Chelsea 0-0 Southampton: The Angus Gunn show
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Chelsea's 0-0 Premier League draw against Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
It is almost a month since that memorable night at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea dealt the blow that precipitated Manchester City's festive crisis. It was also the last time they won a match by more than one goal, and Southampton exposed their crippling lack of firepower again on Wednesday.
Alvaro Morata, restored to the starting XI by default following Olivier Giroud's ankle injury against Crystal Palace, performed with more energy than in recent weeks but no more conviction in front of goal. The one time he did find the net in the second half, he also found the assistant referee's flag raised for offside.
Chelsea started reasonably brightly, zipping the ball around with the kind of speed and intensity that Maurizio Sarri demands, but found Southampton well prepared by Ralph Hasenhuttl. The visitors picked the right moments to press high before dropping into two deep defensive banks that did their job.
David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger were the most creative passers in blue, and one delightfully floated ball over the Saints defence sent Eden Hazard clean through on goal. His left-footed effort struck Angus Gunn, who otherwise enjoyed a quieter half than Sarri would have liked.
Chelsea have scored just 11 goals in 10 games across all competitions since their last goalless draw at Stamford Bridge against Everton on Nov. 11, and once Morata failed to beat Gunn when played through by substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the second half, there was no sense of an overwhelming late surge.
In the end a frustrated Sarri was left with more injury worries -- Loftus-Cheek was a forced introduction for Willian -- and a result that trims their advantage over Arsenal in the race for fourth place. It increasingly looks like a battle that will go down to the wire between two glaringly flawed teams.
As Willian limped from the Stamford Bridge pitch in the 37th minute, it was difficult to escape the irony that on the day Chelsea spent €64 million to acquire Christian Pulisic, Sarri's options out wide got thinner than ever.
With the Brazilian set to join Pedro and Callum Hudson-Odoi on the sidelines and the fixture schedule providing no respite in a gruelling January, Sarri could really use Pulisic now -- even if there are logical reasons why Borussia Dortmund and their outgoing winger favour a summer move.
Yet it could also be that the football gods are conspiring to crack open the door for a couple of Chelsea's prized academy graduates. Hudson-Odoi's return from a hamstring injury is expected to be swift while Loftus-Cheek, fit again after a back problem, is now perfectly placed for a run of games on the right.
Chelsea are keen to see both sign new long-term contracts and particularly Hudson-Odoi, whose misgivings over a first-team pathway at Stamford Bridge are unlikely to have been allayed by news of Pulisic's imminent arrival.
Sarri has been reluctant to take a leap of faith with Loftus-Cheek or Hudson-Odoi in matches that matter but, absent any experienced alternatives, he has little choice but to offer the platform they crave. If they shine, the long-term benefits will render Chelsea's current problems a blessing in disguise.
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Hazard is also likely to continue to get his wish of playing on the left rather than as a false nine, even with Giroud looking like a long-term absentee due to the ankle injury sustained against Crystal Palace. That may be to the detriment of Chelsea's attack but, in light of his ongoing dance with Real Madrid, keeping the Belgian happy is also a key concern.
The form of Morata -- encouragingly enthusiastic but excruciatingly unclinical again -- will once again take centre stage. It is no exaggeration to say he is playing for his Chelsea future over the course of the next month, and he does so knowing that many at Stamford Bridge have already returned their verdicts.
Hasenhuttl's first game as Southampton boss, a 1-0 defeat at Cardiff City on Dec. 8, underlined the size of the task he faced to justify the billing laid on him by some as the "Klopp of the Alps." In frustrating Chelsea they were lucky at times, but they were also a team transformed.
It is no mean feat, particularly given the high-intensity, high-pressing style Hasenhuttl favours and the chronic lack of training time afforded by a brutal festive fixture schedule. To hit the ground running, he has had to temper his ideology with pragmatism, and he has done it well.
Southampton pressed here but, mindful of how "Sarriball" is designed to carve open such ambitious opponents, they mixed things up. Only sometimes did Luiz, Rudiger and Jorginho find themselves harried by multiple red shirts; the rest of the time they encountered a red wall midway into the opposition half.
Hasenhuttl will have time to truly stamp his identity on this team and this club in the summer, but first he must keep them in the Premier League. Despite this impressive point they begin 2019 still in the relegation zone, two points behind a limited but spirited Cardiff side who keep cobbling together results.
But he has already bestowed a level of tactical competence on their defending that appeared fanciful only weeks ago. If he and they continue on this path, the smart money will be on Southampton ending the season above at least three Premier League teams in the table -- and a much-needed sense of direction.