It’s difficult to get to grips with just how strange this season has been. Seven months ago, in the wake of perhaps the funniest 2-2 draw in Premier League history, the reader would not have had any trouble imagining Chelsea earning a victory in this season’s corresponding fixture. Tottenham, after all, remain Tottenham, and they’ll never escape that brutal truth, no matter how hard Daniel Levy or Mauricio Pochettino rage against their fate. Beating Tottenham at Stamford Bridge is to be expected, even after turbulent year.
But what a Chelsea supporter back on May 3rd might have had trouble envisioning was the context and the manner of victory. Both are, frankly, baffling. A side that finished tenth last season, woefully off the pace in every quarter, needed to win Spurs to go top of the table at the end of November. And top of the league despite some fairly impressive competition at that. For a club to go from shambling catastrophe in May to pace-setters as we enter winter is remarkable.
Chelsea as league leaders, however, would have at least been within reach of one’s imagination. We’ve seen this team win more or less everything that exists to be won, after all. Even if it would have been implausible to picture Antonio Conte guiding his side to a run like this, it would have been possible to close one’s eyes and imagine. The context, therefore, must take a back seat in the strangeness sweepstakes. It’s the way they won today that claims that prize.
Before this season, Pedro’s career highlight at Chelsea was probably ... I don’t know, winning a corner? And unlike Fernando Torres, it wasn’t even for the right team. Victor Moses, meanwhile, has had a couple of bright spots — forgetting that winner against Shakhtar Donetsk would be churlish — but the Nigerian has spent the past few seasons gadding about on loan and generally giving everyone the impression that we’d never see him again.
I put it to you, then, that Chelsea going top of the league by beating Tottenham 2-1, with goals from Pedro and (man of the match) Moses was almost literally unthinkable before the start of this season. It happened nonetheless.
Spurs had rested Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen for Tuesday’s Champions League defeat to Monaco, preferring to look for revenge after our last meeting than strive for a meaningless bauble like the European Cup. With Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela injured, plus Danny Rose suspended, the team Pochettino brought to Stamford Bridge was significantly depleted. But Tottenham though came to SW6 under-strength, they also arrived undefeated. That alone suggested Chelsea were in for a fight.
The visitors certainly didn’t play like a second-string side. Within minutes it became clear that Spurs would be the toughest challenge of this long winning run. Moussa Dembele was knifing through N’Golo Kante at will, and Tottenham’s wide players were finding space behind the wingbacks and keeping Chelsea pinned back.
Thibaut Courtois was soon picking the ball out of the back of his net. His defenders failed to properly clear a Spurs free kick, and Harry Kane was only too happy to mop up the loose ball. He was, however, clearly offside. The Blues’ clean sheet streak survived.
The linesman’s flag, however, turned out to be a merely temporary reprieve. Tottenham were causing carnage whenever they went forward, and got the goal they deserved 11 minutes in. Dele Alli, dashing through midfield, drew a challenge from David Luiz and got the ball to Eriksen before being flattened. The Denmark international, finding himself free on the edge of the box, let fly, curling a vicious strike beyond Courtois and in at the near post.
Chelsea’s six-match winning streak had seen some extremely impressive performances, but so dominant had they been in 3-4-3 that they’d never had to even consider coming from behind in a match. Since the humiliation at Arsenal, this team’s resilience had not been called into question. Here, for the first time in months, the Blues were staring down the barrel.
They bounced back, but certainly took their time about it. For much of the first half it was Tottenham who looked the likelier to score. Victor Wanyama and Dembele were bossing the midfield, leaving the forward players free to cause havoc amongst Chelsea’s three-man defence. The Blues had enough bodies back to prevent Spurs creating anything truly dangerous, but it was a succession of last-ditch rescues rather than true control that kept the visitors from doubling their advantage.
There wasn’t much happening at the other end of the pitch, either. Middlesbrough had given teams a neat demonstration in how to disrupt Chelsea’s possession play via the high press, and Spurs are one of the most energetic teams in the league. They learned their lesson well, shutting down the vital links between defence and midfield and forcing the Blues into a permanent scramble for possession. To make matters worse, Eden Hazard was nowhere to be seen for long stretches, marked into oblivion by a combination of Wanyama and Kyle Walker.
