By Liam Twomey at Stamford Bridge
When Rafa Benitez was imposed upon Chelsea fans back in November, a scrap of logic was offered amid the madness. This man, it was claimed, would make the Blues more defensively sound, turn a bunch of formidably talented individuals into a coherent team, and restore Fernando Torres to his former glories by re-calibrating the supply lines to meet his needs.
Admittedly, the Spaniard had the managerial pedigree to make a strong case. His Liverpool sides were more often famed for their defensive discipline and teamwork than attacking prowess, though this burden was invariably shouldered by a rampant Torres, once the best striker on the planet.
But almost two months on, in a match which saw Chelsea surrender any fragile hopes of winning the Premier League title with a whimper, the truth was laid bare: no matter whose name is above the door of the manager’s office these days, almost nothing changes at Stamford Bridge.
This was a match the Blues should have won comfortably. Southampton came with the intention of replicating the gameplan which paid off spectacularly for Swansea and QPR, but a defence which has kept just three clean sheets in the top flight all season never looked capable of such a feat.
Chelsea conjured little until 25 minutes in, when Demba Ba exhibited the kind of killer instinct not shown by a resident striker at Stamford Bridge since the heady days of Didier Drogba. But as the first half drew to a close, the visitors took a battering and were lucky to make it to the interval having shipped only a second goal to Eden Hazard in the dying seconds.
Two goals to the good, Benitez’s men continued to attack with such reckless abandon that the Saints were able to persist with the counterattacking gameplan which would see them back into the match. Substitute Rickie Lambert found himself able to steal in unmarked to head home Nathaniel Clyne’s cross, before Jason Puncheon enjoyed the freedom of the penalty area to rifle in the equaliser.
Southampton showed great character and belief to claw their way back from a potential hammering, but their cause was aided greatly by Chelsea’s misguided tactics.
Rather than sitting deep and inviting pressure before breaking with pace and numbers, the Blues continued to play Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta as auxiliary wingers, David Luiz and Gary Cahill 30 yards apart, and no designated midfield shield – the footballing equivalent of a boxer putting his hands behind his back and jutting out his jaw to taunt a dazed but still dangerous opponent.
When Chelsea got the trouble they had been asking for it was Torres, rightly kept on the bench and in the shadow of Ba, who was the designated saviour, received with silent indifference by a Stamford Bridge crowd still preoccupied with booing the decision to remove Frank Lampard from the fray.
In truth, this was an infinitely livelier showing than the Spaniard put on against Swansea, but no more effective. When he neatly worked an opening with five minutes left, the roar of exasperation which greeted his resulting screwed effort wide was tempered by the crushing lack of surprise.
These problems – the defensive errors, the tactical naivety and the uninspired Torres – were all supposed to be solved by the arrival of Benitez, yet they remain every bit as evident as they were under Roberto Di Matteo, Andre Villas-Boas or even the final season of Carlo Ancelotti.
Is the interim boss to blame? The fact is this Chelsea do not play like a Benitez team at all. They are far too loose, expansive and ragged. The suicidal positioning of the defenders and the blind commitment to passing the ball out from the goalkeeper – two concepts which have remained relatively constant under four very different managers – hint at directives issued from higher up.
There are no real signs of progress, only moments of individual quality undermined by defensive mistakes. In fact, the only real change to speak of has been in the atmosphere around Stamford Bridge, which has gone from downcast during the final weeks of Di Matteo to poisonous and borderline mutinous during the acrimonious imposition of Benitez.
When the Spaniard arrived, Chelsea were four points behind Manchester United with 12 games played in this Premier League season. Now they are 13 points adrift with 16 matches remaining, and any legitimate hope of the title has been well beyond them for some time.
Moreover, they bear the look of a club boasting a glorious recent past and a promising foreseeable future, but lacking both the patience and the vision to make the leap from one to the other.
All things considered, then, is it any wonder that a move to Stamford Bridge was never on Pep Guardiola’s radar?
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