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Tottenham vs. Chelsea: Tactical Preview

Andre Villas-Boas' first match against Chelsea after his inglorious sacking will inevitably be the media focus, but the tactical clash between Tottenham and the league leaders should be a fascinating encounter.

Mike Hewitt - Getty Images


Tottenham approach

The sacking of Harry Redknapp seemingly signalled a changing of the guard in North London, and while there is clearly more of a long-term plan being put in place, both managers actually have quite similar approaches to football. Both love attacking football, and both like their sides to play with freedom. "Our most important task is to create more goal-scoring opportunities than the other team, and put them in the back of the net," said Villas-Boas following criticism of his high line, while Redknapp's retort to a journalist suggesting Tottenham conceded too many goals was similar: "You can't say, 'Well, they've conceded goals' [because] we've scored more goals than anybody."

Under Villas-Boas, Tottenham still play with a back four, two wide players and a creative player behind a lone striker. Yet there is a different feel to them now, even if the side is still geared around pace and direct passing. The contrasts are implicit. Bale and Lennon, still the preferred wide players, are now expected to play higher up the pitch, receiving passes in behind the defence. Previously, Redknapp wanted passes to flanks to feet, and crosses into the box. Now, there is more of a focus on incisive support play for the long striker, a change perhaps natural following the transition from the calm, tempo-setting passing of Luka Modric to the more vertical Moussa Dembele. The re-emergence of Sandro has also been crucial, with the Brazilian providing unusual drive higher up the pitch, combining that with clever deep movement to help transition possession higher upfield.


With his side having enjoyed four straight Premier League wins before the international break, it seems likely that Villas-Boas will stick to what is a settled side (with only Assou-Ekotto's return from injury a possible change). The only real selection dilemma is at goalkeeper, where it's unclear which of Hugo Lloris or Brad Friedel will be selected. Both offer contrasting features, with Friedel more of a shot-stopper and Lloris better suited to rushing out of his box, and sweeping in behind his defence. There is a legitimate argument to support either one's selection.

It's difficult to predict Roberto di Matteo's lineup, especially when you factor in Chelsea's difficult schedule ahead, but having favoured the Oscar-Mata-Hazard trio before the break, it seems likely he will elect for the same combination of creative, attacking midfielders. The only other question mark is in midfield, where Jon Obi Mikel's place is assured. His partner's role is less so, with the choice seemingly between Frank Lampard and Ramires.

Battle on the flanks

But Di Matteo might consider the strength of Tottenham's left flank, where Gareth Bale likes to come inside from the touchline and attack directly on goal. In the last match between the two sides, Di Matteo instructed Ramires to stay tight to Bale whenever Tottenham had possession, and the Welshman's influence waned. He might opt for a similar strategy here, with Lampard in central midfield.

But that would require dropping one of Oscar, Mata and Hazard, although having been controversially dropped by Spain and performing excellently for Chelsea before the break, it would be unusual to see Mata not start. That would seemingly make it a choice between Oscar and Hazard. The former would be useful for closing down Sandro or Dembele in possession, and that would be a similar tactic to the Arsenal match in which Oscar effectively prevented Arteta controlling the tempo of the game. Then again, you would also want Hazard's clever dribbling, especially working in spaces in front of and behind Kyle Walker. Therefore, Di Matteo might select Ramires in central midfield and instruct Mikel to play deeper in the space between the lines to prevent Bale moving into that zone, as shown in the image below.



The Ramires-Mikel partnership was deployed in Chelsea's last ‘big match' against Arsenal, and although the two were superb at winning the ball, they were slightly less sophisticated at distributing possession. With Clint Dempsey playing high up as the attacking midfielder, Oscar could drop deep from his central position to create 3 v 2 situations in that zone, meaning Villas-Boas may opt for Glyfi Sigurrdson, which creates a more fluid midfield: Sandro is tasked with driving forward more often, and the midfield rotates fluently, akin to the system used at FC Porto. That approach was used in their famous victory over Manchester United, and Mikel will also be instructed to take up a position in the centre of the pitch, looking to break up counter attacks. United lacked a ball winner in that zone and Tottenham's second and third goals originated from rapid counter-attacks through that area of the pitch.

In essence, Di Matteo's choice comes down to what he perceives Tottenham's biggest threat to be. Does he deploy Oscar to hassle Dembele in possession as the Brazilian did against Andrea Pirlo and Mikel Arteta before the international break, or does he instead use Ramires on the flank to counter Bale's explosive pace? If he elected to use both strategies, that would presumably see Juan Mata used on the left, with Eden Hazard on the bench, and that seems an unlikely seleciton.

Ultimately, the match will come down to the possession battle. Villas-Boas always wants his side to retain the ball as much as possible, but Di Matteo's philosophy is less clear. If he decides upon a ball retention approach, this should be an open game: neither side contains a calm distributor in the Luka Modric mould, able to slow or raise the tempo at will. Instead, Di Matteo will probably look for a more compact approach, playing with two banks of four and looking to keep a solid shape.


Chelsea full backs

The nature of the match will also rest on the attacking intent of Chelsea's fullbacks. This season, Di Matteo has instructed Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole to play high up the pitch and add width to a narrow attack featuring playmakers who like to move into clever, central playmaking positions. Presumably, Ivanovic will be told to stay in position and to be wary of Bale's counter attacking threat, meaning Cole might be given a more aggressive briefing, looking to storm past Lennon and create overloads down the flank of the defensively weak Kyle Walker.

End notes

Tottenham will look to drag Chelsea's defence out of shape and make penetrating passes in between the fullback and centre back, especially for Bale. Di Matteo will want his side to be quick and decisive on the counter attack, and look to exploit the right flank. Therefore, the game will likely be centred on which side can exploit the defensive weakness of the other's fullbacks, and despite the nature of both teams suggesting an open game, the best chances are likely to come on the counter attack.

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