Ahead of Spurs’ first London derby of the season there was some unexpected team news for both sides which made for a fascinating situation where nobody quite new how either team would line up.
Spurs presented their team as: Lloris (C), Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Wanyama, Dembele, Eriksen, Dele, Kane. This implied a back four, with Dier, Wanyama and Dembele in midfield, which seemed highly unusual but proved to be correct.
Chelsea presented their team in number order, but included four players who would usually play as part of their back three, leading to suggestions that David Luiz would, in fact, line up in midfield alongside Tiémoué Bakayoko and N’Golo Kanté. He did so, and their system was something like a 3-5-1-1.
This led to a number of questions: where was Chelsea’s midfield creativity going to come from? How would their ‘new’ back three gel? How would Spurs’ creative players find space? How would Kieran Trippier — just back after injury — cope with getting up and down the large Wembley pitch?
Chelsea started in a stodgy but effective manner, and created a huge chance after five minutes, Cesar Azpilicueta finding Alvaro Morata in space between Trippier and Toby Alderweireld. Indeed, Chelsea dominated the opening 25 minutes, taking the lead through a Marcos Alonso free-kick, but there was a surprising vulnerability about their midfield. David Luiz initially looked uncomfortable in his defensive midfield role, often being tempted towards the ball and leaving Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to pick up possession behind him. This led to Spurs being able to create openings, and Harry Kane hit the post when Luiz was caught ahead of the ball again and Alli gave Azpilicueta the slip, finding Kane who cut in and was just off target with a firm, low strike.
Spurs finished the half strongly with Ben Davies getting on the end of a Kane pass and testing Thibaut Courtois, before a flurry of set pieces created a few ‘nearly’ moments. But despite the strong ending, there were clearly issues in Spurs’ approach play, with their unnatural three-man midfield not suiting at least two out of the three. Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier were being asked to take possession in what were essentially full-back positions in the build-up play, and this looked particularly uncomfortable for Dier.
In addition, Trippier is a player who needs to be found high up the pitch to allow him to use his lethal crossing ability, rather than being able to get into those areas by himself — he is not a ball carrier and struggles to beat a man through pace or individual skill, so he was pretty unsuited to the task he was being asked to undertake.
The second half saw Spurs continue with the same unbalanced formation and, whilst they managed the possession effectively, they could not convert it into clear cut chances. Only Eriksen and Kane looked likely to create, and it seemed as though that could only come from a moment of magic rather than a systematic advantage. Meanwhile, Chelsea were happy to sit deeper and deeper and defend their penalty box and let Spurs move the ball from side to side.
On 67 minutes, Pochettino made a tactical change, removing Eric Dier, who was on a yellow card for a poor challenge, and introduced Son Heung-min. Son took up a position on the left of a 4-2-3-1. However, by this point, Victor Wanyama was starting to struggle in midfield. He had only just returned to fitness, and had not looked fully sharp all match, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that he was tiring, and the substitution perhaps saw the wrong player removed.
Chelsea took the opportunity to try to seize the advantage again, and started pouring bodies forward, Willian repeatedly getting the wrong side of the tiring Wanyama and starting to cause problems in the number ten zone.
Spurs sent on Mousa Sissoko for Ben Davies, switching to a back three (in fact, a 3-4-2-1 of Lloris; Wanyama, Alderweireld, Vertonghen; Trippier, Sissoko, Dembele, Son; Eriksen, Dele; Kane) and managed to get back into the game when Batshuayi glanced a wonderfully-whipped Eriksen free-kick into his own net. But this second formation change seemed to spark chaos, and the game became stretched and frantic.
Chelsea eventually profited from this after Dembele — temporarily covering for Wanyama at centre-back — snuffed out danger and allowed the ball to run back to Lloris; Lloris saw a counter-attacking opportunity and bowled the ball out to Wanyama, who had Sissoko to his right. Wanyama needed to sweep the ball right first time, but instead tried to take a touch, allowing Luiz to nip in and seize possession. He found Alonso, who played a give and go with Pedro; Alonso ran past Wanyama into the box, and a now-limping Dembele couldn’t get across to cover. Alonso shot low past Lloris, who threw himself down on the ball but let it go under his body. Overall, the goal was a mess with players out of position, tired, limping, and making poor decisions. Lloris should not have thrown the ball out to a limping Wanyama, and Wanyama should have known not to take a touch in a hectic midfield area.
Antonio Conte’s three-man midfield, despite lacking creativity, did a remarkable job of nullifying Spurs, and primarily restricting chances to long-range efforts and hopeful crosses. David Luiz let Eriksen and Alli get goal-side of him too many times in the first half, but in the second half — when he was playing deeper — he did a remarkable job of being in the right place at the right time (ending with 5 tackles, 4 clearances), and was the half’s outstanding player. Tiémoué Bakayoko had a wonderfully energetic debut and showed signs of what he could be this season for Chelsea.
Conversely, Tottenham’s midfield three was a worst-of-both-world’s situation. Mousa Dembele’s unique skillset was wasted with him transitioning the ball from a fullback position into Eriksen and co, whilst Eric Dier is too immobile to play the equivalent shuttling job on the right of a three. Spurs had Winks sat on the bench who is much more suited to the role if Pochettino felt it was the best method. Equally, Kieran Trippier is not equipped to carry the ball up the right flank and, as such, Spurs barely forced their opposite numbers to commit themselves on the flanks and mostly played in front of them.
Next week Tottenham play Burnley who, like Chelsea in this match, will play a low block. We will likely need to change formation and/or personnel if we are to grind out a win against another defensively-disciplined team. On the plus side, Harry Kane looked self-assured and lively (8 shots, 3 on target) against Chelsea, and Burnley should fear his desire to put his no-goals-in-August record behind him.