Chelsea came away from their clash with Tottenham Hotspur with a point gained, and despite being out for three, they were lucky to get the one. After compounding expectations with some impressive results in Di Matteo's first few games, most noticeably that Napoli stunner, the last two results have brought fans back down to earth. Beating Spurs represented making a significant stride in the Champions League race, but we couldn't quite get the job done. Why?
Team Shape and Selection
Roberto Di Matteo selected a similar team to the last 'season-defining' game, bar the inclusion of Gary Cahill for David Luiz, surprisingly, but presumably to give Chelsea more height when defending the strong Adebayor - important especially given Terry's relatively sudden return to first team action. Furthermore, as Graham pointed out in the preview, Spurs were looking somewhat vulnerable on set pieces heading into the match, so Cahill seemed to be a sensible choice.
The other change in the lineup to Napoli was giving the nod at right back to Jose Bosingwa in place of the injured Branislav Ivanovic, leaving many Chelsea fans in strife trying not to think about what Gareth Bale could do to the Portugese. It seemed Ramires would be on the left again, as Daniel Sturridge has only played on the right wing this season, however, Di Matteo's selection went against general consensus and the English striker was deployed on the left.
This allowed the energetic Brazilian to cover our liability at right back in guarding him against the marauding runs of Gareth Bale. Furthermore, it also allowed the pace of Daniel Sturridge to attack the obvious left-sided bias that emerged with Redknapp's starting lineup.
The English manager plumped for Adebayor spearheading some sort of jumbled mixture of four midfielders and one winger, all presumably told to FRAAB. Roughly, it could be seen that Bale was supposed to be left, Van Der Vaart was supposed to be right, and Modric, Sandro and Parker were supposed to shield the back four, which included ex-Chelsea man William Gallas with Younes Kaboul. Reasonably well matched teams, but clear weaknesses for either side.
- From a Chelsea point of view, they needed to attack the clear space that would open up in the right hand channel of Spurs' defence, where Rafael Van Der Vaart would predictably drift away from, and Kyle Walker would predictably push up high. This left a lot of space in behind the defenders, most notably on the six minute mark where Daniel Sturridge was excellent in finding Drogba and Mata inside the box, only for the two to collide into each other. This was the only real advantage that Chelsea took of this deficiency in the Spurs defence, something that can be attributed to the covering ability of Sandro and Parker, and the subdued attack of the right back. The space was still useful though, and much of Chelsea's good build up play came in that zone.
- From a Spurs point of view the area to attack was the right hand side, where Bosingwa was an accident waiting to happen. That wasn't to be, however, as the Portugese was rescued by the dashing Ramires, who negated the threat of his opponents in dropping deep to form a lopsided bank of four in midfield. As a result, Gareth Bale turned into the personal impersonation of a pumpkin, firing off long range shots randomly and shunning his team mates runs' to good effect. I wrote a piece on the regression of last year's Player of the Year, and it was none more applicable than in this game. Also, when the Welshman drifted inside, the words of CareFree Chronicles were indeed justified in claiming stopping him was a team game, evidenced by Bale's lack of threat even when he popped up on the right.
- The result of neither team taking advantage was a boring game, made even more so by the scrappy Spurs midfield, where Sandro and Parker both represent players with the ability to win the ball but do little to nothing with it. This was eulogized by their constant elimination of the threat of Juan Mata. While Luka Modric has the creative verve and ability to influence a game, it seemed he was more looking to secure the point for Spurs than to contribute to their attack. His ability to shape the game was noted, however, in his tricky slalom in behind the back four, where only Ashley Cole's ass and the magic of Petr Cech kept the game goalless.
