Chelsea lost, as they were someday bound to. Thirteen straight wins and a six-point lead atop the Premier League had left us all a little drunk on our own invincibility. It’s impossible to emotionally distance yourself from a run like that, from a team like this. Even the most sober among us found ourselves hard-pressed to escape the aura of crushing inevitability that’s surrounded the Blues of late.
So when Dele Alli’s goal went in — the second one, the one which confirmed the rising mountain as effectively unscalable — I thought about reversal. It’s the nature of sport (perhaps the nature of existence) for success to be followed by failure, and for success to overreach itself into arrogance. And while she stands a long way removed from Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Chelsea, I couldn’t help but think of Simone Weil, a brilliant French philosopher from the mid-20th century.
In Weil’s analysis of The Iliad, she comments on the ultimate fate of all those who seek gain over their fellow man for strength.
The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose ... Achilles rejoices over the sight of the Greeks fleeing in misery and confusion. What could possibly suggest to him that this rout, which will last exactly as long as he wants it, that this rout will be the cause of his friend’s death, and for that matter, his own? Thus it happens that those who carry force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.
But at the time their own destructions seems impossible to them. For they do not see that the force in their possession is only a limited quantity; nor do they see their relations with other human beings as a kind of balance between unequal amounts of force. Since other people do not impose on their movements that halt, that interval of hesitation, wherein lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity, they conclude that destiny has given complete license to them, and none at all to their inferiors.
And at this point they exceed the measure of the force that is actually at their disposal. Inevitably they exceed it, since they are not aware that it is limited. And now we see them committed irretrievably to chance, suddenly things cease to obey them. Sometimes chance is kind to them, sometime cruel. But in any case there they are, exposed, open to misfortune; gone is the armor of power that formerly protected their naked souls; nothing, no shield, stands between them and tears.
For “force” here, we should read “victory”. For months, Chelsea have been building themselves up as football’s most unstoppable team, and for months they’ve also been sketching out the nature of their fall. The fall itself was inevitable, no matter how hard Antonio Conte worked, and no matter how well the players performed. Every win — and we might have won today, despite the ultimate scoreline — was merely a postponement of the reckoning owed once we tie ourselves to the pursuit of victory.
Unlike the characters of The Iliad, the club and fans can heal from the damage done to them today. There will be no mass laments of the slaves to be. Nemanja Matic, upon whom you could probably place a plumed helmet and call Hector, was not dragged three times around the walls by Moussa Dembele (Dembele, mercifully, settled for once). Instead, three points were dropped, the wound more to our pride than anything else. Nobody died.
And that means that we are in the position of choosing how to respond to this trial. We were due this setback from the minute we became Chelsea supporters, just as we’re due hundreds more in the years to come. From what happened at Arsenal we know how the team and the manager will react; what’s not as clear is how the supporters will. So, if I might, a suggestion: smile. Even if you’re disappointed by the performance today, this team has done you proud. Wind yourself up too much in endless victory and you condemn yourself to a thousand future wounds.
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Chelsea came into White Hart Lane looking to extend their lead at the top of the league to eight points. Spurs, meanwhile, were looking to make up the gap to the top four, and knew a victory would close it entirely. Mauricio Pochettino is the first manager to face Conte’s 3-4-3 twice, and one of the few with the quality at his disposal to have any faith in countering it.
Tottenham’s approach to dealing with the Blues will be described as matching Chelsea’s shape, but in truth was something more like a 3-5-2, with Dele Alli supporting Harry Kane up top and Christian Eriksen floating as an advanced playmaker. With Dembele and Victor Wanyama in midfield, they had a solid base upon which to operate, and they did an admirable job playing their game and preventing Chelsea from inflicting their will.
But it was a close-run thing, and it’s not hard to imagine the game going in an entirely different direction. Our first point of divergence arrived four minutes in, when Matic’s quick forward pass caught out the entirety of Tottenham’s defence and played Eden Hazard clean through. Hazard has been in excellent goalscoring form, but here his touch let him down, preventing him from dribbling at Hugo Lloris. Then, denied his first option, his finishing deserted the Belgian as well, his snatched shot rolling just wide when it looked as though Chelsea might have claimed an early lead.
It looked as though that was going to the the big chance of a scoreless first half. Aside from that mistake*, Spurs probably carried the majority of the attacking threat. But they weren’t breaking through, and until Alli struck during injury time they didn’t seem very likely to either. The Blues defence is stout, and some difficult moments aside were repelling whatever was thrown at them.
*And a botched counterattack that had Diego Costa verbally flaying Pedro.
Stout they might be, but they’re not invincible. There’s been criticism of the whole back five during the winning run, with Gary Cahill and Marcos Alonso getting the brunt of it. But contrary to most expectations Spurs targeted the opposite flank, taking advantage of Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses.
His habit for playing hospital balls aside, Azpilicueta has been superb for Chelsea this season. But although he’s brilliant one on one and quicker than any centre half has a right to be, there’s always going to be a glaring weakness to his game. He can’t command the air, and there’s no way he’ll ever manage that. Moses, meanwhile, is a converted winger and frequently defends like one. Squint, and you can see the opening.
By using Kane to draw off David Luiz and Gary Cahill, Tottenham were able to create a situation in which Alli could attack the space between Moses and Azpilicueta. On the ground, that might be ok. In the air, it proved deadly. Perhaps the delivery should have been stopped at source: Matic seemed less than keen on closing down Eriksen as the fatal stroke came. But the opening goal came down to the right side of the defence, with Moses playing everyone onside as Alli rose to meet the cross.
46 minutes gone and Chelsea were down 1-0. It was the first headed goal the Blues had conceded all season. It wasn’t even to be the last of the game.
The damnable thing was that the team responded so well. After halftime, Chelsea tore into their opponents. Costa forced a smart stop from Lloris after finding space outside the box. Alonso slung in a low cross that just evaded Pedro. And then, following a minor headed scramble, the equaliser arrived on a plate for Hazard, who just needed to direct his point-blank diving header into the goal. Instead, he found the side netting.
Then the game ended. To call it a sucker punch would be totally misleading; the second goal was telegraphed by the first and the Blues simply failed to do anything about it. Again, Eriksen had space on the right, this time after Alonso blocked a cross from Kyle Walker. Again, he aimed a cross at Alli, this time at the back post. A confused attempt by the trio of Courtois, Azpilicueta and Moses to intervene failed to keep the ball out of the back of the net, but did an admirable job of looking vaguely ridiculous.
There was no way back at this point. Tottenham have a stingy defence and could sit back and wait for Chelsea to do something, the sort of trick we’ve pulled time after time over the past few months. To his credit, Conte tried several somethings. Alonso came off for Willian, with Pedro moving to left back. Cesc Fabregas came in for N’Golo Kante. Then Michy Batshuayi appeared for Moses in a move that signalled that the Blues were going for broke. But it wasn’t enough to salvage a goal, let alone a point.
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So the winning streak is over. 13 games isn’t bad. Our position at the top of the table isn’t bad either. This loss stings, but hopefully we can render it inconsequential when May comes along. And I think that this might also be a good time to say thank you to the players for one of the most extraordinary runs Chelsea fans will ever see. They might have lost tonight, but they can all be proud of what they’ve accomplished since September 24th.
We’ll get them next time.