This game promised to be a fascinating affair (even without all the off-the-field drama) – both teams are on good form playing attractive, attacking football – and it didn’t disappoint. A relatively uneventful first half was blessed by a quality finish, an explosive volley hit first-time, from Gary Cahill. The game opened up in the second half due to necessity from both sides: the need for the equalizer (and the winner) changed hands fairly quickly – first Spurs, then Chelsea, and finally back to Spurs. The game ended with a total of 36 goal attempts from the two teams (Spurs 26; Chelsea 10).
Lineups, Shapes and Movements
Tottenham Hotspur: Brad Friedel (24); Jan Vertonghen (5), William Gallas (13), Kyle Walker (28), Steven Caulker (33); Sandro (30), Tom Huddlestone (6); Aaron Lennon (7), Clint Dempsey (2), Gylfi Sigurdsson (22); Jermain Defoe (18).
The home side were without two of their main players – Gareth Bale and Moussa Dembele. Keeping their loose 4-2-3-1 shape, Andre Villas-Boas moved Dempsey to the left and brought in Sigurdsson for the "No. 10" role. Meanwhile, Huddlestone partnered Sandro in central midfield. These changes, however, did little to compensate for the drop in attacking quality usually offered by Bale and Dembele.
Dempsey is familiar with the wide left role, but he failed to provide the pace and the directness of Bale. The American did better centrally when he switched roles with Sigurdsson. In Dembele, Villas-Boas had a player who can dribble his way forward through the center. Huddlestone is more of a passer who likes to look for the runs of his attacking players from a deep position, but he wasn’t very effective.
Despite the absence of Bale, Spurs were still able to threaten down the flanks with both fullbacks going forward during their attacking phases (and they aren't shy of shooting from distance either). On the right, Lennon was very dangerous whenever he came 1v1 with Ashley Cole. While Dempsey and Sigurdsson would cut in from the left, Defoe drifted to that flank occasionally.
Chelsea: Petr Cech (1); Branislav Ivanovic (2), Gary Cahill (24), David Luiz (4), Ashley Cole (3); John Obi Mikel (12), Ramires (7); Juan Mata (10), Oscar (11), Eden Hazard (17); Fernando Torres (9).
No, those No. 38's on the lineup chart were not typos. In Chelsea's usual 4-2-3-1 shape, the three play-makers behind Torres -- Hazard, Oscar and Mata -- shuffle and rotate so much that I've decided to come up with a hybrid "No. 38*" to capture the nature of that attacking trio. There was, though, a slight difference in their approach. Usually, the two who end up on the wings would cut in toward the center in possession (because of their "No. 10" DNA) making Chelsea's attack narrow (and requiring the fullbacks to provide width). But, in this game, the wide men stayed on the flanks more often stretching the Spurs defense horizontally. More on that later.
* Why 38? Well, it's a quiz. Leave your answers in the comment section.
Another minor change in otherwise a pretty regular system for Chelsea was the positioning of Ramires on the left side of the midfield. The Brazilian, when used in the double pivot, usually stay on the right with Mikel on his left. There was no reason to change that positioning other than the absence of Bale on Spurs left. With a more physical yet slower Dempsey/Sigurdsson on that flank, it makes sense to deploy Mikel to cover Ivanovic while shifting Ramires to the left in order to help Cole deal with Lennon who's smaller and faster. I think this shift was intentional. So, did it work? To a certain extent. There were times when Ramires' presence helped solve the Lennon-problem; but there were also times when Cole was isolated because of the Brazilian's forward adventures, both in regular play and in counter-attack.
I know you all have been waiting impatiently, but it is finally here. It's CHART TIME! What we have here are four data lines connecting the number of passing events occurred during six time frames, each about 15-plus-minute long, Each team has two data lines: (1) total passes completed and (2) total attacking third passes completed. The number of goals scored in some of the time frames are indicated by a number above or below the team's attacking third passes data lines. So, let's see what the Passing Timeline tells us about this game.
Broadly speaking, it confirms that Chelsea were the dominant team in terms of passing. The Blues out-passed Spurs in almost every single time frame (except the last one). But the gap in passing was much wider in the first half, again in agreement with how the game developed -- Spurs were more proactive in the second half.
