Chelsea return to Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon to take on Southampton.
Wednesday night, Chelsea travelled to Huddersfield and came back from the John Smith’s Stadium with a 3-1 victory. Goals from Tiemoue Bakayoko, Willian, and Pedro paced the Blues’ attack, but the lapse in defensive concentration leading to Huddersfield’s goal in stoppage time is a small negative on an otherwise positive performance.
Southampton, on the other hand, are mired in a period of bad results. One win out of five is never good, especially when the one win was against an Everton side who didn’t show up on the day. Southampton did show great resilience against Manchester City and might consider themselves unlucky to get a point, but against Leicester City in midweek, former Saints’ boss Claude Puel did a number on them, putting four past them at St. Mary’s.
Both sides look to have close to full squads available for the match, with only David Luiz out for Chelsea with a long-term knee problem. Alvaro Morata missed Wednesday’s match with a back problem and fatigue, but should be available for selection.
Southampton suffer from the same problem that all the sides below 10th seem to struggle with — scoring goals.
The interesting thing that came from Southampton’s match on Wednesday night is that former manager Claude Puel was criticised last season for his side not scoring enough goals, not creating enough goals, and being too defensive. It was almost poetic justice that his Leicester side put four goals past a Saints’ side that has scored just 17 goals in 17 matches and has conceded almost half of the total of last season.
It shows that the problem wasn’t all Puel’s fault, and this season under Mauricio Pellegrino, they seem to have regressed. Last season, Manolo Gabbiadiani joined Southampton in the January window and scored 6 goals in 12 total appearances in the second half of the season. This season, he’s made one more appearance, but has just half of that total.
One thing that has changed about Southampton is their focus on play through the middle. Last season, Southampton’s strikers, particularly Gabbiadini and Charlie Austin, benefitted from chances created from the wide areas.
This season, the focus has been more on possession in midfield, but the Southampton midfield lacks a creative player, which has really caused them problems in creating enough chances for goals since both Austin and Gabbiadini are best served by opening the play into wide areas for crosses and such. Shane Long is really the only striker Saints have that has the pace to run in behind, but he’s suffering from a severe loss of form.
Southampton are going to have to find a way to score, or they’ll be facing a real uphill battle.
Southampton’s defence was showing signs of solidity. Then the match against Leicester happened.
Southampton must have felt buoyed by their recent defensive showings. Against Manchester City, the Saints offered a strong resistance to incessant Manchester City pressure, and it took City until stoppage time to find a winner. Then they traveled to the Emirates and drew against an Arsenal side that had forced David De Gea to make 14 saves in their match against Manchester United and won 6-0 against BATE Borisov in the match immediately prior.
But against Leicester, Southampton were poor defensively, but they were taken apart in a way that may have gotten the attention of Chelsea. Southampton’s main problem was they could not deal with Leicester counter attacking them with pace. Way too often, Leicester were able to win the ball on the edge of their own area and then cut straight through the Southampton team.
That doesn’t bode well against a Chelsea side who are very good at counter attacking with pace, particularly if Antonio Conte elects to go with a 3-4-3.
Antonio Conte has a decision to make: 3-4-3 or 3-5-2.
With Alvaro Morata unavailable on Tuesday night, Conte reverted back to the tried and true 3-4-3 from last season, but with a couple twists. Conte decided to again go with a three-man attack with Eden Hazard, Pedro, and Willian playing as the front three, and Tiemoue Bakayoko partnered N’Golo Kante in midfield in a similar look to the Kante/Nemanja Matic pairing.
The key thing to take away from that switch is that Chelsea’s attack looked much more vibrant than it has in recent weeks in a 3-5-2. Perhaps it was because Huddersfield weren’t particularly good, but it could also be that the extra man in attack lessens the burden on Hazard and allows for some more unpredictable movements.
Conte switched to the 3-5-2 presumably to stop the flow of goals that had been conceded. He found that Hazard and Morata work well as a tandem and Cesc Fabregas could thrive in a slightly withdrawn role and partnered by Kante and Bakayoko.
It has produced results, but lately, it seems that teams have started to work out that in a 3-5-2, if you stop Hazard, you stop a lot of Chelsea’s threat because he’s the only attacker on the pitch that can put a team on their heels because of his clever runs and his ability on the ball.
In the 3-4-3, you have that extra threat in Pedro or Willian for a defence to worry about, but you sacrifice a midfielder instead. It’s a balance that Conte will have to solve, because it seems that both formations have their purpose and perhaps should be deployed depending on the opposition. Against Southampton, playing 3-4-3 again might make the most sense.
Predicted Lineup: (3-4-3)
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro, Morata, Hazard