Chelsea’s 2-3 win over Southampton at St. Mary’s may have made a piece of club history, but it was scarcely a performance for the ages.
The first half (and the first 15 minutes of the second half) were dire. Chelsea had plenty of possession but looked toothless, as they have so many times since New Year. In danger of relegation, Southampton came out fighting, out-muscled Chelsea and pressured with energy and commitment. Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte was less than pleased at the half, down 1-0.
Conte on the comeback: "I must be honest, I was very angry about our first half. In the first half we didn't show great desire or great will to fight, great will to play in the right way. I was very disappointed but I am the first to take responsibility" #CFC #SOUCHE— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) April 14, 2018
The second half was a carbon copy of the first and when Jan Bednarek put Soton up 2-0 in the 60th minute very few people would have bet on Chelsea to get any kind of a result.
Conte on defending: “Usually when you concede a goal there are many mistakes. To go 2-0 down was [bad] for us, but in these moments you must understand that you must have great heart, great desire to come back” #cfc— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) April 14, 2018
Conte immediately made a double switch and a change of formation, bringing on Olivier Giroud and Pedro to replace Morata and Zappacosta respectively, hence reverting to a four-man back line. When Giroud subsequently scored on a beautiful header on a cross from Alonso just ten minutes later, the match was transformed.
Conte on Giroud: “I’m very happy for him. We changed something in the second half but the difference was the approach, the will to avoid losing another game” #cfc— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) April 14, 2018
The effect on Southampton, who are on a rotten run of results, was dramatic. They went into their shell, couldn’t clear the ball away and more or less invited Chelsea to keep the pressure on. To their credit, the Blues RSVP’d posthaste.
Conte: “For me it’s not important to win, draw or lose the game. It’s important to show the right will, the right desire from the first minute until the last” #cfc— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) April 14, 2018
Playing in a match like this, where the stakes for Chelsea were between low and non-existent (given how long the odds are of catching Tottenham for fourth place,) becomes a test of character and will to win. The Chelsea manager thinks he saw the right stuff in his men when they were challenged.
Conte now has a pleasant dilemma at centre-forward. Morata had scored in two of three matches going into Saturday, but he looked ineffective against Southampton’s aggressive tactics and was reverting to his early-season petulance. Chelsea were galvanized by Conte’s formation change and the presence of the far more physical Giroud, who bagged a brace for his first Chelsea goals. As has happened before since his arrival at the end of January, the team looked more settled with Giroud winning battles and providing a focal point for the attack.
But Conte wouldn’t be drawn on who he sees as his first choice striker.
Conte on Giroud getting more starts: "We have two strikers. Olivier, he got to Chelsea in January after a bad muscular problem. I think now he is fit and I try to make the best decision for the team. Morata scored vs Spurs and Leicester. I have two good strikers" #CFC #SOUCHE— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) April 14, 2018
Eyebrows were raised when Antonio Rudiger was not only left off the starting eleven but also the bench. Conte didn’t say he was injured, just that he made a tactical decision.
And as for the great controversy of the match, when Marcos Alonso raked his studs down Shane Long’s calf in a dangerous challenge and the cry went up for a red card, Conte pleads ignorance.
Conte on Alonso tackle: “I didn’t see this. I have never commented on referee decisions, especially after the game. I think in the past I’ve never complained for a negative situation for my team. I have the same behaviours also for this” #cfc— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) April 14, 2018
The retrospective panel might have the last word on that. A ban would be bad news for Chelsea with the FA Cup semi-final coming up next Sunday against these same Saints.
Until then, though, Conte must feel some relief that his players still have some fight left in them. When Southampton showed a weakness, Chelsea went for the jugular and banged in three goals in nine minutes. That’s a killer instinct we’d like to see more of, please.