Erratic Chelsea looking to restore confidence against Southampton

Posted by Phil Lythell

Chelsea's season so far can only be described as topsy-turvy, a state of affairs exemplified by what has been a characteristically bizarre November.

As has been well-documented, the eleventh month of the year has rarely been kind to the Blues, and 2013 has been no different with the hex hanging over them once again. Five matches have been played in all competitions with two wins offset by two defeats and an extremely fortunate draw. One step forward has each time been followed by one step back, but with December now playing host to Chelsea's next fixture, erratic form can hopefully be banished along with superstition.

While inconsistency has plagued Chelsea since the departure of Carlo Ancelotti in the summer of 2011, the continuation of this excruciating trait has come as something of a surprise given the current manager in charge at Stamford Bridge. One of the hallmarks of Jose Mourinho's stewardship -- whether at FC Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan or Real Madrid -- has been the ability to string a number of wins together regardless of opposition or the playing style required to attain three points. In those periods, he has rarely been afraid to tinker with personnel, and occasionally with his formation, though rarely has that flexibility also related to results. The victory march through October hinted at a return to those old welcome habits, though the last few weeks have undermined their efforts.

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The most damaging part about having a poor November is that it precedes the most relentless month of the entire campaign with nine matches squeezed into 31 days, providing little chance to rest and regroup. Momentum attained before that period can be extended as the year draws to a close, though; even if the team slips up over Christmas, it can do so with the reassurance that a solid foundation has already been established.

The defeat at Basel will have alarmed Mourinho, especially after having seen his team play with such surety at Upton Park three days previously, and he will need to establish just what went wrong if he is to not only get the club back on track with their ambitions, but also to maintain that trajectory for the rest of the campaign.

Thankfully, Chelsea's next opponents will focus the minds with Southampton having already given some big names something to seriously think about this season. Positive results at Liverpool and Manchester United first alerted the wider footballing public to the merits of Mauricio Pochettino's vibrant side, and even in defeat at Arsenal last weekend, Southampton earned many plaudits having had large spells of possession against a team celebrated for its ability to keep the ball.

Pursuing a modern high-energy philosophy, they contain enough talent to thrill their fans while frustrating the opposition. Their relentless pressing game can suffocate opponents and force them into making hurried mistakes enabling, the Saints to profit from the constant turnover of possession.

To win against them requires confidence, speed of thought and a coherent game plan. A physical approach is unlikely to work against Southampton, which is just as well, as Chelsea do not currently have the tools to adopt such a style. Instead, sharp, precise passing and lightning pace will be needed to spring the Saints' high defensive line. They will work to congest the space in the Chelsea half when the Blues have the ball, but that in turn means that there will be acres of grass to exploit beyond their defence. Rapid yet considered decision-making and intelligent, well-timed movement can therefore be very fruitful, and if there is one thing that Chelsea do have, it is players who retain those virtues in abundance.

None of those qualities were on show in the shambolic, midweek display in Switzerland, so it cannot be certain that they will magically reappear on Sunday. However, it seems highly unlikely that such a talented group can play so badly again and those who remain in the starting 11 will be desperate to right those wrongs. Even so, changes will almost certainly be made and it would be nice to see Juan Mata start the game, as his vision and ability to exploit that vision could mesh perfectly with Fernando Torres' curving runs beyond the Southampton defence. Unfortunately, judging by Mourinho's comments to the London Evening Standard a couple of days ago, Mata's chances of appearing on the team sheet seem slim. However, there could also be a place for Andre Schurrle, whose direct running and prodigious work rate would be an asset to the team. Unlike his Spanish teammate, he is prized by his manager for his work both with and without the ball.

Further back, attention will be focused on whether Mourinho retains Branislav Ivanovic in his team with squad management as much of a concern as tactics. The Serbian is one of the club's most dependable players, a circumstance that has meant that he has started every single game this season, bar the Capital One Cup ties, which might explain his uncharacteristic lapse against Basel. With Ashley Cole available for selection, having sat out the last four matches, and Cesar Azpilicueta impressing in his absence, the time might be right to give Chelsea's indomitable No. 2 a welcome rest.

Whoever lines up for Chelsea will need to have the right attitude from the first whistle. In addition, they will be compelled to use the ball wisely to nullify Southampton's threat and pose one of their own. If they can combine those two components throughout the 90 minutes, then it should be a good day for the Blues. Chelsea have shown the ability to bounce back from adversity more than once this season, and with supremely talented players smarting from defeat, there is no reason to think they will not do so again.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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