paper’s were to be believed we just caught Manchester City on an off day, then just over a month after that we happened to catch Liverpool on an off day, and I’m sure the same will be said about this game. Surely after three results like this perhaps people will start to acknowledge that rather than just coming up against a big side having an off day, perhaps Southampton caused them to have that off day.
Yes, Chelsea had made changes with the Manchester United game in mind, but they were made to look distinctly average by a Saints side who forced them onto the back foot, time and again adopting the pressing style that has been such a prominent feature of the team since Pochettino took over. Chelsea couldn’t deal with that energy having come out of the blocks slowly and found themselves struggling to cope with the home side whose movement, particularly between the wingers Puncheon and Rodriguez, caused them all sorts of problems.
Saints interestingly left out Lallana and Ramirez, who were replaced by Puncheon and Steven Davis. This seemed a tactical call meant to add a bit more solidity, as Davis is the sort of player who will work his socks off for the team, ahead of the more technically gifted Ramirez who won’t put in the same yards as the Northern Irishman. This proved to be a justified as Davis’ extra energy put pressure on Chelsea from the off and gave them far less time on the ball than they would have expected. This was a running them in the first half; when Chelsea got the ball they were put under heavy pressure quickly and given no time to pick a simple pass which left them often attempting to play long balls towards Fernando Torres who struggled to beat Yoshida and Hooiveld in the air.
This meant that Saints were able to dominate possession and control the game, pulling and probing for opportunities which ultimately resulted in a wonderful opening goal by Jay Rodriguez. Quick passing and movement undid Chelsea and when Davis slid the ball through to Rodriguez one-on-one with Petr Cech there was only outcome. Chelsea threatened only sporadically in the opening period, but equalised with a goal from a corner. Set pieces have been an Achilles heel all season for the home side and though it was disappointing to see John Terry afforded such space in the box, it was no surprise. Ultimately though, Saints picked themselves back up and went back ahead almost instantly from a wonderful Lambert free kick.
Having been pegged back, it was so important, and pleasing, that Saints were able to get over that stumbling block and still went on to win the game, as too often this season we have dropped points when ahead and it was hugely important that we made the most of our dominance during the first half in order to collect all three points. Also pleasing was the performances of the central defenders, Maya Yoshida and Jos Hooiveld. Yoshida particularly impressed and, bar the corner for the goal, the side rarely looked like conceding, producing superb displays to limit Chelsea to a few half chances, despite them controlling possession in the second period.
Chelsea were always likely to get more possession as the game went on as the Saints players became tired and leggy from their first half pressing and it was important that we soaked up the pressure as well as we did, while also introducing fresh players that could make an impact. That happened with James Ward Prowse, who produced a mature and accomplished performance, keeping the ball generally very well and looking dangerous on the occasional foray forward. He is a player that will only improve, and will, I think, particularly thrive under Pochettino as he gets older as his game seems perfectly suited to the high energy pressing and passing style employed by the Argentine.
Put simply, regardless of whether Chelsea were good or bad, Southampton forced them onto the back foot from the first whistle and controlled the game. Their constant pressure was too much for the away side who just didn’t look at all comfortable defensively throughout the first half. Lambert and Rodriguez caused all sorts of problems going forward, and are beginning to have the makings of a very strong partnership for the future. Possibly more importantly though was the defensive solidity in the second half when Chelsea began to control possession. Man of the Match Yoshida looked so comfortable, and when Chelsea did get in and around the box Southampton were able to clear the danger quickly and efficiently. If the team keeps performing like this then the future on the South Coast looks bright.