As the second half leaked away and Chelsea haplessly chased a late equalising goal, Thomas Tuchel started pulling the levers. On came Christian Pulisic, then Armando Broja. Raheem Sterling continued to plug away on the left, Hakim Ziyech on the right, Mason Mount in the centre. Kai Havertz and Ruben Loftus-Cheek had already made way. Still there are those in the Chelsea hierarchy who reckon that somehow the solution to their current incontinence is a lack of attackers.
There were plenty of excuses for Chelsea to grasp at. There always are, if you want to find them. The absences of Reece James and N’Golo Kanté. The poor quality of the pitch. The chances created in the first half and the unrepeatable brilliance of Roméo Lavia’s game-changing equaliser. But the fact remains that this is still a brittle and skittish side, short on rhythm and inspiration, and one that appears to have completely mislaid the defensive stubbornness of the early Tuchel era.
The manager, to give him his due, seems to recognise this. “It is not a question of striker or no striker,” he said afterwards. “As a team we are not strong enough at the moment. It’s too easy to push us off track. Defending these goals has nothing to do with attack. You cannot prove it with data or body position or tactical positions. Just toughen up.”
If Chelsea were searching for inspiration, they had only to glance over the halfway line. Adam Armstrong scored the winning goal for Southampton but, as ever under Ralph Hasenhüttl, this was a collective effort by a young and hungry team who fight for every ball, press every opponent, counter-punch with energy and disrespect. The only blot on a near-flawless performance was an injury to Lavia, the Belgian teenager whose goal was the clear highlight of the evening.
It was crucially timed, too, coming after a bright Chelsea start in which Sterling could quite conceivably have had a hat-trick. But then this has always been the paradox of Sterling, a player who on bare numbers bears comparison with the great English forwards of his generation. That Sterling squanders plenty of shots is beyond doubt; what is less readily recognised is the sheer volume of shots he generates for himself through clever movement and a superior reading of the game.
Sterling misses the chances other forwards are not good enough to get. So it was again a quarter of the way in, as Romain Perraud slid in to scrape away Mason Mount’s cross, While Perraud hauled himself off the floor, Sterling had stayed on his feet, and took a look before passing the ball into the bottom corner. On a dispiriting night for Chelsea Sterling’s assurance was one of their few sources of encouragement.
There was a certain measure of shock to Southampton’s equaliser: a goal that in more ways than one seemed to come out of nowhere. Yet as James Ward-Prowse’s corner was cleared to the edge of the area, Lavia was able to pick his spot almost entirely unobstructed before putting a swerving shot past Édouard Mendy from 25 yards. “Soft, soft, soft,” was Tuchel’s verdict. “What stops that? Pure mentality.”
This was – lest we forget – a defence of César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Kalidou Koulibaly. Experience and excellence are not in short supply and yet, as Armstrong put Southampton into the lead just before half time, these three internationals bearing a combined total of more than 200 international caps were again exposed. Perraud advanced up the left flank. Armstrong on the penalty spot had time to take a touch before smashing in the finish.
Naturally Chelsea sought to make the running after the break. There were desperate attacks, hopeful crosses, bobbling through-balls to nobody. What was lacking was structure and cohesion, the collective understanding that gains an extra half-yard. Indeed, it was Southampton who had the best chance of the second half, Mohamed Elyounoussi missed a golden opportunity with a stooping header from six yards.
There was no siege. There was no cavalry charge. There were no glaring sitters. Gavin Bazunu made a couple of routine saves but ultimately Southampton saw out the game in relative comfort. Would Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Anthony Gordon solve any of this? At full-time Tuchel gruffly shook Hasenhüttl’s hand before heading down the tunnel: a man who must know that Chelsea’s problems will be solved not in the transfer market but on the training ground.