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Chelsea 1-1 (4-3 p/k) Southampton, League Cup: Tactical Analysis

Combative Cup Tie

Chelsea v Southampton - Carabao Cup Round of 16
James celebrates the winning pen
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Southampton were always going to pose a greater challenge than Chelsea’s previous two games, physically, mentally, and especially tactically. With both sides man-marking everywhere and implementing a high press, this was a great cup tie for the neutral, and an even better one for us.

Similar games are often decided by a defensive mistake, a set piece, or a quick counter in broken play after a spell of possession. This game had all of that. The vigor of the press meant that fouls were happening all over the pitch, thus preventing any true fluidity to the game. Our average pass streak was only four before losing possession, down drastically from our usual possession-based play.

Passing stats, including pass streak

Southampton’s press may have been a concern, as usual, but it also may have benefitted Chelsea in two ways.

First, in line with Tuchel wanting more direct play, we were able to move the ball quickly through the lines. And second, Southampton were surprisingly inept at defending set pieces, despite predicating much of their approach on giving them away with fouls and corners.

That said, their defense did a good job in preventing great chances — although our xG was 1.77 — and many of our shots came from tight angles.

Match stats

Southampton’s set piece struggles were evident from the very first corner. Saúl lost his marker easily and had a free header in the middle of the box. He probably should have tucked that away, as well as his second header in the 56th minute from an identical situation (not to mention his other two glorious chances from open play).

Southampton’s heavily rotated squad could have benefitted from zonal marking on corners. They were repeatedly losing their marks in the man-to-man scheme, and perhaps in zonal they would have kept better shape and a player on the post to prevent our goal.

Top: Saul Header. Bottom: Havertz Goal. Both: poor So’ton marking

Southampton’s poor defending should not take anything away from the placement and composure that Havertz displayed in converting his chance. Havertz had a tremendous game and his versatility paid dividends. He can play as an outlet with his back to goal just as well as finding avenues to slip through a defense for a break, and he put both of those qualities on show.

Although there were frenetic periods, Chelsea did dominate possession and largely controlled the game. Our press was lively and the transitional play was still improved from earlier in the season — unfortunately it didn’t yield any goals. It seemed as though the final product was all that was missing, with quite a few breaks and passes just not falling in the right place or to the right person.

Ziyech especially was finding it difficult to pick up the patterns of play in our offense and does just seem a touch off the pace. Unfortunately, neither substitution of Mount for Ziyech nor Chilwell for Barkley really upped the ante of our attack.

Attacking players’ prowess

Chelsea also lacked a bit of width. Barkley and Ziyech stayed more central, forcing Alonso and Hudson-Odoi to take wider advanced positions, limiting our presence in their box. Kovačić once again carried the ball forward extremely well but lacked the final incisive pass. He too was concentrating his play through the center.

Against Malmӧ and Norwich, our attack was built up on the flanks over 75% of the time, but in this game over one third of the attack came through the middle. The width we lacked could have opened up more pockets for Havertz or advancing runners.

Barkley, Havertz, Ziyech all stayed central

Southampton did have small spells of possession and were adventurous with the ball, taking 15 shots (7 on target) while only having 37% of the ball. In the absence of Rüdiger patrolling the left-center back position, it is not coincidence that the goal we conceded was on that side.

Rotation is necessary and Rüdiger shouldn’t be risked for these cup games, but Sarr needs to grow more comfortable with the ball at his feet and general play in a back three. He made two mistakes in that build-up, and while he did get the first touch on their through ball, he was too easily dispossessed by Tella, before finding himself in the following predicament.

Sarr trapped facing the corner and blindly plays the ball up the line

His choice to play the ball directly back up the wing was not at all wise, leading straight to a giveaway with Saúl double-marked and not really ready to receive. Sarr’s only good choices were to concede a throw or try for a deflection off Tella. Instead, he choose poorly, and with him now out of position as well, Southampton exploited the channel between him and Chalobah to get their shot on target.

A poor clearance by Sarr and poor touch from Saul led to their goal

However, it was fantastic to see Chalobah excelling in yet again. He has continued to go from strength to strength, and has certainly justified his playing time. He’s even becoming a goal threat — though most importantly, he shuts up shop in defense. He has now played all three center back positions superbly, and holding midfield as well.

For a game with so many tackles and so much combativeness, and without the help of VAR, it should be noted that Kevin Friend did well enough — and we managed to come out of it without any more injuries, too (an ever-increasing concern).

This game was certainly a change of pace from the low-block defenses of our last two opponents, yet despite some forced rotation and a few players out of position, Chelsea showed the grit needed to move into the quarterfinals for the first time in three years!

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