Defeat is always painful. Sometimes in football there are games when you can watch your side dominate in the most beautiful fashion, only for them to throw it all away in the 90th minute. Then there are moments when you stand in the stadium and question how such a gutless performance can be considered acceptable, but as a fan of a side that hadn’t lost at home since last February, this is something that I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But as the final whistle blew in Southampton’s 2-0 defeat to Chelsea yesterday, I found myself placing the defeat entirely down to an Antonio Conte masterclass.
On the face of things, this game dropped right into the hands of both sides; Southampton favour a possession-based style of football under Claude Puel, whilst Conte’s Chelsea prefer to sit deep and remain compact. Unsurprisingly, both sides carried out these aspects of their games without a worry, but it was Southampton’s inability to cut open the Blue’s defence and Chelsea’s ruthless finishing in front of goal that made the difference. But how exactly did Southampton allow that to happen?
To anyone who has watched Southampton under the microscope this season, they will recognise just how important the fullbacks are in Claude Puel’s system. They are a driving force in build up play, the first outlet when switching the ball and are required to overlap in the final third.
They are there to constantly provide options to anyone on the ball and to place doubt into the mind of the opposition fullbacks. However, due to Puel’s decision not to start wingers and Conte’s incredibly well drilled 3421 formation, Southampton struggled to find joy in these wide areas.
The reason being is that when Southampton picked up the ball in these wide areas, Chelsea would double or sometimes even triple up on Southampton’s only out and out wide player – the fullback.
Conte would simply instruct either one of Victor Moses or Marcos Alonso to man mark the fullback, whilst the left or right-sided centre-back will look to spread wider and provide cover behind.
From here, Southampton have two choices. The first is that they can play the ball inside due to a lack of attacking options, but this will force them into the direction of midfield duo Nemanja Matic and Ngolo Kante – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that out of all the ways to breach the Chelsea defence, this isn’t the way to go. Pace, strength, energy and technique, this partnership has it all.
The second option is for Southampton to lump the ball into a box that contains Thibaut Courtois, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Once again, given the size, experience and sheer numbers in the box at this moment, this option should also be avoided. Without more than one natural wide player available at all times, Southampton only offer themselves these two ineffective options.
Whilst this only explains how Southampton failed to score, it also helps to explain how Chelsea managed to grab both of their goals.
As Southampton no longer start wingers, the fullbacks have to take up very offensive starting positions. This is something that Conte wanted his side to encourage from Ryan Bertrand and Cuco Martina, with the idea that when his side recover the ball, they will instantly look to attack the open channels.
Given the quality of Hazard, Moses and Pedro in wide counter attacking situations, this proved to be a devastatingly effective game plan. So much so that even when Bertrand or Martina were able to drop back into their defensive positions in time, the entirety of the Southampton midfield wouldn’t be back in their defensive shape yet, giving Chelsea some inviting areas of space to drive into.
Coming into this game Conte looked at how his side could create the most dangerous attacks, not the most, and he executed it with absolute perfection. Seven shots on target from 13 attempts is an indication as to just how dangerous those attacks were.
Bertrand and Martina’s usual role in the Southampton side has huge physical demands, and this is something that Conte looked to take advantage of. With his counter-attacking focus to the game, Conte forced the Southampton fullbacks to make numerous 60+ yard sprints back to their box, giving Chelsea’s wide men the advantage of running at some lazy-legged defenders in the later stages of the game. Perhaps that explains Martina’s comical attempt of blocking Diego Costa’s fine curling strike?
In recent weeks Southampton have played with such remarkable understanding in their system, and in truth, plenty of that understanding was still on show yesterday. The only difference however is that Chelsea Football Club, one of the League’s strongest outfits, has Antonio Conte at the helm – a man who is currently squeezing every last drop of talent out of all the players at his disposal.
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