Despite completing twice as many passes than Spurs in the first 30 minutes, Chelsea weren't making that many passing in the attacking third. This is indicative of the home side sitting back and letting the visitors pass in their own half with little pressure, which is kind of strange because against Manchester United, Spurs came out strong from the beginning. This was either an intentional tactical switch to a cautious approach ordered by Villas-Boas or the failure of his players to carry out the usual high-press. That, however, changed toward the end of the first half and continued into the early stages of the second half as Tottenham showed more urgency on and off the ball.
Another interesting trend that is apparent in the Passing Timeline is that both teams made more attacking third passes in the second half (Spurs: 21 to 41; Chelsea: 35 to 62) even though the total number of passes completed fell (Spurs: 149 to 130; Chelsea: 239 to 178). That's what happens when the game is stretched: the action takes place in either end of the pitch. The ball moves from defense to attack quickly, bypassing the buildup play in midfield. Also, both teams scored their two quick goals during the peak of the attacking third passes they completed. In the last 15 or so minutes, Spurs pushed on for the equalizer and Chelsea scored from a counter-attack.
Bypassing Spurs Midfield and Chelsea's Width
Yes, William Gallas didn't look good when two of his clearances led to two Chelsea goals and Kyle Walker was to be blamed for Chelsea's fourth. But in my opinion, it was their midfield that let the team down. The Sandro-Huddlestone double pivot did not stay compact consistently with their defense, leaving room between the lines for Chelsea to exploit. Take a look at Chelsea's best chance in the first half.
It was a normal Chelsea buildup from the back. Mikel found himself with time and space due to the lack of pressure from Tottenham. The Nigerian slipped a forward pass to Ramires who was unmarked at the halfway line. Both Sandro and Huddlestone pushed forward at the center circle marking no one in particular, and you can only imagine how far away they were from their defensive line because you can't even see any defenders in the frame.
Ramires let the ball ran across his body and when he turned, Chelsea were already through with Spurs defense on their back foot. Torres between the center-backs, Hazard on the left flank and Mata down the center. It was at best a 4v4 situation, which in a defensive phase is not dangerous. Let's just count how many passes it took for Chelsea to move the ball from a defensive position to an attacking position: ONE. And it would take one more, Ramires to Mata, before Chelsea can register two goal attempts within a second: Mata forced a good save from Friedel before misfiring the rebound.
Note that through out this buildup, Hazard stayed on the left flank, stretching the Spurs defense and allowing Ramires to dribble toward the center before he made the pass to Mata. An example of Chelsea wide attacker providing width. Let's look at one more example.
The themes of Spurs midfield incompetence and Chelsea's wide attacker providing width are also featured in the buildup to Juan Mata's second goal. This time, Oscar was on the left flank and Mata was in support, but it wasn't an overload because there were enough Spurs midfielders to cover. Mata would get the ball from Oscar before passing it on to Mikel. The Spaniard then ran into the box, untracked/unmarked, to receive a fabulous first-time through ball from Hazard. Aside from the excellence of Hazard's pass, Oscar staying wide and stretching the play and Spurs midfielders being highly incompetent allowed this goal to take place. These elements were also present in Mata's first goal: (1) Mata was allowed to dribble forward unopposed and (2) the clearance of Oscar's cross from the right landed right into Mata's path.
Man of the Moment
Chelsea started the season with Eden Hazard in red hot form -- penalties won, assists provided. Then, it was Oscar's turn to take the spotlight -- Pirlo and Arteta tamed, awesome goals scored. These new stars and their mouth-watering talents almost made us forget what a gem of a player we already have in Juan Mata.
All work and no play (well his work is to play but you know what I mean) made little Johnny a less lethal player. Give him some rest (again kudos to Roberto di Matteo for that call) and Mr. Kills came back fresh and hungry for blood. Let's count the bodies: 6 goals and 7 assists in the last six games. That's 13 involvements in the 21 goals that the team scored in this stretch: 61.9% contribution ration (13 divided by 21). He is not simply creating chances and scoring goals but he's doing those in vital moments: be it scoring the winner against Arsenal or finding the equalizer just when Tottenham were about to make a substitution. He was definitely the man of the match in this game, but more than that, he is the Man of the Moment. Seems like nothing can stand in his way, except maybe Vincente del Bosque.
Spurs attack was significantly weakened by the absence of Bale and Dembele. Chelsea dominated possession early on but didn't create much. The game opened up in the second half as goals forced both teams to be more urgent and proactive. Defensively, Tottenham made more mistakes than Chelsea which was fairly reflected in the result.