Sam Tighe assesses the challenge facing Southampton against world champions Chelsea. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
From a tactical perspective, Chelsea have gone from one of the most consistent teams to one of the most difficult to forecast and prepare for.
Over the course of the 2021/22 season Thomas Tuchel has strayed from what was once a constant 3-4-3 formation into various other shapes, utilising a 4-2-2-2 during the festive period and a 4-3-3 more recently.
With injuries, a midweek Champions League tussle with Real Madrid and a recent international break forcing careful squad management, the Blues are tough to second-guess here.
There are clear pros and cons to each of the three shapes Tuchel has tried in the last three months: the 3-4-3 boasts the best ball circulation but requires five defenders Chelsea are struggling to field right now; the 4-2-2-2 boasts great counter-pressing, but less control; the 4-3-3 can offer control, but has tended to expose the deepest midfielder and struggles to link attacking moves.
But whatever the shape, Tuchel’s overarching philosophy should shine through: he’s taken cues from Pep Guardiola and encourages very patient and controlling play, with an emphasis on moving the ball from back to front slowly and methodically, in order to dictate the rhythm of the game.
This has created an interesting dynamic with regard to his strikers, Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz. Lukaku appears used to more direct play; you can see him backing into centre-backs to pin them and motioning to receive the ball quickly. Havertz, on the other hand, is a less traditional striker and will drift horizontally across the front line, waiting for the ball to find him so he can combine with others.
It gives Southampton’s defenders two distinctly different tasks this weekend —although they will only have to consider one at a time.
The other major cause for concern in terms of stemming Chelsea’s attack, ironically, comes from their defence. Reece James is one of the world’s best crossers (although injuries have harmed his playing time of late), while Antonio Rüdiger and, to a lesser extent, Trevoh Chalobah are eager to drive forward with the ball from the outside centre-back position.
Centre-backs driving with the ball can cause big problems; they’re difficult to account for whatever marking system you use, and they can break your structure, forcing players to close you down – which opens up gaps for clever players to use.
Rüdiger is fond of barrelling forward from left centre-back and does so multiple times per game, either shooting at the end of a run or creating a pocket for the likes of Mason Mount or Havertz to use.
At the other end, Southampton can no doubt look to Brentford’s performance last weekend and take their own cues from that. A strike duo caused Chelsea’s defensive line big problems, and support runs from midfield to add numbers in attack were especially effective.
If Saints can throw their weight around up top and be bold enough to commit the midfield to attack, they can hurt what is likely to be a rotated Blues team.