Tactical Watch: Battle of the unpredictables


Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews a clash between two sides who carry the element of surprise, as Southampton travel to Chelsea in the Premier League.

A match against Chelsea in 2023 is one of the great unknowns in football right now, as every time they take to the pitch, there’s either a fresh new look or a brand-new signing making their debut.

Take the last five Premier League games as an example: against Fulham, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Fulham (again) they debuted a new signing, and while there were no new faces against West Ham, there was a first start for Noni Madueke.

Chelsea spent January acquiring the likes of João Félix, Benoît Badiashile, Mykhailo Mudryk, David Datro Fofana, Madueke and, belatedly, Enzo Fernández, who have all come straight into the first team picture and played minutes.

Manager Graham Potter is melding together a completely new team on the fly, trialling combinations to see what sticks. If even he’s not sure what his next move is, it’s impossible for any opposing manager to know what to expect.

There’s stability in the back line, with Kepa Arrizabalaga’s confidence with the ball at his feet helping him to secure a spot between the sticks. Thiago Silva and Badiashile have struck up an excellent partnership in central defence – though that was broken up in midweek as Badiashile cannot play in the Champions League.

In midfield, Potter has been sampling partnerships by pairing different players with Fernández and seeing what sticks, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek looking the best match so far.

Fernández has immediately become a key player: he dictates from deep, receives the ball off the centre-backs and progresses passes through the lines; it’s a foundation of Potter’s style, but the rub is he’s not quite as involved in the final third as Chelsea would like him to be yet.

In attack, Félix has quickly emerged as a vital cog, his free-ish role allowing him to roam, find the ball, turn and play. He’s carrying the ball well, creating chances, picking out runs and winning fouls, looking incredibly dangerous. Meanwhile, Mudryk’s raw speed clocks him in as one of the fastest players in the league and Madueke’s one-on-one dribbling can be dizzying.

With Rubén Sellés leading the team into Stamford Bridge this weekend, it’s fair to say Saints are an unknown quantity too. The surprise factor in red and white is even stronger than it is in blue.

He has led Southampton into battle once before, in the Carabao Cup penalty shootout victory over Sheffield Wednesday earlier in the season. He utilised a 4-2-3-1 shape that night – similar to the one deployed against Wolves at the weekend – but the squad has welcomed five new additions since then.

That adds another layer to Saints’ unknown quantity; as the likes of Kamaldeen Sulemana, Paul Onuachu and Co. continue to bed in, the nature of this team will change. Sellés will shape one of the first chapters of this, and given Kamaldeen in particular performed last weekend, that’s potentially very exciting.

Kepa; James, Silva, Badiashile, Cucurella; Fernández, Loftus-Cheek; Madueke, Félix, Mudryk; Havertz.

-Chelsea had a gruelling battle with Dortmund on Wednesday, so some rotation is expected

-Madueke and Badiashile are ineligible for the Champions League so may come back into the XI for this one

-Mount, Gallagher and Koulibaly are all knocking on the door to start, while a host of players are close to a return from injury