The Season So Far
Thus far, Tottenham’s has been a very strange campaign. Unbeaten in the Premier League in late-November, but teetering on the edge of crisis; four points off the top of the table, but seemingly unable to score from open play; playing in front of record crowds at Wembley in the Champions League, but bombing out of the competition in hugely embarrassing fashion; thrashing Manchester City, but unable to beat West Brom, Bournemouth or Leicester.
Lauded manager Mauricio Pochettino recently praised his team’s level of quality and their resilient mentality, but a few days later suggested that several changes were needed to improve his side and transform them into a genuinely threatening outfit on the continental stage. Eric Dier and Dele Alli have gone from looking like seasoned veterans to frightened kids. Harry Kane, Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose have all been injured. New signings Vincent Janssen, Moussa Sissoko and Victor Wanyama haven’t set the world alight, to put it lightly. And yet, they’re unbeaten and four points off the top spot. This is all so, so, so weird.
The Season Ahead
Spurs’ fate will probably be decided in the coming weeks. Should they get through this rough patch unscathed and start playing to their best again, they’ll put in a title challenge. With Harry Kane fit again and very much in scoring form, this possibility should not be discounted. However, should they keep stuttering as they are and start to lose the league games they’ve been drawing – and you’d have to be a very brave person to predict anything other than a defeat against Chelsea – it’s very conceivable that the wheels will come off.
With so many key players injured or losing form and so many of their new signings treading water, Pochettino has to be very careful indeed in the coming weeks. The Argentinian is worshipped at White Hart Lane, but his decisions have been increasingly scrutinised and criticised in the last month or so, and goodness knows Tottenham’s fans have had their hopes dashed far too many times in the last two decades to take the collapse of their most promising squad in recent memory at all well.
Due to injuries, most notably to the very unfortunate sufferer of minor niggles Mousa Dembélé, Pochettino has had to abandon his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape and play with a 4-3-3 more often than not. There’s a compelling argument that it makes Tottenham a more dynamic, less predictable attacking outfit – the midfield offers more attacking runners and the angle of attack is less obvious – but the numbers suggest that they’re actually easier to stifle and far easier to penetrate than before.
Should Dembélé regain fitness and allow Pochettino to bring the 4-2-3-1 back for the long-term, Spurs should find a more natural balance throughout the side and begin to play to their best again. As it is, Chelsea should prepare to face both a 4-3-3 with the emphasis on overloading wide areas and midfield runners arriving late in the box, as well as the more orthodox, overwhelming 4-2-3-1 predicated on constant forward movement from all areas.
As previously stated, for all their problems so far this season, Tottenham have actually done very well. 56.4% possession is third highest average in the Premier League, while only Liverpool have taken more shots per game than Spurs’ 17.5, and 5.7 of those have ended up on target. They’ve varied their angles of attack, attacking extremely prolifically from open play as ever, while also threatening from set pieces: 1.2 chances created per game from corners, for example, is the second highest average in the Premier League.
At the other end, they’ve faced more shots than usual – more on which later – but they’re still fiendishly hard to score against. They’ve only allowed their opponents 2.8 shots on target per game, while Hugo Lloris’ save rate of 76.5% is the best in the league.
In short: they’re really good. However, there’s reason for Chelsea to believe.
There’s no greater cause for hope for Chelsea than a decline in the famed Pochettino press, which really hasn’t been anywhere near its best this season: 16.8 tackles per game is a low number, 8.7 passes blocked per game isn’t much better, while 9.8 interceptions per game and 1.8 crosses blocked per game are the lowest figures in the league. They’ve been dribbled past 10.8 times per game, which is high, while 30.2 clearances per game is the league’s second highest figure and 13.7 fouls per game is the league’s highest figure.
In layman’s terms, they’re far less convincing in midfield than before, and there’s much more space to exploit than there used to be. It’s easier to get at their back four than at any time during Pochettino’s tenure, and they’re being worked harder than ever. If Hugo Lloris suddenly stops playing like Superman, they could find themselves in deep trouble.
At the other end, there are big (Vincent Janssen-shaped) problems. It's probably true that they have too much possession and not enough space to attack. Whatever the cause, they’re simply not creating enough good chances, and they’re not finishing enough of the ones they do make. 7.9 shots per game from outside the box is the league’s highest figure, while 6.6 shots off target per game and 5.2 shots blocked per game are the second highest. Their scoring rate of 26.5% is one of the lowest in the division, and Harry Kane will need to start playing like Gerd Müller to correct that.
Injuries and suspensions mean Mauricio Pochettino has his hands tied somewhat. The centre of defence looks incredibly vulnerable without Toby Alderweireld and the enforced relocation of Jan Vertonghen to left-back. If Mousa Dembélé plays they’ll have a much better chance of getting a result; if not, this is Chelsea’s game for the taking.
You already know the Chelsea lineup.
2-1 Chelsea, unless Diego Costa does something phenomenally stupid and gets sent off.