The Season So Far
This has been one of the strangest seasons in Tottenham’s recent history – which is saying something. For most of the campaign it has felt less like the beginning of The Mauricio Pochettino Era and more like the latest instalment of The Daniel Levy Story, containing all the familiar tropes and leading to the usual inevitable ending. We’ve seen it all before and, deep down, we know exactly what’s coming.
Bright young manager in his first season in charge: check. Squad of disinterested mercenaries performing inconsistently and publicly blaming everyone except themselves: check. Meek home defeats to Premier League dross: check. Chairman’s inflated expectations leading to scowls in the directors’ box: check. Occasional victories against top-four teams to remind everyone that Spurs actually aren’t that awful: check.
And yet, despite this nagging feeling of déjà vu, it has unquestionably been unlike any other Spurs season in recent memory. The reason? One Harry Edward Kane. It shouldn’t be possible for one youngster to single-handedly revive a club the size of Tottenham Hotspur, but that’s pretty much exactly what Kane has done.
Just when Spurs fans everywhere were most in need of a hero – a player who understands what it means to represent Tottenham; one who isn’t only there because he’s seen Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modrić and Gareth Bale get lucrative moves on the back of good showings in lilywhite; one who actually wants to be there and cares about the club – they got one.
Of course, Spurs are still all over the place domestically. They’ve just been knocked out of Europe by Fiorentina. Some fans think they’re still in the hunt for fourth place, but in reality they’re like a Japanese soldier marooned on a Pacific island, still fighting World War II.
Despite all of this, White Hart Lane isn’t such a miserable place to go. Their fans are optimistic and buoyant, for now at least. They will always remember 2014-15 as the season when Harry Kane reminded them why they love Spurs. Victory in the League Cup Final would surely cement Kane’s place as a club legend.
Pochettino is famously Bielsista to the core, which means pressing, pressing and more pressing. Lured from Southampton specifically to take the squad that André Villas-Boas had assembled to work as a terrifying pressing machine and turn it into one that actually worked, the signs are starting to show that the 42 year-old Argentine is making progress.
Tottenham make the highest number of tackles per game in the Premier League, with 22.5, and they rank 6th in the interceptions per game table with 17.7. These numbers would suggest that they spend an awful lot of time without the ball, but only Manchesters City and United have higher average possession figures. This is a team that knows how to keep the ball and desperately wants to win it back whenever it’s lost.
As is commonplace these days, the starting formation for Spurs is a fairly rigid 4-2-3-1, with overlapping full-backs, one central midfielder who sits and another who moves more freely. The wide players in the third band act as inside forwards and the number ten’s main job is usually to give shape and structure to the press, rather than to dictate tempo or create in the traditional sense. This means that despite Christian Eriksen being a natural number ten with the ball, he usually plays wide because his defensive understanding is less developed than someone like Mousa Dembélé’s.
Chelsea can expect to face a system very similar to their own but one that necessarily functions at a much higher speed. Their goal must be to have prepared passing strategies when it comes to escaping the Spurs press and others to access the space in front of Spurs’ back four. If Chelsea can get in behind the press and tempt either of Spurs’ centre-backs into charging out of the back four, as is their wont, they will have success in the final third.
If their most obvious strength is the press, the one that is probably least appreciated is their stamina. Pochettino always wants his teams to be the most physically robust and unrelenting around and he usually accomplishes that aim very quickly. It’s no coincidence that his team have scored so many late winners this season, nor that they have bullied lesser sides off the park with sheer physical power. Chelsea have to be ready for a fight that never stops.
Another strength is that their star players seem capable of producing brilliance when they most need to: Eriksen’s goals have won more points than any other Premier League player’s this season; Kane has a knack of almost willing balls into the back of the net at key moments; Lloris almost always makes the big saves. As well as being a collective of growing repute, they hold one-off trump cards in reserve.
In a word: consistency. We always seem to refer to Tottenham as a growing force, as a team that is just starting to gel, and that is usually true. They’ve usually showed enough to make us think that in a year or two they’ll be a real contender, and then Levy pulls the plug on the project in a fit of pique and starts again from scratch in the summer. Maybe he won’t do that this time around, but the fact remains that this is a team that’s still coming together – the players aren’t quite on the same wavelength as each other and their displays are often uneven and sometimes even infuriating.
Additionally, while Spurs have players who can certainly turn a game with a moment of brilliance, they also have regular starters who can throw a match away with a moment of unspeakable idiocy. Danny Rose is a Championship footballer playing at a higher level due to his nationality, Kyle Walker is improving but still has moments where he forgets that he’s a professional and Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen can never decide whether they’re going to play like Gerard Piqué or Titus Bramble. None of them are reliable.
And while their press is undoubtedly a formidable weapon, it can be haphazardly applied. This article on Ryan Mason explains why he’s a perfect fit for Pochettino’s style, but simply not a very good player. Even without Nemanja Matić, Chelsea should be confident of having the steel and the smarts to navigate their way through Spurs’ midfield.
Most of Pochettino’s line-up rolls of the tongue easily, but there are question marks over a few positions. Michel Vorm has played every game in this competition so far and could start instead of Lloris; Federico Fazio could play instead of Dier; Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli are in contention to lead the press instead of Dembélé.
Despite the recent 5-3 shellacking Chelsea suffered at White Hart Lane, Chelsea have to be favourites for this game. It’s Chelsea, it’s a Cup final, it’s José Mourinho. It’s Tottenham. Perhaps that’s reductive analysis, but Occam’s Razor tells us that the simple answer is often the correct one. At tight, scrappy game that finishes 2-1 to Chelsea in normal time.