Chelsea’s recovery began with Hazard coming to life. Frustrated by his inability to affect the game, he dropped deep and deeper to find the ball, providing another escape from Tottenham’s pressing game and giving the Blues a foothold. Once they’d found that, they were difficult to dislodge. Spurs had been in control, but their domination was bleeding away.
Which is not to say that they seemed in any imminent danger of conceding. Diego Costa and Pedro had been busy but ineffective, getting cleaned up in midfield well before they stitched together any threatening moves. Meanwhile the wingbacks were almost totally uninvolved, and Spurs were disrupting anything Chelsea were trying with a vigourous barrage of fouls. Halftime loomed, and it seemed as though the Blues would go into the break down a goal*. Then Pedro happened.
*Hazard picking off a short pass from the goalkeeper and being totally unable to do anything with it made me briefly think that it just wasn’t going to be our day.
Pedro has, of course, scored in a big game before. But his early strike against Manchester United wasn’t necessarily a big goal for him personally so much as it was the punchline to a giant joke. He was merely the avatar of punishment for United’s collective meltdown. It’s probably fair to say that the former Barcelona man had been lacking in signature moments since moving to Stamford Bridge. Against Tottenham, however, with his side up against the wall, he pulled one out of his hat.
Nemanja Matic found Pedro on the edge of the box with a pass which, though smart, still left him plenty to do. So he did it, turning back into space, leaving the defenders confused and falling back, spectators to a 20-yard curling strike that will turn up on every highlight reel for a long time to come. Hugo Lloris got nowhere near it, and Chelsea had found themselves back in the game.
Conte clearly had some things to say to his players back in the dressing room, because the second half had very little in common with the first. Neither Moses nor Marcos Alonso had done themselves much credit in the opening exchanges, but they now found themselves with new life. The Matic-Kante pairing also seemed to step up a gear, finally putting a stop to Dembele’s casual dominance of midfield.
Those changes left Chelsea looking a lot more like, well, Chelsea, and it wasn’t long before they started getting sights of goal. The first fell to Kante, who had a shot from outside the box saved easily. The second turned out to be significantly more difficult to keep out.
The Blues were now hunting in packs in midfield, and three shirts converged to force a turnover as Spurs looked to drive up the pitch. Diego Costa and Hazard were free on the left and duly found, with the former trundling his way down the left channel and leaving panic in his wake. Costa pushed into the box and looked for the cutback, which everyone was expecting to go to Pedro. Instead, he saw Moses unmarked at the back post.
Tottenham’s whole team had collapsed in on the ball. Kevin Wimmer, deputising for Rose, is a central defender by trade, and it showed here. Instead of anticipating the threat from a wide position, he followed Pedro into a tangle of bodies at the near post. Costa was left with acres of space to roll the ball across goal, giving Moses perhaps the easiest chance he’ll ever score.
Precision was discarded in favour of power, which a decision which gave us both the lead and the delightful realisation that the ball had found its way home via a deflection from Jan Vertonghen’s crotch.
Having spent most of the match 1-0 down, the Blues were now in the ascendency, and for a few minutes it seemed as though the might run away with the match. They probably would have but for better finishing by Alonso, who turned some sublime work from Diego Costa into a horrendous shot when it seemed easier to score.
If Chelsea had managed to make it 3-1 then, the rest of the match would have been less nerve-wracking. Instead, the fans got to chew their nails a little more than they’d have liked. Spurs recovered from their wobble and went back on the offensive, creating (and wasting) perhaps their best chance of the match on the hour mark.
Harry Kane had been quiet for most of the evening, but he managed to get the better of both David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta to set up Eriksen from close range. But unlike in the first half, Eriksen’s effort was weak and straight at Courtois, who held on gratefully.
That proved to be the last significant save he’d have to make. There were certainly nervous moments as the match drew to a close, but though Chelsea’s defence bent in all sorts of weird ways, they never actually broke. Having three at the back tends to give teams a spare man to mop up dangerous situations, and that’s more or less what we saw here. It was off-balance and on the back foot, but it was also effective, and enough to earn all three points.
The Blues bled away the time with defensive substitutions and a series of half-assed counterattacks, leaving Tottenham increasingly frustrated as time wound down. We did not, however, get a repeat of last season’s histrionics from the visitors, who rose above their baser selves and refused to spend the final ten minutes kicking everyone in sight. For this, I think, they should be applauded. Chelsea have grown since that clash in May — why not Spurs as well?