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Chelsea 0-1 Southampton, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

Rock bottom? Let’s dig deeper...

Chelsea FC v Southampton FC - Premier League
One of a few baffling decisions
Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Graham Potter was ambitious to assume that a midweek performance with demonstrative growth would be replicated while making changes at three of the four defensive positions, central midfield, wingers, and striker. Lowly as Southampton may be, wholesale changes to our squad that has only just put together one comprehensive performance was blindly optimistic, and humiliation was the cost we paid for that optimism.

Further cementing the philosophy that Potter envisions this team as a 4-2-3-1, he once again went that route at the start. It did not take long to see the deficiencies between what we can assume is Potter’s preferred eleven to those he fielded. Maintaining possession was a similar struggle to what it was against Borussia Dortmund, who are a far better side than bottom of the barrel and manager-less Southampton. Possession did increase after the 25-minute mark, but our attack was especially disjointed unless the play was taken wide, where we could progress forward, but still not centrally.

Starting XIs

Our bi-variate zones of control (shown below) have been steadily receding lately, meaning that our possession and general play have become less and less concentrated in the opposition’s final third — only 35% against Southampton — but even more concerning would be that only 39% of the game was played in the middle third in this particular match. Chelsea used to have high to mid control on both flanks in the middle third and a contested control in the final third of the opposition with the exception of the deep flanks by the corner flags, where it would be strange to have dominant possession. The Analyst shows how our controlled possession in the league is now literally confined to our own half, and we have been much less successful via progressive passing to get into threatening positions. However, we have been far more successful in direct, progressive carries, which again shows the individualism of this team rather than the collective.

Zero dominant control in the opposition half as a possession based team
The Analyst

I hope you like awkward pauses while reading letters (like the new alphabet song - have you heard this monstrosity?), because this sentence is incoming. Our xG has diminished since the turn of the year, but so indeed has our actual G, and, at the current moment, Graham Potter has 2 of the 10 worst xG differentials in PL history. His Brighton team miraculously underperformed by 24.01 goals, the greatest negative xG differential of all time since the metric has been calculated, and indeed is something that hasn’t helped his cause with the current criticism of him at Chelsea. What’s helping less is that this team now sits in ninth worst all time with a -5.44 goals ratio, and the teams that we sit amongst in that list are Burnley, Norwich, and Sheffield United...while they were at their worst and were subsequently relegated. This disparity is something I brought up in the conclusion of my last article, and I don’t appreciate when my articles serve as admonitions.

Our inability to control the game led to the frantic start and first half, and while that was surely once again due to unfamiliarity from the plethora of changes, Potter is the one making those decisions and deeming those that start will be able to perform. Knowing that he has seen what inconsistency does to this squad already, he couldn’t have been surprised that the players did not seem to know how to predict the movements or passes of their teammates, especially towards the business end of the pitch. We wouldn’t want to see an abundance of passes attempted within the penalty area, but those that were attempted around it and towards it are condemning if you are playing against a team with a (then) -22 goal differential. Even João Félix was picking the ball up in wider areas more often than centrally, his touches were more limited in both location and quantity than the previous three matches, and so his impact was equally diminished.

João Félix touch map on the top. Collective pass map of Mount, Félix, Madueke, and D Fofana on the bottom, showing rare links inside the box

We are back to having possession for the sake of having possession. Overloads in wide areas were not as prominent as in previous matches, so although it is our typical method of progression, we even had a hard time moving the ball up the pitch via wide areas on occasion. The slow and deliberate play of old returned but without any of those rote passing sequences to bolster it, and so our possession was lifeless.

The excessive fouling, especially on their behalf, also helped prevent any rhythm forming, and on the rare case we did seem to establish a rhythm, miscommunication, such as that seen below in the 39th minute, quite often prevented the chance from being converted. After finding a huge pocket of space beyond the back line, Ben Chilwell tries to pick a low driven cross towards goal. The pass is deflected due to the number of retreating defenders and falls for David Datro Fofana inside the box. He is smothered but finds space from his defenders and Mateo Kovačić snaps at a heavy touch by Fofana to shoot. There is clearly no coordination or communication between the pair.

Kovačić and Fofana in for the same ball

That shot would be blocked and deflected out wide right, where Madueke and Azpilicueta would recycle the possession and eventually get another cross into the box, this time via a chip, that would have some terrible miscommunication at the end of it, too, again involving Fofana.

While Félix surely had the momentum from his build-up, he takes his run straight into the path of Fofana, who has a sight on goal himself despite being marked. Félix doesn’t make tremendous contact but does accrue a .31 xG with the chance, and what again looks like miscommunication between attackers minimises a decent scoring chance.

