The quality of a Tottenham performance is so often dependent on how successfully they manage to implement a press. When they manage to impose themselves on the opposing team by playing the game at an explosive tempo, the results can be exhilarating, as in the victory over Manchester City earlier this season. But when off the pace and slower to pressurise the opposition, they can look flat and lacking in ideas, as in the recent goalless run during October.
The game against Chelsea at the weekend succinctly illustrated this point. In the first half Spurs were outstanding, allowing the opposition no time on the ball and rattling a team that had looked unflappable in recent weeks. But once the intensity eased off in the second half, Chelsea were resurgent and managed to steal the win with two goals either side of half-time.
The most impressive aspect of the first half performance was how Pochettino’s team got the better of Chelsea’s widely-lauded 3-4-3 formation, which had previously bewildered every team to have come up against it since Antonio Conte made the switch eight weeks ago.
It wasn’t so much a matter of shape that enabled Spurs to dominate (although the reversion back to the more familiar 4-2-3-1 certainly helped). Rather, it was the speed at which they played the game that neutralised the threats of Chelsea’s formation.
The front four of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min hounded Chelsea’s back three and goalkeeper, denying them the time they usually enjoy to build the play from deep. Whenever the ball was shifted wide to their wing-backs outlets Spurs gave them no room to maneuver in, with Son, Mousa Dembele and Kevin Wimmer (deputising at left-back) surrounding Victor Moses, and Eriksen, Victor Wanyama and Kyle Walker doing the same to Marcos Alonso.
This high-intensity collective pressing of the wing-backs was crucial, as it prevented Chelsea from stretching the play via the flanks, and kept things central where Spurs had a 3 v 2 advantage. Dembele and Wanyama must be one of the few centre midfield pairings able to outmuscle Chelsea’s of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, which left Dele as a spare man with acres of space to work with. Significantly, Tottenham’s goal came about when Dele received the ball in space with no Chelsea’s, drove forward and fed Eriksen to unleash his vicious strike.
The pressing was so effective that it even meant Spurs’ lopsided formation went unexposed. Having been selected to play left-back in the absence of the first and second choice, Kevin Wimmer played very conservatively and rarely ventured forward, forcing Son to provide width on the flank and Dembele to shift more leftwards than usual. That left Kyle Walker with even greater responsibility than usual to be an attacking outlet on the other flank, and made that side of the pitch potentially vulnerable.
Chelsea exploited that vulnerability for their first goal. Alonso, who had been pinned back for most of the half, for once found himself deep into Tottenham’s half with Chelsea in possession with one minute to go until half-time, and made an overlapping run down the left flank when Pedro received the ball. Panicked by his presence, both Walker and Dembele tracked his run rather than closing Pedro down, allowing the Spaniard to turn and score.
As Spurs’ tempo decreased in the second half, Chelsea’s wing-backs were less hassled and therefore able to push much further up the pitch, and it was right wing-back Moses who scored the winning goal with attacking run that saw him advance all the way into the spurs’ box. Son didn’t track his run and Wimmer failed to notice his unmarked presence, allowing the Nigerian to compose himself unpressured when Costa picked him out in acres of space.
With a lead to defend, Chelsea were then able to drop deep, and gave Spurs to leeway to break them down.
On the back of the crucial Champions League tie in Monaco, it was always going to be a big ask for Spurs to be at their best for the whole 90 minutes against Chelsea, and it is understandable that they were unable to sustain the same level of intensity they managed in the first half. Still, despite the eventual result, that first half performance is an encouraging sign for upcoming fixtures, especially now the strain of performing in midweek for the Champions League has been lifted.
Enjoyed this article? Hit the heart below!