Chelsea’s season sunk to a new and alarming low as they were beaten 1-0 at Stamford Bridge by the Premier League’s bottom side Southampton.
A converted free-kick from James Ward-Prowse on the stroke of half-time put the Saints’ captain one goal behind David Beckham in the competition’s all-time standings, and sent Graham Potter’s team to a fourth consecutive winless match in the league.
With five of the club’s eight January signings in the staring XI, Potter saw his team labour to find any invention against a Saints side set up by interim boss Ruben Selles to frustrate the hosts’ expensively assembled attacking cavalry. Victory in their first match since the sacking of Nathan Jones was everything they deserved.
Chelsea have scored just once at home in 2023, and the lack of a recognised striker was made painfully apparent yet again.
The game started ominously for Potter. Benoit Badiashile, so impressive until now in Chelsea blue, was caught out by Kamaldeen Sulemana as the ball dropped over his shoulder, only for Southampton’s January signing to be denied a first Premier League goal by the foot of Kepa Arrizabalaga. From the follow-up, Kalidou Koulibaly steered Stuart Armstrong’s effort to safety from in front of the goal line.
Southampton’s game plan hinged on frustrating Chelsea by slowing the play down wherever possible, but there was little in the first half to suggest the hosts’ advanced midfield three of Mason Mount, Noni Madueke and Joao Felix held the key to unlocking Saints.
Five minutes before half-time, David Fofana – in for his first Chelsea start – snatched at a shot from 20 yards that revealed more about his team’s first-half frustrations than their attacking ambition.
Southampton took the lead in a familiar fashion. Ward-Prowse’s free-kick, the 17th he has now scored in the Premier League, could not have been more finely placed, arcing over Chelsea’s wall and dropping crisply into the bottom corner beyond Arrizabalaga’s despairing dive. Stamford Bridge, quiet until now, made its displeasure known.
The required response almost arrived within minutes of the second half starting. Raheem Sterling, on as a substitute to make his return from injury, shoved Ainsley Maitland-Niles off the ball near the touchline and whipped in a cross that Mount, rising highest, failed to connect with.
It heralded a change in intensity for Chelsea’s attack. Minutes later, Cesar Azpilicueta found himself unmarked inside the box but could only side-foot his shot wide as the ball dropped. On the hour mark, Graham Potter sent on Kai Havertz and Mykhailo Mudryk to try to harness his side’s newly acquired energy, as the game shifted permanently into Southampton’s defensive half.
Chelsea were getting closer. Havertz escaped down the left and delivered for Sterling, arriving at the back post to fling his head at the ball – he was denied first by a flying block from Romain Perraud, then again on the rebound by Romeo Lavia. The pair celebrated as if top-flight safety had already been secured.
Arrizabalaga saved at the feet of Armstrong as Saints threatened to extend their lead on the break. There was yet more worry for Chelsea when Azpilicueta was carried from the field on a stretcher with an oxygen mask after being struck in the head by the boot of Sekou Mara as he attempted to clear.
But inspiration for Chelsea would not strike. Southampton held on for a deserved win.