Listening back to Jose Mourinho’s pre-match comments ahead of Tuesday night’s defeat to Basel, I find makes the result even more confusing and frustrating than it needs to be. As we’ve talked about before, the Portuguese certainly wouldn’t be the first manager in recent history to struggle taking Chelsea through the difficult winter period, but he would be the first to do so without the excuse of having too small or too a poor a squad to cope with the fixture list.
Talking about December’s intense schedule, Jose said on Monday “”It’s a period where I think only the braves can survive because it’s hard.”We go into the Christmas period and the accumulation of matches is so high, we don’t do it as a normal thing, we do it as a special group with a special mentality, enjoying the situation”.
I was working Tuesday night and didn’t get to watch the game, although by the sound of things, I literally missed almost nothing. If there’s a single positive to be derived from the result however (besides the fact it was still enough to seal qualification from the group) it’s that Mourinho will have hopefully learned a crucial lesson at the perfect time. The lesson being if the Christmas period is to be negotiated successfully, the manager will have to do a much better job of using/rotating his squad than he has done to date.
You would’ve thought having defeated West Ham so comfortably at the weekend, with the Champions League situation looking reasonably secure and with a potentially tricky home league game to come on Sunday, Tuesday offered the perfect opportunity to make changes and rest some key players. And yet, the only player rested from Saturday’s win was Eden Hazard – arguably the fittest and one of the least used players in all of November. Meanwhile John Terry, Frank Lampard, Branislav Ivanovic and Samuel Eto’o all started yet again in spite of their age and/or poor form. Cesar Azpilicueta was also deployed at left back again despite Ash Cole and Ryan Bertrand both being available.
Luckily Mourinho seemed to realise his mistake after the game and was encouragingly candid in his assessment of the situation: “I got signs of players in trouble to play two consecutive matches in three days. That will push me, for sure, to make different kinds of decisions. That’s obvious. In some positions we have that situation resolved in a very easy way because we have lots of players to play the attacking positions on the right, on the left, behind the striker”.
It’ll be extremely interesting to see how the following month pans out. For all his exceptional qualities, Jose has never been a willing or enthusiastic proponent of extensive squad rotation, having always seemed to have quickly settled on a first choice XI wherever he has been. In his first two season at Chelsea the midfield of Tiago/Essien, Makelele and Lampard behind the front 3 of the Duff/Cole, Drogba and Robben was so rarely altered with to such great affect, it’s understandable why we’ve seen Jose experiment with a similar tactical set up in the last two games. Using a pure #10 like Oscar in a system with a three man midfield leaves the side so narrow however, and patently so flat in attack (as Basel so aptly demonstrated) a return to a natural 4-2-3-1 this Sunday should be a given. It’s within this system where Jose has got to start making use of all his attacking midfielders, and also in my opinion, begin to start routinely selecting one of Mikel or Essien every game, to add some of that trademark dependability you associate with Mourinho midfield’s, which together Frank Lampard and Ramires seem unable to provide.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Saints have been incredible so far this season, and continue to look more impressive each week. In less than a year in the job, Southampton’s Argentine coach has turned his side into a genuine top 8 side, whilst simultaneously dispelling the common myth about England being incapable of producing top level technical talent. Traditionally England have always had good goalkeepers, good centre halves and good central midfielders and struggled for quality elsewhere, but in Pochettino’s side, those five positions are held by foreign talent, with Englishman used everywhere else. The exciting front three of Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana and James Ward-Prowse behind cult-hero Rickie Lambert have been great to watch so far, with young full backs Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw impressing also.
Likely Line Ups:
For the visitors, the main injury concerns are Luke Shaw, who played brilliantly at Stamford Bridge last season in his side’s 2-2 draw, with a thigh injury and also star centre half Dejan Lovren, who has been one of the signings of the season so far, contributing massively to Southampton’s incredible defensive record. One of the things which has made Southampton such a tough opponent this year is their lack of an obvious threat, with each of the front four contributing goals – the whole of their attack is much superior to the some of their parts.
The outstanding performer however has been without doubt Morgan Schneiderlin, the French central midfielder who has established himself this season as the Premier League’s best all-round pure defensive midfielder, with only Mikel, Mathieu Flamini and Lucas Leiva in his class. A move to a top side can’t be far away – in my opinion Manchester Utd would’ve done far better to have signed Schneiderlin than spend £28 million on the so far disappointing Marouane Fellaini.
For ourselves, perhaps I’m being optimistic but surely some changes are in order after Tuesday. David Luiz is still unfit apparently so don’t expect the defence to be altered other than the return of Cole at left back (who’s attitude Mourinho praised this week). Eden Hazard will surely start after being left out in Switzerland. I don’t expect all three of Mikel, Ramires and Lampard to play either, with hopefully the latter to miss out. Having played twice in a week after flying to and from Honduras, surely there’s also a case for Oscar to finally, temporarily make way for Juan Mata, whose exclusion becomes more depressing each week. Andre Schurrle is another one who seems deserving of a game, after a few weeks on the sidelines.
Hopefully, Tuesday’s defeat was enough of a wakeup call to the players and coach that no game can be taken lightly from here on in till the end of the year. I think that with a point to prove and such a dire performance to make up for, with the appropriate changes, we should be able to defeat Southampton without too much difficulty. The fact the Hampshire side are naturally such a progressive, attack minded team should play into our hands also, with Pochettino’s men far less likely to sit and defend in narrow lines like Steve Clarke’s West Brom. With Tottenham playing Man Utd and Arsenal going to Cardiff, this weekend represents a great opportunity to pick up some more points on title rivals also.