A thrilling encounter between Chelsea and Tottenham at Stamford Bridge will be remembered for a late Spurs equalizer and a brawl between the managers.
What could be quickly forgotten is the nature of the game itself. Chelsea were the better team for the most part, with Thomas Tuchel getting the better of Antonio Conte in the tactical battle – twice.
The key to the first half was the situation in midfield, where Mason mount fell to find freedom between the lines, overloading Tottenham three against two in the middle.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. A common theme of Conte’s time at Tottenham is the aggressiveness with which the central midfield duo push when the opposition have the ball – especially at Manchester City last season – while Tuchel regularly ‘staggers’ his midfield to make them difficult to press, as they look something between a 3-4-3 and a 3-5-2.
And that’s what happened – Conte used his usual 3-4-3, and Tottenham played as if Chelsea were also using a 3-4-3. So Peter-Emile Hojbjerg pushed on jorginho while Rodrigo Bentancur focused on N’Golo Kanté. So far, so good.
Spurs’ problem, however, was Mount – who played as a No.8 rather than the top three, and was constantly free to receive forward passes. Spurs only had two midfielders, so who would shut him down? On this occasion, it was the right central defender, Christian Romero.
But a centre-back can’t play in midfield all the time, and it was remarkable how much space Mount was given. A few minutes later, he is 20 yards wide in midfield.
Here is a similar example…
…and it’s the same thing again, calling for a pass from the right.
Chelsea sometimes struggled to pass the ball to him laterally but the space he had made vertical passes very easy. Here, Kalidou Koulibaly has the simple task of pushing the ball through the lines in him – note Emerson Royal throwing up his arms, asking who’s supposed to close Mount.
Here is a similar situation – note Hojbjerg gesturing towards the unmarked mount…
But Mount remained Romero’s responsibility. And, to be fair, there aren’t many Premier League centre-backs so happy to step out of defense and close at the top of the pitch.
Here, from another forward pass from Koulibaly, Romero charges at Mount, and although he manages to dispossess him, he passes the ball himself and Chelsea regains possession…
… which shows the danger of Romero being bypassed. Rahim Sterling drifts into space behind him, and Chelsea can enter space. Ruben Loftus-CheekHowever, the pass is played a little behind his Chelsea teammate.
And that was the common theme of Chelsea’s first half. Tactically they were excellent. Technically, they were disappointing, their overtaking preventing them from breaking at high speed.
Here is another example. It’s still the same thing – Climbing in the space between the lines, and Koulibaly able to put on a simple ball at the feet.
But Koulibaly’s pass here is mediocre. He could have gently slipped it into the space between the two Tottenham players, allowing Climb to receive the ball on the turn and facilitate the attack in central position. Instead, Koulibaly shoots the ball into Mount, and it bounces off him…
…and as Mount receives the ball, you realize how effective a better pass could have been – Mount would have run towards goal, with Romero pinned by Sterling. The defender would have been forced into a quick decision, with Mount to contend with but also Sterling, once again, ready to exploit the space behind him.
Mount, meanwhile, is being overly cautious in this situation, driving the ball to the left to work an overload, rather than looking to cause Romero problems.
The last significant incident of the first half came when Mount received the ball in central position and Eric Dier – in the middle of Spurs’ back three – pushes the pitch to close it.
Mount plays the ball in front of him…
… and as Chelsea attack down the right and Dier returns to his defensive position, Mount again finds himself with ample freedom at the edge of the box. Once again, this bullet does not come in his direction.
At half-time, Chelsea led 1-0 thanks to Koulibaly’s superb volley from a corner. But Spurs rallied midway through the second half – Conte’s move to 4-2-4 after the introduction of richarlison provided more attacking threat and eventually equalized, via Hojbjerg.
This change in formation sparked a different type of tactical battle – and surely Tuchel got the better of this one too.
Now that Spurs were playing a full-back four, Chelsea could now look to exploit them in the usual way – using their full-backs to provide overloads on the outside. And that’s apparently why Tuchel decided to make a somewhat complex change: bringing in Cesar Azpilicueta for Jorgenho. This meant Loftus-Cheek moved from full-back to central midfield while Reece James moved forward from right centre-back to right back.
And, suddenly, James was the key player. Loftus-Cheek had carried the ball well, but James offers a lot more composure and technical quality.
Here he rushes outside to create a glorious chance for Kai Havertz who flies wide at close range…
Two minutes later he fired home what appeared to be the winner. It’s the classic goal you see when wingers play against a four-man defender, and the type of goal Chelsea scored regularly under Conte.
Chelsea gradually work the ball up the pitch until Spurs are effectively short of defenders, leaving James free at the far post to head home…
Conte ended up going back to 3-4-3, perhaps fearing that Chelsea would cause more problems down the flanks in the closing stages. It helped hold back the tide, and eventually a period of pressure from Spurs resulted in Harry Kane put your head in a corner. James, the hero 15 minutes before, was the Chelsea player who unwittingly helped the ball into his own net.
Afterwards, both managers were asked about their full-time argument rather than their tactical approach, but Tuchel seemed much happier with how the game went – and understandably so. Chelsea dominated thanks to Tuchel’s tactical choices.
Chelsea’s problem, however, was converting their first-half superiority into chances and goals from open play. And so this game was somewhat typical for Chelsea under Tuchel – his form is working perfectly, but his attackers are not at the level required if Chelsea are to challenge for the title.