Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs have developed a knack of producing their finest performances against top Premier League opponents at White Hart Lane. Spurs’ first half display against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City set the bar this season, but ending Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak may hold higher value given the Blues’ dominance since their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal a few months ago.
Where other managers have adjusted their shape with hopes of halting Chelsea’s remarkable form, Pochettino’s move to a 3-4-2-1 felt natural considering he’s utilized the system on a few occasions – most recently in Spurs win over Watford a fortnight ago. Spurs obliterated Watford based on extremely poor defensive play from the hosts so it was difficult to truly assess the system’s value, and the decision to replicate the league leaders’ default system aimed to man-mark across the pitch.
The recurring issue involving two sides adopting identical systems is that it often produces uneventful, cagey battles. With the midfield zone containing physical ball-winning midfielders opposed to creative no.10’s ensured this was expected to be a scrappy affair between two well-drilled units.
In central areas, Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama harried N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic when they pushed forward, so the midfield duos were often restricted to safe passes from deeper positions. However, the midfielders were effective in various manners – Kante and Matic were protecting space in central areas to clog space that Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen preferred to receive possession. Meanwhile, Dembele flourished when he dribbled past opponents in the left channel, while Wanyama sat deep attempting to thwart Hazard’s threat in transition.
Elsewhere, Spurs’ possession dominance combined with Chelsea’s reluctance to press high witnessed Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maintain advanced positions to peg Chelsea wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses into their half. Chelsea’s best spell in the initial meeting at Stamford Bridge involved Moses eventually pushing forward beyond Eriksen towards the Spurs box, which is why the switch to a 3-4-2-1 was a logical move, here. Therefore, the two sides created dangerous attacking moves in contrasting manners.
In the opening phase of the match, Chelsea’s long diagonals into wide positions exploited Spurs’ high defensive line with Hazard’s wasting a quality chance via Matic’s reverse pass from midfield. Chelsea’s swift counter-attacks amongst the front three easily bypassed Spurs midfield, but the away side’s inability to complete the final pass around the box was pivotal to their downfall.
From a defensive aspect Chelsea were far more reserved. Conte’s men maintained their base 5-4-1 and retreated into their half to negate Spurs’ clever movement and intricate passing between the lines. The away side only pushed forward as a unit when passes were played back to Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris with hopes of building attacks from deep.
Spurs, on the other hand, struggled to find space between the lines, and heavily relied on their energetic organized pressing to breach the Chelsea back-line. Prior to Alli’s opener, Spurs received two openings in a minute span that epitomized their identity under Pochettino: Wanyama intercepting a pass into Hazard and Eriksen subsequently picking up a loose Kante pass in midfield, but both men guided their efforts wide.
The key element to Spurs defensive instructions involved Alli and Eriksen tucking in centrally to prevent Kante and Matic from receiving possession in the midfield zone. Chelsea were often forced to play long balls into the channels for Costa, or have Hazard drop extremely deep to receive the ball in a midfield zone, but the Blues encountered difficulties finding a natural rhythm in possession.
Although Alli will dominate headlines for the game-winning brace, the key man, here, was Eriksen. Eriksen, in truth, is an extremely misunderstood footballer under Pochettino. Once believed to develop into a creative dynamo, the Dane now represents a functional attacker capable of playing throughout the midfield.
But where other key players struggled to perform in congested areas, Eriksen varied his movement to receive possession and play key passes throughout. Alli often aided Kane in pressing from the front, but when the Spurs striker pulled Luiz out of position, the former attempted to charge behind the Chelsea back-line.
This was the ideal movement required to pull Conte’s back-three out of position – Kane dropped deep, Alli charging behind and Eriksen forcing Cahill away from the six-yard box – and was evident in the buildup to both goals, though a collective defensive breakdown was the catalyst for the opener. Walker’s pull back to Eriksen attracted four defenders to the ball, but Luiz’s attempt to play offside, and Cahill’s intent to join three teammates to close down the Dane, enabled Alli to tower over Cesar Azpilicueta to freely nod a well weighed cross past Thibaut Courtois.
Despite a positive Chelsea onslaught to start the second half – Spurs retreated into their base shape, keen to play on the counter – Spurs secured maximum points in a similar manner. Walker’s advanced positioning, along with Eriksen floating deeper in the right channel, led to another superb cross into the box that provided another example of Alli’s fine heading ability over the diminutive Azpilicueta. Though Chelsea were better positioned for Alli’s second, isolating Azpilicueta and exploiting his lack of height at centre-back was a clever – though far from innovative – ploy from Pochettino.
Chelsea were forced to chase the remainder of the match, but a lack of sharp and precise passing ensured Spurs coped well defensively. Conte received plenty of deserved praise for reinvigorating Chelsea’s season, but clever movement, patience and perhaps Cahill’s early booking – bypassed by Eriksen following a poor header and virtually halting his aggressive tight marking on the Dane – resulted in Spurs’ trident attack outwitting a resolute Blues back-line.
Nevertheless, similar to Spurs’ defeat over City earlier this season, this doesn’t appear to be a reliable template in consistently defeating Conte’s Chelsea side. Poor performances from key players combined with various sides’ inability to replicate Spurs pressing and energy levels over extensive periods, suggests Chelsea should rarely encounter sustained vulnerable periods of this nature.
However, although this serves as a great reminder that Chelsea’s road to another league title is far from over, it equally highlights that an efficient tactical scheme will be required to overwhelm Conte’s diligent regime.