- There was not much done to change the scenario early in the second half, and Di Matteo marked the first attempt in bringing on David Luiz for Jose Bosingwa. This move, both at the time, and with the benefit of hindsight, was a bit strange. Luiz is an excellent defender yes, but Bosingwa wasn't doing too shabby a job. It seemed the aim was to add more creativity from deep. While a fair enough assumption, placing Luiz in a restricted right-sided role wouldn't help. The Brazilian's ability to thread balls through defences all the way at the back comes from the time he enjoys on the ball while in the centre, and the huge range of peripheral vision that playing centrally offers. We can see testament of the fact that creativity is more founded centrally in the movement of Juan Mata constantly from his left wing position towards the centre, and in placing Luiz wide, the attempt at introducing creativity became unstuck. The game remained goalless.
- The next obvious sub was to remove Chelsea's under performing centre forward and replace him with a hopefully less worse one. Fernando Torres did eventually arrive, after a period where his pace and finishing ability would have been extremely useful, but he came on the right wing and for Michael Essien. The twofold effect of this was to firstly ignore where he would have been useful, which was upfront, giving support to the isolated Didier Drogba. Secondly, it prompted Ramires into playing as part of the double pivot, where his marshalling job on the right wing was taken up by someone far less capable. This was almost immediately exploited by Spurs, and furthermore Ramires is not Chelsea's best player for the double pivot (something Villas-Boas will atone for). This too was almost exacerbated by Spurs in the move that saw Gary Cahill do his best replication of John Terry's save in the reverse fixture.
- Spurs finally reacted to the on-pitch events by sending on Jake Livermore and Louis Saha in place of Van der Vaart and Sandro. These subs didn't do much but to create some sort of super-weird manifestion of the Redknapp FRAAB, but the reasoning was sound in that it placed another striker on the pitch in his natural position, giving Chelsea's centre backs something to think about....
- And something for Di Matteo to think about too. Unfortunately something got lost in translation where the Italian decided to send on Salomon Kalou - but shift Fernando Torres to left wing in order to accomodate Juan Mata in the centre. The only valid reasoning behind this is that Mata wouldn't be as capable in handling Spurs' threat down that wing, but realistically the thoughts should be on making Spurs react to the danger on that flank rather than Chelsea being totally reactive to their moves.
A game lacking invention both on the pitch and on the bench was suitably rewarded with a goalless stalemate. This renders Chelsea with an extremely tough job in the home stretch of the Premier League season, and it's probably at no fault but their own. While the officials did make some curious decisions, we really did have the opportunity to take on our direct challengers in the race and give them a beating. We didn't grasp it, and as a result, Spurs grew into the game, and very nearly made us pay even more dearly.
- So, Lampard's not creative? Um, apart from the (roughly) three ripper balls that split the Spurs defence, yeah, that generalization of the midfielder is pretty correct. In all seriousness, it seems playing Lampard in the pivot has both good and bad effects. He wasn't bad in the sense of the word against Spurs, but he wasn't fantastic.
- Mata's been really weird lately, looking deft of touch and lost in the middle. Henry Winter wrote in the Telegraph today that the Spainard's been liberated under Di Matteo, but it seems the opposite - he's gone slowly backwards (except for one stunning pass against Stoke). This is a concerning trend that started well before the whole AVB fiasco, and something Di Matteo needs to address - as he was with the attempts at resting the playmaker.
- Cahill was excellent. At seven million, he's looking like a steal. Also impressive was Daniel Sturridge, whose unusual role on the left saw him be a lot more in tune with his teammates' running, and he played some great passes to complement this. More of him out there, please.
Two points dropped, but really a point gained. Di Matteo's slowly looking less like the Messiah that some painted him out to be after the Napoli game, but the Italian's still doing an admirable job in rescuing Chelsea's season. The form of some players and the team as a whole is really only justified by our current position, but luckily we still have the two Cups to look forward to.
All we can do now is win a few more, and pray Spurs play like they did against Stoke again. I'd also be looking closely at some of Arsenal's results - with them facing City in two weeks' time, and a visit from us to come as well, there's still some faint glimmers of hope in Chelsea's season.