Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspur was a fascinating match. There were great goals, interesting patterns of attack, system changes at halftime and the game closed out with some desperate defending thanks to a bizarre red card. Let's take a closer look as to what happened over the course of the 1-1 draw.
#2: Kyle Walker (RB), #5: Jan Vertonghen (CB), #8: Paulinho (CM), #9: Roberto Soldado (CF), #16: Kyle Naughton (LB), #17: Andros Townsend (RM), #19: Moussa Dembele (CM), #20: Michael Dawson (CB), #22: Gylfi Sigurddson (LM), #23: Christian Eriksen (CAM), #25: Hugo Lloris (GK).
#1: Petr Cech (GK), #2: Branislav Ivanovic (RB), #3: Ashley Cole (LB), #4 David Luiz (CB), #7: Ramires (RM), #8: Frank Lampard (CM). #9: Fernando Torres (CF), #11: Oscar (CAM), #12: John Obi Mikel (CM), #17: Eden Hazard (LM), #26: John Terry (CB).
4-2-3-1 has been the in-vogue formation for the last few Premier League seasons, and we're going to see a lot of matches in which both teams play with a midfield pivot and four attacking players. That's exactly what we got at White Hart Lane.
Chelsea played Fernando Torres at centre forward, dropping new signing Samuel Eto'o to the bench after a series of (mediocre) starts. Tottenham replied with Roberto Soldado, which isn't much of a surprise -- nobody else there is really up to the job. Behind them were Eden Hazard, Oscar and Ramires for Chelsea, with Gylfi Sigurdsson, Christian Eriksen and Andros Townsend replying for Spurs.
Those are actually reasonably similar front fours. Eriksen and Oscar are very tactically-minded creative players, capable of contributing to the defence as well as attack, while both Hazard and Sigurdsson look to come inside when they're on the ball. Townsend is obviously a more attacking player than Ramires, but when the Brazilian plays on the right hand side he prefers sticking to the wing, which is exactly what Townsend did while he was on the pitch.
The big structural differences between the two sides came in midfield and defence. Thanks to the injuries to Sandro and Etienne Capoue, Tottenham were forced to use a double pivot of Moussa Dembele and Paulinho. Chelsea countered with John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard. The Spurs duo are both athletic players who prefer to move forward with the ball at their feet, akin to Ramires' style when he's selected for the pivot. Chelsea, meanwhile, were more passing oriented, with Mikel doing defensive work while Lampard was focusing on quick diagonal passes.
The other major difference was in the defensive alignments. We're all familiar with how Villas-Boas likes to set up, and he used Kyle Naughton, Jan Vertonghen, Michael Dawson and Kyle Walker in his typical high line. Chelsea responded with a medium block, with David Luiz restored to the lineup after being dropped for the Fulham match. Partnering him was John Terry, with Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic wide.
The first major change of the match came at halftime, with Tottenham 1-0 up. Mourinho withdrew Mikel, who was being bypassed in midfield due to Spurs' attacking patterns, and brought Juan Mata on in his place. Ramires was moved centrally, and his play proved far more effective than Mikel, mostly thanks to aggressive positioning and the athleticism to take advantage of the turnovers it caused. Mata's introduction also freed up the attacking midfield band to interchange, and we saw them wandering about the pitch far more often in the early parts of the second half than we did the first, in which they were constrained by Ramires' role.
Spurs' three subs were more or less like for like. Nacer Chadli's a little more inclined to drift off his flank than Townsend, Lewis Holtby prefers playing a little higher up the pitch than Eriksen and Jermain Defoe's a little more of a poacher than Soldado, but none represent significant changes to the structure of the team. That Villas-Boas didn't do more in a second half packed full of momentum swings is a surprise.
Chelsea made a like for like switch later on when Hazard was withdrawn for Andre Schurrle, but as it turned out that was a reaction to Hazard picking up an ankle injury rather than a tactical change. Their third substitution was also reactive -- Cesar Azpilicueta came on for Oscar in the 81st minute after Torres' sending off, although he appeared to be playing as a left wing-back in a strange 4-4-1-0 with Schurrle on the right side as the Blues defended for their lives in the game's closing stages.
Chelsea-Tottenham games are particularly fascinating these days because of the way Spurs have moulded themselves around their new manager. Their team's been completely retooled since they brought Andre Villas-Boas on in summer 2012, and it's been built, mostly, around his style of play. It also comes with Villas-Boas' trademark flaws, which despite a gaggle of new signings haven't really been addressed.
When he was at Chelsea, 'the Group One' caused himself tactical problems with his defensive structure. Villas-Boas favours a high-pressure attacking game, and for that he likes his defence to play very high up the pitch. That turned out, entirely unsurprisingly, to be difficult to accomplish with any of the Blues' centre backs bar David Luiz, and it saw them concede far more clear-cut chances than they really ought to -- the whole shape was constantly teetering on the edge of instability, and players were being put in positions where individual errors were both highly consequential and likely to happen.
