This did not, at half-time, look like a vintage performance from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
They were 1-0 down, at home, to Southampton, having conceded in just 13 seconds, after which they were very well-matched by the excellent Saints.
What followed, though, was the reminder that many people had been waiting for; that Mourinho is different, that he is able to turn football matches almost through a simple flick of a switch. At the interval he withdrew Michael Essien and brought on Demba Ba, abandoning his 4-2-3-1 for a 4-4-2.
Chelsea were transformed, playing with far more presence, power and purpose, looking – in a way they have not always done this season – like a true Mourinho side. They equalised and took the lead with two headers from corners within seven second-half minutes before Ba, the man who had changed it all, scored the last goal in the last minute.
It was entirely deserved given Chelsea’s dramatic improvement. In the first half they were pressurised hard by Southampton. In the second half Mourinho reversed the roles.
“Our 4-4-2 gave Southampton a different game, a game they did not expect,” Mourinho explained afterwards. “We were losing, we were not producing enough, and my feeling was not to wait but to give the opponent a new problem immediately.”
In the first half Saints were ferocious without the ball but very methodical with it. In the second half they barely got a touch. “[Southampton] like to play the ball from the back,” Mourinho said, “and playing with two strikers meant that they couldn’t play from behind. They started building long, and that allowed my team to play more in the opponents’ half and to create chances.”
Chelsea’s high squeeze was relentless, as Ba and Torres swarmed over Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren, building up pressure until the inevitable goals came. The first was seven minutes after the re-start. Juan Mata swung in a corner from the left, Branislav Ivanovic headed at goal, Ba turned it onto the post and Gary Cahill rearranged his body to nod the rebound past Artur Boruc, who injured himself in the attempted save. From that point, even at 1-1, only one team was going to win and no-one was surprised when Chelsea went ahead from another set-piece.
Seven minutes after the equaliser, another Mata corner was briefly cleared but Frank Lampard – on for the injured Oscar – passed the ball back to Mata, free on the left. He crossed again and John Terry jumped highest at the near post, glancing the ball over Paulo Gazzaniga and into the far top corner.
Mauricio Pochettino bemoaned two “soft goals” but his team were unlikely to survive Chelsea’s long storm. They had no real response. They could not get enough of the ball to create anything and when Pochettino mirrored Mourinho’s move to 4-4-2, introducing Rickie Lambert for Morgan Schneiderlin, it was too late. Never in the second half did Chelsea slow down, and Ba and Torres both could have added a third before Ba diverted Ramires’s clever pass in at the near post in the last minute.
It was not the likeliest outcome given how the game started. It took Southampton just 13 seconds to take the lead. Essien, making his first league start for Chelsea since May 2012, lifted a back-pass perfectly between Cahill and Petr Cech, allowing Jay Rodriguez to steal in and put Saints ahead.
With their ambitious pressing and high intensity, Southampton showed Chelsea no deference whatsoever. Having won at Liverpool and drawn at Manchester United this season, Southampton are clearly not fazed by fame. After scoring, they looked worthy of the lead, pressing Chelsea wherever possible but never quite making a good enough chance for a second goal.
Boruc had a few saves to make – from Oscar from distance, from Mata from close-range and then impressively from a Torres header – and the first-half performance was not the worst of Chelsea’s season. But it was their improvement after the break won them the game – closing the gap on Arsenal to four points – and making them look like serious contenders.
“The boys have to cope with the responsibility of being there,” Mourinho said, knowing that this young team does not have quite the same nous and experience of his first Chelsea side, and that a few of them will almost have to be nursed through their first real Premier League title race by the master title-winner himself.
“Some of the players, the ones that are not complete in my mentality or philosophy, are adapting progressively, feeling the responsibility that Chelsea cannot in December be completely out of the title race. They must feel the responsibility of playing for Chelsea, and that was a sign of maturity.”
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Cech 5; Ivanovic 6, Cahill 6, Terry 6, Azpilicueta 5; Ramires 6, Essien 4 (Ba, 45, 7); Mata 7, Oscar 5 (Lampard, 41, 5), Hazard 6; Torres 7 (Mikel, 81)
Southampton (4-2-3-1) Boruc 7 (Gazzaniga, 58, 5); Clyne 5, Fonte 6, Lovren 6, Shaw 6; Wanyama 5, Schneiderlin 7 (Lambert, 69, 5); Ward-Prowse 6 (Davis, 63, 5), Lallana 6, Rodriguez 6; Osvaldo 5
Man of match: Torres
Match rating: 8