Tottenham vs Chelsea: Litmus test

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 24, 2018
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Tottenham 3 Chelsea 1, Wembley.

The rivalry between Tottenham and Chelsea has a curious energy. It’s a derby in the geographical sense, of course, but most of its acrimony flows in one direction. While the ire of Spurs supporters remains localised in North London, those in the south-west of the capital have no natural enemy; Fulham and QPR are too weak, Crystal Palace are too far south, and their dislike of Arsenal has always seemed slightly half-hearted. It’s to the north-west it flows, then, and that provides the edge to this fixture, which has been sharpened by acrimonious recent chapters and intensified by Tottenham’s rising relevance.

On Saturday night, the two sides dealt very differently with that atmosphere. Tottenham found unexpected life, waking from a slumber which had lasted most of the last three months, while Chelsea cowered under the Wembley lights, surrendering meekly to an opponent who gleefully took the opportunity to humble them.

It was comfortably Chelsea’s worst performance of the season. There had been prior wobbles, but never with the effect of creating such obvious inferiority. Ironically, it was a display which bore resemblance to those flaccid efforts Spurs used to give in this fixture, when they’d be beaten before they left the Stamford Bridge tunnel. True, Chelsea may not have produced quite the same high comedy, but it was obvious from very early that they lacked the resolve to meet this challenge. Spurs were quicker, stronger, better. Much more dynamic with the ball, unquestionably more secure without it.

Identifying a specific cause will be a challenge for Maurizio Sarri. Chelsea’s midfield remains a gear or two short and, clearly, it doesn’t help that Alvaro Morata looks like he’d rather be anywhere else whenever he plays, but they suffered on Saturday from a more general ailment: a dullness of the mind, perhaps brought on by the international break. Players can sometimes suffer a figurative jet lag after ten days away and if ever a game demonstrated that then it was this one.

Sarri wasn’t helped by his goalkeeper. Kepa Arrizabalaga would redeem himself through the rest of the first-half, but he shirked his duty early, retreating from a whipped Christian Eriksen free-kick and then patting Dele Alli’s header into the roof of his own net. Tottenham deserved that lead, they had pursued the ball with much more intent, but it was a headstart that they didn’t need.

The second goal was no less charitable. In fact, it was the more generous of the two: Harry Kane may have curled his shot wickedly into the bottom corner, but David Luiz offered a comedic lack of resistance, turning his back, failing to make the block, and yet still managing to unsight his goalkeeper. No blame attached to Kepa this time, but it was characteristic of Chelsea’s mental fog and precursor of what was to follow.

It was an untimely lapse; the Spurs they ran into haven’t been seen for some time. Mauricio Pochettino remains without important players, but his side functioned remarkably well. In particular, his gaffer taped midfield of Eric Dier, Moussa Sissoko and Christian Eriksen was particularly prosperous, building and destroying effectively and reducing their opposing department to a disjointed shambles. Ahead of that unit, Harry Kane headlined an attack which purred with rhythm; Son Hueng Min swept across the field, skittling defenders as he passed, while Alli played with that joyful spirit he possesses at his very best, taking extra touches and extra time, doing almost whatever he wanted.

It was a strange development because it came without warning. Tottenham began Saturday night in fourth place, but did so almost in spite of themselves. They haven’t been good this year. In fact, they’ve been a muddle of muscle injuries, fatigue and repurposed parts, and this was the game which was supposed to expose them for what they really are.

Instead, it made a mockery of Chelsea’s credentials. Spurs were often outstanding, they actually resembled the side who signed off at White Hart Lane with that memorable flourish, but Sarri’s team were incomprehensibly poor. Football teams sometimes lose, that can happen, but rarely does a defeat occur in this sort of game with such a lack of resistance. Ten minutes after half-time, the game had its emblem: Son collected the ball on the halfway lane, ole’ing a straggling cast of defenders on his way to goal, and slid a finish calmly into the far corner. On the one hand a great moment of flair and conviction, one which will be replayed many times, but also as bad a defensive sequence as Chelsea have produced in the Roman Abramovich era. No tactical fouls, no resistance, and not even any obvious anger in response; it was embarrassing – the challenges from Luiz and Jorginho, especially, had no place in a Premier League game, let alone one of such local meaning.

In fact, the only consolation for Chelsea was that the scoreline didn’t more accurately reflect the distance between the two sides. For the final half-an-hour, Tottenham created a steady flow of excellent chances. Son might have done better with a curling shot which just missed Kepa’s top-corner and, from barely six yards, Kane should definitely have scored his side’s fourth.

Chelsea would even get a fig leaf for their modesty, with substitute Olivier Giroud steering a smart header past Hugo Lloris with less than five minutes remaining. Annoying for Pochettino, but also because of the denial of an obvious symmetry: for all intents and purposes, this was the 3-0 loss Antonio Conte suffered at Arsenal in 2016. Then, as now, Chelsea had been over-celebrated and their deficiencies ignored. With the defeat at the Emirates came the need for an urgent rethink and, if Sarri is to deliver any notional success this season, that must now happen again.

It’s important to resist dramatic conclusions, football has a way of mocking those who do, but this was a grave defeat. Whereas Tottenham – finally – played to a level which they’re known to be capable, Chelsea recorded a new low with a desperate loss which forces a re-assessment of who they actually are. That process has already begun. Afterwards, a disheartened Sarri talked of “many problems” with the team and referred to the defensive line as a “disaster”. He was certainly honest and gracious in his assessment, the speed of that diagnosis was certainly encouraging, but the size of his task now looks bigger than ever before.

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