Stop me* if you've read this before: Rafa Benitez's Chelsea establish a comfortable lead against an inferior side before inferior side adjusts, leading to embarrassing dropped points when the Blues just keep on doing their thing, mindless of the new challenges they'll be facing.
*Actually, you can't stop me because I'm writing this before you'll read it.
This happened against West Ham, when a brilliant first half led to Sam Allardyce introducing Mohamed Diame to shore up the Hammers midfield. Our interim manager's brilliant response to the addition of the Hammers' best player into the mix was to do nothing, and that unhappy decision turned a 1-0 game into a 3-1 loss.
Against Southampton, Benitez began the game in rather sensible fashion. Having faced back to back home defeats against Queens Park Rangers and Swansea City, he identified the problem as having to deal with sides defending en masse, and picked a team to prevent that from happening. To his credit, it worked. Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard were selected together for the first time since the 0-0 draw against Manchester City*. Demba Ba went up front.
*Although Oscar was used on the wing for some reason, and was therefore fairly quiet.
That front four is a recipe for goals, and Ba and Hazard both found the net in what was a fairly comfortable first half. A 2-0 lead at half time meant that their job was done and that Chelsea could relax. All they had to do was defend that lead against a relegation-threatened team at Stamford Bridge.
Nigel Adkin's plan, presumably, had been to soak up the pressure and hope his Saints team could hold old long enough for Chelsea to make a mistake. He fielded a highly defensive side and left his more expansive players -- namely Ricky Lambert and former Bologna winger Gaston Ramirez -- on the bench. That played into Benitez's hands early on, but it also gave Southampton the flexibility to chase the game should they need to.
Early in the second half, Adkins made his move. On came Lambert and off came Jay Rodriguez, which meant that Southampton's primary method of attack would switch from through balls through the centre on a counterattack to storming down the wings and looking for a big centre forward in the box.
It's been pointed out in the past that the attacking trio of Mata, Oscar and Hazard has one fatal flaw, and that's an inability to provide significant support on the flanks. When they're played together, it's very easy for the opposition to open Chelsea up, provided that they have the ball. That weakness meant that Southampton's main route to scoring now coincided with our most vulnerable areas.
What's incredibly strange about this is that Benitez recognised the problem prior to joining the club and then went about fixing it. Oscar's been more or less dropped for Victor Moses over the past couple of months, and even with Moses off at Cup of Nations duty we saw Ryan Bertrand play the wing at the Britannia rather than Oscar deployed.
So at this point, the alarm bells ought to have been ringing in Benitez's head. The flanks needed to be shut down and the defence needed to be reinforced -- and with the Arsenal game coming up and Chelsea 2-0 up, it was time to start thinking about resting Juan Mata or Eden Hazard as well.
And the solution was obvious. With both Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry available on the bench, it would have been easy to add a brute force centre back, push David Luiz into the midfield (which was under-performing anyway), and move Ramires to a defensive winger role on the right, shifting Oscar into the centre for good measure. This move would have blunted our attack but reinforced three key defensive areas.
Then Lambert scored on a cross, absolutely ruining Gary Cahill in the process. At 2-1 and looking slightly shaky, it was even more clear that we needed to do something to fix the problem.
And yet we did nothing, and Jason Puncheon converted (a fine goal, it has to be said) a cross from Luke Shaw to equalise. No Chelsea substitutions had been made, and the Blues' shape was resembling 4-2-4 (with highly attacking fullbacks, no less!). The midfield was isolated and easily bypassed, and the poor defence was utterly stranded.
The equalising goal was a clear consequence of team shape. It's not scapegoating Benitez to point that out. Yes, the players did under-perform, but they were set up to under-perform by the manager, and it cost us two points at home to Southampton.
I'm not saying I'd be a good football manager. Benitez has forgotten more about football than I'll ever know. But this was basic, basic stuff -- problems he already knows about, no less -- and he did nothing to address the problem. Chelsea fans have every right to be angry at him over this one.