Southampton have proven tricky opposition at times in recent seasons — the 3-1 reverse at the Bridge is one we would all no doubt like to forget, for example — but today, they fell without too much issue, even if the final score was only a narrow 1-0 win for the home side. Chelsea dominated from just about the first minute to the last, making Marcos Alonso’s latest free kick goal count to its fullest, three-point value.
Antonio Conte made only one change from the starting eleven he picked to face Huddersfield midweek, with captain Gary Cahill rotating in to take the place of Antonio Rüdiger. The midfield duo was once again the French duo of N'Golo Kanté and Tiemoué Bakayoko, while Eden Hazard joined fellow smalls Pedro and Willian as the nominal center forward in last season’s standard 3-4-3 formation.
In the opposite dugout, Saints manager Mauricio Pellegrino did the opposite, setting out a much changed lineup after the midweek embarrassment of losing 4-1 at home to Leicester City. Mirroring Chelsea’s 3-4-3 instead of is own standard 4-2-3-1, Pellegrino started without coveted centre back Virgil van Dijk, still one of the Premier League's best defenders, Charlie Austin, his squad’s leading goalscorer, and Sofiane Boufal, his most dangerous player. Former Blues Oriol Romeu and Ryan Bertrand did feature from the start, as usual.
Unlike Huddersfield, Pellegrino's men set out to press high and make it hard for Chelsea to play out from the back. This is something that Chelsea have struggled with at times, so it was not a bad idea, though one that would be hard to keep up and execute with precious for too long. So while it did lead to a few troublesome moments — poor distribution from Courtois and turnovers from Kanté weren’t helpful either — eventually Chelsea would settle in, take control, and grind out a solid victory.
Saints’ one and only good chance in the first half arrived early, with Chelsea in the midst of yet another slow start. One of Kanté’s aforementioned giveaways set Champions League-winner Ryan Bertrand free on the left flank, and his cross eluded several legs and Courtois’s hands before finding the ever-awkward feet of Gary Cahill. The captain’s first touch was not good, but his second just beat the onrushing James Ward-Prowse to poke the ball free. Marcos Alonso completed the clearance and Saints were not heard of for about an hour, until Charlie Austin was brought on.
An injury to Cedric did not help Southampton’s efforts — Gary Cahill took out the marauding right wing-back with a typically strong sliding tackle, taking both of them sliding into the advertising hoardings, with Cedric unable to walk off whatever ailment he picked up from that — but as Chelsea took control, Saints dropped deeper and deeper, isolating Manolo Gabbiadini and leaving him with the thankless task of trying to find his way out of Andreas Christensen's pocket.
While Southampton's 44% ball retention in the first half was mostly useless, Chelsea's 56% was increasingly incisive. Kanté was pulling the strings (!) on and off the ball, with Bakayoko continuing his good form in supporting his efforts. In attack, Eden was dropping deep into midfield and veering wide at times with either Willian or Pedro filling the gaps upfront.
With Ward-Prowse struggling to defend his flank almost all by himself, Chelsea concentrated their offensive forays on the left side of the pitch. Interplay between Marcos Alonso, Bakayoko and the attacking line was what provided the majority of the Blues' chances. Initially restricted to long shots, Chelsea slowly got closer and closer to Fraser Forster’s goal, even if the big man’s scouting report made it clear that he often struggles with the longer-range efforts.
xG map for Chelsea - Southampton. Charlie Austin had a couple chances but overall it was mostly Chelsea's game. pic.twitter.com/kfyqvFvzUS— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) December 16, 2017
Ironically, it was one of Chelsea’s longest efforts that managed to sneak its way past the Southampton goalkeeper, with Marcos Alonso surprising everyone by doing his best David Luiz impression and taking what looked like Willian’s free kick and scoring with it just inside the near post. When Maya Yoshida brought Hazard down in classic Willian free kick territory, an Alonso goal was not an expected outcome. But as Conte said after the game, it doesn’t matter who takes the free kick ... as long as they score!
No better time to score, either, than the last minute of added-on time at the end of the first time. Chelsea ended the first half on that cliche, though the momentum of the game needed no changing. In fact, Chelsea picked up right where they left on once the teams were back out for the second half.
Although Southampton were able to keep the ball more often (or were allowed to), they were still wasteful with it. Chelsea meanwhile pressed effectively. Unfortunately, thanks largely to the large goalkeeper, as well as the typical dose of poor and unlucky finishing, Chelsea managed to not add to the lead in the second half.
After Willian's cleverly-taken quick free kick, Fàbregas drives toward the byline and manages to poke his finish under the advancing Forster but it trickles agonizingly across the goal-line and past the post. 1-0. #CFC pic.twitter.com/ogNILTQkKX— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) December 16, 2017
Conte changed the system halfway through the half by bringing on a super-motivated Cesc Fàbregas and surprise non-starter Álvaro Morata. Last season, the 3-5-2 was often the shut-down formation to help Chelsea see out and control games at the end, and that plan worked to a decent degree in this case as well. Fàbregas certainly made his usual positive impact off the bench and was highly unlucky to not score or a create a second goal for the Blues.
The combination of rain, tiredness, and the slim scoreline made the end of the game look a bit more dangerous to Chelsea than we would’ve preferred, but Courtois saved well on Austin’s lone chance and a first clean sheet in five games was successfully preserved.
So, a good showing by the men in Blue, who could have easily won by a larger margin. The clean sheet was more than welcome, and the finishing will surely come around to a more consistently good level.
Chelsea have dropped just 4 points from the last 30, and that’s pretty good form to carry forward into the League Cup quarterfinal against Bournemouth on Wednesday and the trip to Everton following that on Saturday.
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