We spoke to Chelsea reporter Simon Johnson from London Evening Standard to get the visitors’ view on this weekend’s clash with Chelsea...
Has Chelsea’s start to the season surpassed expectations?
Definitely. It shouldn’t be forgotten Antonio Conte was still in place at the start of pre-season training, which left Maurizio Sarri very little time to prepare with his new players, and you’ve also got to remember many of them were away on extended post-World Cup holidays, including Eden Hazard. On top of that, this guy plays a completely different way to Conte, switching from a very defensive 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3 possession-based style. I think it’s absolutely remarkable Chelsea are just two points off top spot.
Did last week’s game against Liverpool underline Chelsea’s title credentials?
I think it showed it’s possible, but it also showed that Liverpool are further ahead in terms of their understanding of the way Jürgen Klopp wants them to play, but he’s been in charge for three years now. There were quite long periods when Liverpool looked the better side, but Chelsea still carried a threat. The problem is that Chelsea are very reliant on Hazard continuing his brilliant form, and they don’t have a striker who is going to score 20 goals – unlike Liverpool and Man City. Defensively, there’s still a question mark with the players still learning the system, but they’re improving.
Everyone is talking about Eden Hazard at the moment. How would you rate him on the world stage on current form?
Some people are saying he’s the best in the world on current form. I think that’s a bit premature, because it’s only been a few games. What I would say is this is the best form of his Chelsea career, and certainly the best start he’s made to a season. Sarri has to take a huge amount of credit for that. Hazard has played under Mourinho and Conte, whose preference is a more defensive style, and still had great spells under both managers. But Sarri is getting the best out of him by basing Chelsea’s threat around him and giving him the licence to do what he loves best, which is taking players on, creating chances and scoring goals. I don’t think you can underestimate the confidence he came back with from the World Cup, where he was a key player as Belgium finished third. That lifted him to thinking ‘I can be one of the best players in the world’. You always wonder with Hazard if he has that mentality and genuinely believes it – I think he believes it now.
What about the three major summer signings – what difference have they made to the team?
I would argue the biggest impact has been Kovačić, on loan from Real Madrid. He’s growing with every game and he’s part of that dynamic midfield trio alongside Jorginho and Kanté. He came up with his first assist against Liverpool, but he’s very good at keeping the exciting style of play moving – he’s noticeably knocked the likes of Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek out of the first-team reckoning. As far as the world record goalkeeper signing Kepa goes, he hasn’t shone too much so far, mainly because Chelsea have dominated the vast majority of games they’ve played. He has shown flashes of his quality, including a brilliant close-range save from Mané last week, but it’s still early days for him and he’s still got a lot to prove. It was an incredible amount of money at £71.6m, so he’s going to have to pull off many more saves like that.
What sort of game are you expecting at St Mary’s?
Southampton are coming into it off the back of a positive result in the League Cup. Chelsea’s victory here last season came very much out of the blue – forgive the pun – after Southampton had dominated for over an hour, then Giroud came on and turned the game out of nothing. Southampton have tended to give Chelsea tough games at St Mary’s. Yes, Chelsea will start as favourites, but the key will be whether Southampton can disrupt Chelsea’s possession. Chelsea love to knock the ball around, and Liverpool were the first team to have more than 50 per cent possession against them this season. Can Southampton impose themselves as well as Liverpool did? Maybe not, because they don’t have the same calibre of players, but, as Chelsea showed against West Ham and for periods at Newcastle, if they don’t break a team down, they can start to get frustrated. Defensively, they still look vulnerable from set-pieces and on the counter-attack, so there are plenty of avenues to exploit.