Félix and Fofana contesting for the same cross

David Datro Fofana had a difficult start to the game, and small things like being caught offsides for not backtracking and making runs that were unexpected by the ball carrier would sum up his evening. He definitely seems more promising with the ball at his feet rather than at the receiving end of a pass, and he was a nuisance to mark for the Southampton defense. All that was until he was shifted out wide left, while Mason Mount was moved into a striker position. This did seem to get him on the ball a bit more, but it isolated Mount, who can’t have been happy with either his tasks or performance.

The summation of the first half would be when César Azpilicueta dove in on Stuart Armstrong as he was running away from goal with no real threat of scoring - it was the worst decision to make in those last moments. There had to have been emphasis placed on any pregame discussion to not give away a free kick in this of all locations, favouring a right-footed shot with just enough room to get it up and down, or more than enough room if you are free-kick specialist James Ward-Prowse. It was as clinical as you might expect him to be, and we would go into the half down a goal and surely down in morale.

Two changes were made by Potter after the break, and one was likely planned already. With Wesley Fofana coming back from injury, he was probably due for about 45 minutes worth of game time. Raheem Sterling may or may not have been along the same lines, but considering how much of a struggle David Fofana found it to truly get a foothold in the game, it may have been tactical instead. Even after those substitutions, Mount started the second half in that central striking position, and so our lineup was essentially the same, with Sterling picking up that wide left spot.

About twenty minutes of inspired but still tactless football would transpire, half chances and increased threats via deeper possession being the highlights thereof. This period was marked by more intensive fouling and minimal structure to the game from either side.

Potter’s next changes brought him much closer to what we have to assume is his preferred striking unit after adding Kai Havertz and Mykhailo Mudryk for Madueke and Mount. That second unit did create just about as much of the xG than those who played the 64 minutes before them (approximately .77 for each), but did so in only a half hour’s worth of game time. They also didn’t score and were presented with seemingly better opportunities than the starters were, as the fatigue of chasing possession was wearing on Southampton.

Havertz did show why he is preferred as the striker in the moment, as he was immediately a better link than Fofana (or Mount) had been. That said, his final decision making in the moments that matter was poor. When he ought to pass, he would carry or shoot. When he ought to shoot, he passes. Someone with a more clinical nature would surely have taken the below instance on goal, but Havertz opts for a square ball to Sterling. He showed in both this game and against Dortmund that he is very reluctant to do anything of substance with his right foot.

This should be a shot on target all day

In the next instance, while a wonderful opportunity to send Mudryk through presents itself, Havertz makes the wrong decision again. Rather than lay what looks to be a simple pass into the path of the fastest player in the league this season, Havertz holds onto the ball and carries into the box only to be dispossessed. Surely he has to see this run being made but opts against it, perhaps again because it would best be taken with his right foot. His on ball value statistics are growing lower by each minute he is on the pitch...

Havertz needs to be more decisive

And in part because of those foregone opportunities and their goal line clearances, we have accumulated a horrendous stat... in our last four Premier League games, we have had 9 big chances, had an xG of 5.67, and scored exactly one goal. We should not expect to win games with such a pitiful return.

Also, the situation regarding the foul on Azpilicueta also needs to be addressed. If Howard Webb is truly instituting a new environment around the PGMOL and changes are going to be made, this being accidental is irrelevant. If this happens anywhere else on the pitch, it’s a straight red for endangering a player’s safety, so to apply a different standard just because the potentiality of an overhead kick can be a fantastic goal is as illogical as it gets.

Table positions not looking great

In the league alone, we have drawn and lost (6 each) more times than we have won (5) under Graham Potter, with a 1.24 points average points per game and a 28.5% win rate. We have scored 16 while conceding 14, and the trend is getting worse.

Move that to all competitions and we have 9 wins, 7 draws, 9 losses, with 25 scored and 24 against, keeping only 9 clean sheets while using an astonishing 32 different players, nearly 3 full squads. We have failed to score more than 1 goal in 13 of our 25 games under Graham Potter. We have 1 win in our last ten, with 4 draws and 5 losses to round that out. In those ten our xG was 13.04, but we scored 4 and only kept 3 clean sheets, with 11 goals against. We lack at the back and are blunt up front.

If we have hired a mental skills specialist to instill a winning mentality in this squad, he is being overpaid. It is not enough to finish a game with that mindset, the players need to take the field feeling and knowing they will achieve a result. It seems like neither the fans nor the players are expecting a result other than a bad performance, and either Potter or Gilbert Enoka, whose mental speciality has been the installation of a ‘no d*ckheads policy,’ needs to fix that. Personally, I think we could use a bit more backbone on the pitch, pushing our way to better outcomes, and that style of play often comes from d*ckheads.


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