Thomas Tuchel completed phase one of his Chelsea mission more quickly than anybody could have expected. His new team were 10th in the Premier League on the day of his first game – against Wolves on 27 January – but, when they beat Newcastle last Monday, they had climbed to fourth.
Phase two is to stay in the Champions League places and it got off to a rocky start. This was the first mis-step of Tuchel’s tenure, a performance of largely sterile domination, lacking in attacking punch, with precious few clear chances created and undermined by looseness.
Tuchel owed the continuation of his unbeaten start to a second-half Mason Mount penalty, which cancelled out a wonderful opening goal by Southampton’s Liverpool loanee, Takumi Minamino. But it was a day when Chelsea’s regrets weighed heavy and Tuchel’s frustration was rarely far from the surface.
Southampton could celebrate a performance that was defined by resilience. After six straight league defeats – the worst sequence in the club’s history – they lost another lead. The statistics show they have given up a competition high 18 points from winning positions. This, though, was much more like it from them.
Tuchel had made changes to his lineup, giving first starts in the league to Kurt Zouma and N’Golo Kanté, and his team squeezed high throughout, trying to make inroads via overloads on the flanks or with probing balls in behind the Southampton defence.
It was tough going for long spells, the end product repeatedly poor, leading to Tuchel spinning on his heels in frustration and throwing his arms around. One thing is clear in these empty stadiums where the cries from the dug-outs carry – Tuchel is not afraid to dig out his players.
Plenty of them heard criticism from him, with Mount and Timo Werner bearing the brunt of it in the opening half-hour when their decision-making and execution was not up to standard while Callum Hudson-Odoi, on as a half-time substitute, was rollicked by him at one point before being hauled off on 76 minutes. “Guys, you need more determination in the box,” Tuchel yelled, as early as the 14th minute.
Southampton were compact in their usual 4-2-2-2 system, in which Mohammed Salisu made an impressive full Premier League debut in central defence; tracking the Chelsea runners, throwing themselves into challenges. They barely crossed the halfway line in the first half but, when they did, it was a move to remember, particularly for Minamino.
The Japan attacking midfielder timed his run between Cesar Azpilicueta and Zouma, the space yawning wide, and he was found by a fine throughball from Nathan Redmond. What happened next was all about Minamino’s composure and touch. He did not rush the one-on-one with Eduoard Mendy, rather he feinted when everybody expected him to shoot, putting both Mendy and the chasing Azpilicueta on the ground, before flicking home with the outside of his boot. It was the first time an opposition player had scored against Tuchel’s team.
Chelsea were blunt before the interval. Marcos Alonso volleyed off target from Reece James’s cross on six minutes while Zouma worked Alex McCarthy with a header following a Mount corner.
Tuchel swapped the ineffective Tammy Abraham for Hudson-Odoi and changed the balance of his front three slightly, with Mount now asked to operate in a withdrawn central role.
Mount was excellent in the second half and he made the difference for the equaliser, although Danny Ings’s part in it was equally decisive. After Mount had jinked inside, Ings lunged clumsily and it was a clear penalty. Mount sent McCarthy the wrong way with it.
The second half mirrored the first in many respects. Chelsea tried to make the game, although they were undermined by sloppy final actions. Southampton dug in hard but they almost stole the lead following a corner, which had been needlessly given away by Mateo Kovacic. Redmond crossed on the second phase and, after the ball had flicked off James, Jannik Vestergaard guided a header against the crossbar.
Chelsea’s chance to win it came on 85 minutes when Mount crossed for James but he lifted high. For the final time, Tuchel howled in frustration.