As plot twists go, Southampton’s surrender to a Chelsea side who could be barely be bothered to hide their disinterest was one of the most unexpected of the season, even for those all too familiar with the Saints’ capacity for calamity.
Mark Hughes needed these points more than Chelsea and their greater urgency was reflected in their application. But what looked to be one of the few feel-good stories of their season quickly turned into horror once the Blues were stirred by Olivier Giroud, a character who will surely have a greater role to play between now and the literal end of Chelsea’s season rather than the meaningful conclusion that seems to have long since passed.
Antonio Conte zoned out weeks, maybe months ago, and though he is correct to apportion the blame for Chelsea’s struggles throughout the club, the coach cannot be surprised that his indifference has spread throughout his playing squad and infected every facet of it.
Thibaut Courtois has never made a secret of the fact that he views Stamford Bridge as a stepping stone to bigger things abroad. He appears to believe that his reputation, largely forged at Atletico Madrid, will see him right, because his consistency certainly won’t. Four seasons in the Premier League have each alternated between top class and indifferent.
This season, again, Courtois’ attitude has veered towards the latter. Luckily for him, the fact he has one year remaining on his contract makes him more appealing to Paris Saint-Germain than his performance levels.
The indifference appears to have spread like a virus through what was not so long ago Chelsea’s impenetrable defence. One change at St Mary’s saw Antonio Rudiger dropped, which is unlikely to be because of his form – the German was one of Chelsea’s better performers during the draw at West Ham. More likely the reason for his omission is the criticism he aimed in the general direction of his manager last weekend.
Blues fans watching the first hour might summise that not only was Rudiger’s point valid, speaking out also suggested he was one of few who was bothered by the rot setting in around him. Conte said Andreas Christensen is suffering from mental fatigue, but tiredness is no excuse for the more senior players around him. Marcos Alonso, normally so reliable, could not be bothered to run or compete for either Saints goal, while Davide Zappacosta was equally lethargic on the opposite flank before he was hooked on the hour.
And then Eden Hazard lifted himself out his hour-long slumber on the south coast to join Giroud in rousing his team-mates. Like Courtois and Conte, the Hazard’s focus appears to be drifting to what lies ahead beyond this season. Fortunately for Chelsea, he is still capable of moments of genius, even when his commitment is less than total.
To their credit, when they sensed Southampton were vulnerable, Chelsea moved in for the kill. This result is likely to have implications beyond this weekend and into next Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final when the two sides commence battle once again, with a place in the FA Cup final presumably offering more motivation than the first 70 minutes at St Mary’s.
If Conte may opt to rotate at Turf Moor with Wembley in mind, it is a luxury Hughes cannot afford. He is not a manager renowned for his motivational qualities – so why was he appointed? – but must somehow pick up his players and inspire them to replicate the first hour’s intensity and stretch it out through the entire 90 minutes at Leicester on Thursday.
Hughes insisted before the Chelsea game that Southampton “have shown improvement since I came here” before rattling off a list of immeasurables when asked to specify exactly in what areas. His list of “intent, understanding and confidence” were present in patches but never after Chelsea’s first goal. Southampton fell to pieces, lacking the necessary backbone or nous to consolidate.
Hughes acknowledged that flaw post-match,but how he changes remains unclear. This was the fourth consecutive game in which Saints have conceded three goals, and Hughes has been in charge for three of them. If the immediate objective is to improve the defence, that was the exact problem Hughes proved himself incapable of solving at Stoke. If one Premier League relegation stains a CV, what does two in the same season do?