With this London derby, there was pressure, specifically on one side. After having a string of poor games in 2019 and the 6-0 drubbing from Manchester City, Chelsea were looking for a win. Being precariously close to dropping out of the top four race, the Blues needed a win against their London rivals. Additionally, with the increased talk about Maurizio Sarri and his potential sacking, it was imperative for the Italian to come away with a win. Not only would it improve sulking morale, but it would also cement trust into his Sarriball process. This win would, temporarily, erase “Kepagate” from the minds of viewers.
Tottenham’s persistence to challenging for the title was to be kept on. Additionally, they were fighting for pride. In recent years, Chelsea have been the reason why Spurs have failed to come with a trophy, the most bright memory being the Battle at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard’s curling effort would ensure that Leicester City would go on to win. Back to reality, Spurs knew a win at their fierce rivals’ home would boost their squad. With motives of subsistence, both teams headed into the game.
Chelsea lined up in their usual 4-3-3. Following the loss against Manchester City, some changes were made. Noticeably, Kepa Arrizabalaga was dropped for Willy Caballero. Additionally, Emerson was dropped for Marcos Alonso while Barkley was rested for Mateo Kovacic. On the other side of the pitch, Spurs lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This was a change from their 3-5-2 used against Burnley. In total, four changes were made, with the defence that conceded those two goals being changed out for a favour of a new one.
For the better part of the first half, Chelsea were on top. Coming from the recent loss against City, The Blues came in with a defined purpose. While they still played Sarriball, The Londoners had a tint of pragmatism. A difference in Chelsea’s playing style was attacking in a different manner. For starters, Chelsea’s normal midfield was a little bit different. While normally, the two midfielders surrounding Jorginho support the respective flanks, this game was different. This time, in the attack, Jorginho and Kovacic stayed put and did not take advanced positions. For Chelsea, it was Kante who was responsible for not only defending but also leading the attack and consequent pressing.
When attacking, Chelsea took the form of 5-1-2-2. The front five consisted of the normal attacking trio and the fullbacks. Two midfielders would stay at the back or not as advanced as the other midfielder. Finally, the last two centre backs would stay as wide as possible. This was mainly done in order to contain any potential counterattacks from the wings. Most of the times though, due to Alonso, Chelsea’s attack would often look like a 4-1-2-3.
For Chelsea, the main goal, in terms of attacking was to put in crosses for Higuaín and more importantly, attack the half-spaces between the fullback and centre back. Yet, in recent times, Chelsea’s attacking patterns have become quite recognisable. To avoid this, especially against a master tactician, Sarri switched Pedro’s and Hazard’s position. All of a sudden there were new patterns for the wingers.
For Spurs, in the first half, it was a lot about absorbing the pressure. Chelsea had started with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm and it was bound to run out. As the ending quarters of the first half came around, Spurs took hold of the possession more and more. For them, who were defending with five defenders, their main attacking style was to quickly counter-attack.
The special target was Marcos Alonso. Spurs aimed, with and without possession, at the left-hand side. At the left-hand side were Hazard, Alonso, and Kovacic. In terms of defence, it is Chelsea’s weakest side. Hazard is not a person who often presses and Alonso is a defender who is easily beaten on pace and skill. Kovacic is neither the fastest, strongest or the most tactically intelligent.
Thus, this forces Chelsea’s most important cogs in the defence to concentrate on the left-hand side. Luiz, Jorginho, and Kante would often find themselves veering to the right. With the right switch of play, ample space can be found between Rüdiger and Luiz. Often times, in Spurs counter attacks, Alonso’s inability to defend effectively was repeatedly exploited. Luiz found himself in the left back position, which left Spurs runners enough space to have one laid off and strike a shot.
Spurs wanted to find the above-mentioned combo and more. Often times, Lamela and Trippier would combine to create 2v2 and 2v1. This allowed for dangerous cutbacks and crosses.
Tottenham continued their forward momentum in the second half. Chelsea came out a little bit more rejuvenated, pressing with more intent. For the longest time, Tottenham kept their steam, getting past Chelsea press and attacking. With every minute, the trio of Son, Kane, and Eriksen looked close to scoring.
A unique tactic that Chelsea had employed was pressing in threes. Whenever a Spurs player was found drooling on the ball, three Chelsea players would quickly apply pressure. This would often happen in the final thirds, where the midfield had not yet caught up to the attack.
Another unique tactic was that in the second half, Jorginho and Kante switched up positions. While before Kante would step during goal kicks, Jorginho was now taking the helm of the task.
In the 56th minute, Hazard dropped deep to collect the ball. Attracting up to four players, the ball was passed to the running Azpilicueta. All of a sudden, the Tottenham left-back found himself in a 2v1, with massive space between the Spurs’ centre back and fullback. After a clever run, Pedro found himself running on the half-space. A clever cutback and curler and Chelsea were in front. As much credit has to be given to Pedro, the blame must be put on Spurs. After playing with good intensity, Spurs had fallen asleep.
When Azpilicueta receives the ball, the midfield trio is caught asleep. They are ball watching and as a result, they don’t cover the spaces well. A note has to be taken that the midfield gravitating towards the ball occurred due to the presence of Hazard.
Call it panic but after the goal, Spurs started to lose the ball often. The additional problem was that these losses of possessions were happening near their goal, making a secondary Chelsea goal very eminent.
Perhaps it was the increased determination of Spurs or the tired legs of the wizard. Either way, In the 60th minute, Hazard was subbed off for Willian. While Willian’s end product is not stellar as the Belgian’s, he did provide the pressing and the increased support that Alonso was needing.
However, Spurs’ panic would cost them in the end. In the 83rd minute, Higuain was subbed off for Giroud. His presence was immediately felt as he latched upon a header and won an aerial duel. The ball was headed back, right into Trippier’s territory. With Willian applying the high press, Lloris came out as well. Trippier, with Willian and Lloris breathing down his neck, curled ball outside of Lloris’ reach. His attempt at a clearance was not enough as the ball had just enough swerve to land itself into the bottom right side of the goal.
After the goal Spurs tried various tactics. Chipped balls, diagonal balls, and headers were tried but to no avail. There was simply no time left in the match.
As the match ended, an important tactic to note was the pivot of Jorginho and Kante. With Kovacic off and RLC on, Chelsea had their additional grit in the midfield. To prevent any late wonder strikes, the two midfielders were asked to stay back, while RLC provided the engine as the forward midfielder.
The Spurs faithful exited Stamford Bridge with shocked faces. While Chelsea fans had much to be jubilant to be about, Sarri will need to more closely examine their side. There were facets in the game where Chelsea were simply poor and the automatisms too organised. If Chelsea are to reach and fight for the top four, they must improve their attacking patterns or methodology. For Spurs, the mentality problem seems to persist. It was a midfield that slept when it should not have and a miscommunication. If Spurs want to win anything, they must iron these errors. As football has taught, sufficiently, it is the errors that separate a good team from a great team.