Although Villas-Boas has obviously learned a lot since leaving Stamford Bridge, it's not at all clear that he's learned from his footballing errors at the club. At Spurs, he's persisting with his fetish for the high line, despite not having players particularly suited to it. Jan Vertonghen's capable of playing any style one likes, of course, but when he's partnered with Michael Dawson one is reminded quite powerfully of the Terry-David Luiz combination Chelsea played two seasons ago. Kyle Walker's obviously suited to playing very high, but he's the only one of Spurs' defensive group that one would call a natural there.
Step one in trying to beat Tottenham, then, is to exploit the same issues that plagued Chelsea when Villas-Boas was in charge here. In particularly, teams playing against Spurs should target Dawson (and, to some extent, Vertonghen) as soon as they can, sitting a striker on the centre backs' shoulders and trying to hit him with long passes as soon as possession is regained. And that's what Chelsea spent the first half doing.
David Luiz and Frank Lampard were the key there, and between them they attempted no fewer than 18 long balls in the first and second halves. On a few occasions, this nearly caught Tottenham out. Lampard almost put Eden Hazard in on goal early on. David Luiz's ball to Fernando Torres in the second half resulted in a goal pulled back for offside. Ramires played a long ball which ended up with Torres getting taken down by Kyle Walker (Torres claimed, with some justification, that Walker's challenge was illegal) immediately before the opening goal.
The first half in particular was about this sort of transition game. Chelsea didn't need to dominate midfield; they needed to challenge Tottenham's high line as quickly as possible upon receiving the ball. They were actually extremely dangerous even when they weren't playing well, and Spurs were being forced into some very silly challenges as the Blues sought to push up quickly. Referee Mike Dean has taken flak for his failure to control the game, in particular allowing the hosts to abuse Hazard throughout the match*, but the greater crime was his inexplicable lenience for the myriad professional fouls Tottenham were intent on committing. If they'd received yellow cards earlier than they did -- and you could argue that another three or four could have been handed out in the first half -- they'd have found it even more difficult to contain Chelsea.
*It's surely not a coincidence that Hazard is now out with an injury.
Chelsea also sought to exploit the space behind the fullbacks. This was less successful. Walker's pace makes him difficult to beat over the top, and Kyle Naughton generally hung far enough back that Ramires, who was selected as a defensive winger who can burst into space on the counterattack, wasn't particularly useful in the role Mourinho envisioned for him -- he didn't have enough to do defensively to justify a role out wide and he was somewhat curtailed by Naughton's lack of aggression going forward.
With all of the above in mind, it's difficult to criticise Chelsea for their game plan or team selection in the first half. They attacked Tottenham's weaknesses, made significant progress against them, and were causing problems against what we were told in the build-up is Europe's strongest defence. It wasn't a plan designed to control the match, but it was both well-founded and reasonably executed. As we saw after the break, with a couple of tweaks it would allow the Blues to plays Spurs off the park.
Down a goal at halftime, Jose Mourinho obviously needed to fix things. Chelsea could no longer afford to sit back and hit Spurs on the break. Even if Andre Villas-Boas isn't particularly good at holding a lead, the 1-0 advantage would certainly result in him setting his side up a little deeper and not allowing the Blues quite as much space in the second half. Chelsea, then, had to sieze control of the match rather than merely playing a direct, counterattacking game. Fortunately there was one very obvious way to do so.
Injuries to key players have made Tottenham's midfield look... well, rather odd. Both Moussa Dembele and Paulinho are very similar players, and they both come with a fatal flaw: They favour moving the ball on the run rather than throgh the pass. That means that in order to contribute offensively, they have to move out of position, which opens up space in the centre of the pitch for the opposition to attack.
With John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard in midfield, Chelsea weren't in a great position to exploit this weakness in the first half. Lampard's not the most mobile player at 35, and Mikel's more interested in ball retention than bursting into space. Fortunately, Mourinho had another option. He moved Ramires inside, stuck Juan Mata on in his place, and began playing merry havoc with the Tottenham centre.
A Lampard-Ramires pivot brings its own problems, of course. It's weaker defensively than Mikel-Lampard and fairly easy to play around, so that meant that Chelsea needed to hold the ball better than they did in the first half and play a heavy-pressure game. This is the sort of role that Mourinho's been attempting to groom Juan Mata for, and the second half gave him time to prove that he can play the game the manager wants.
Comparing the second half of the Tottenham match to the first half of the Aston villa home game is instructive. Against Villa, Mata didn't exactly shirk his defensive duties. He went up and down the flank, following the play around like one would expect. Mata is nothing if not conscientious. But he didn't actually do anything useful -- it was rote positional play rather than actively attempting to win the ball back. Mata's never been a good defender, and that's because he's so passive when his team doesn't have the ball.
That problem isn't solved, but it's certainly less of an issue now than it was at the beginning of the season. On Saturday, Mata was part of a buzzing Blue cloud that harried and harassed Spurs players whenever they had the ball, contributing to the efforts to win possession rather than standing around looking defend-y. He was also the architect of a fantastic piece of solo play, winning the ball off Kyle Walker (as the last man, no less) when Tottenham looked very dangerous on the counterattack.
It was that defensive work which will have impressed Mourinho more than the assist*. We know that Mata will provide assists and goals, but it's important that all three attacking midfield players are able to help win the ball back. If they can, it means that the trio are capable of interchanging freely even during high-pressure games, resolving the main problem with Roberto di Matteo's Chelsea side.
*It should be noted that the free kick for that goal was earned when Ramires burst through the middle after playing a one-two.
The second half saw huge holes open up in front of the Spurs defence, and that benefitted one player in particular: Fernando Torres. We saw against Hull that Torres is enjoying dropping back as a false nine (and that side of his game manifested itself in him setting up Andre Schurrle for what might have been the winning goal if not for some unfortunate finishing), but against Tottenham he had quite a lot of joy in running right at the defence. Torres set up a chance for Oscar after beating Jan Vertonghen on the right, and took further advantage of the statuesque Michael Dawson to terrorise the Tottenham back line.
It's worth pointing out, however, that although Torres looked dangerous he a) failed to capitalise on his chances to win the game and b) nearly lost it thanks to his spat with Vertonghen. And although the sending off itself was unfair -- doubly so since Vertonghen shouldn't even have been playing after disrobing Nicklas Helenius at Villa Park in the midweek game -- Torres brought a dismissal upon himself for getting involved in so many incidents in the second half, one of which arguably merited a straight red card on its own. If this was an improvement (and it was) it represents an incremental one rather than a great leap forward.
Although we won't know what would have happened had this match stayed eleven versus eleven, it's hard to shake off the feeling that Chelsea would have come out on top. The second half was probably the most complete performance of the season. This was the first real flowering of Mourinho's plans for the club, and it looks extremely promising. If we can add an aggressive, balanced attacking game to our toolkit, we're going to be very, very good.
With every setup there are weaknesses. Spurs were seeking to exploit Chelsea's much as Chelsea were hoping to do the same to them, and in this case it looked very clear what Andre Villas-Boas' plan was. Attack the fullbacks. Specifically, his plan was to start his wingers deep, draw Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole up the pitch, and then circumvent them.
Here's a reminder of exactly what AVB looks to do:
You have to provoke them with the ball, which is something most teams can’t do. I cannot understand it. It’s an essential factor in the game. At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot.
Obviously, Chelsea aren't a low-block side, but they do have very aggressive fullbacks who can be lured away from the defensive line. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andros Townsend were therefore key to the Tottenham attack. Townsend in particular had an excellent game (yellow card for diving aside), and Sigurdsson, of course, was responsible for scoring the first goal -- after creating space behind Ivanovic by hanging around the midfield line and pulling the right back towards him.
This sort of theme was repeated on the other flank for the other major chances that fell Spurs' way. Tottenham's best opportunity to extend the lead came just before the halftime whistle when Paulinho hit the outside of Petr Cech's near post, and the move began when Kyle Walker took both Eden Hazard and Ashley Cole out of the game with one very clever backheel.
The move is dangerous mostly because it draws a centre back out of position. Tottenham's goal came as a result of John Terry being isolated against Roberto Soldado and Sigurdsson, with David Luiz sensibly moving to cover right back with Ivanovic completely out of position, and the same happened to Terry whenever Cole was beaten on the Chelsea left. It's a very tough situation to be in.
The centre backs were handling themselves very well whenever they were being attacked directly, so this routine was the only way the hosts could apply much pressure to the Chelsea defence (prior to the Torres red card, anyway). But it was only effective in the first half. What changed?
It's pretty simple. When you use your wingers as bait to draw defenders up the pitch, you create space behind the fullbacks. But you also need to find a way of attacking that space. Before the break, Christian Eriksen, the central attacking midfielder (and to some extent the other midfielders as well) were called upon to pull wide whenever Ivanovic and Cole were baited, but that too leaves Spurs light on numbers in the middle.
With enough work, it's possible to isolate the player being drawn wide in this setup, and the change to a more mobile midfield when Ramires was swapped in for John Obi Mikel went a long way towards shutting Tottenham down. Eriksen barely had the ball in the second half, and as soon as he did he was swarmed into impotence.
Although a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane represents more dropped points -- and Chelsea are yet to record a win on their travels during this Premier League campaign -- it was also a decent result. Spurs are no longer a walkover, and securing an away draw against a team this good is rather positive. Chelsea have had a very rough opening set of fixtures: Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur away to open the season is nobody's idea of an easy schedule. It would have been nice if there was a win in there, but it simply wasn't to be, and that's ok.
But even if we can't take the point as a huge positive, the performance should have made everyone happy. We managed to outplay a team that's been very close to perfect this season after making some adjustments, and we made it look very easy. This might have been the best we've seen Chelsea play under Jose Mourinho. The scary part is that we could easily improve.