Sunday’s prime-time derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea was set to be the first tell-all contest of the new Premier League season. Many expect Spurs and Chelsea to compete against each other and be seen as being on a par. Even so, due to Spurs’ robust additions in the summer, in contrast to Chelsea’s re-equipment from its roster and the instability of club ownership, it was a game that many Spurs supporters felt cautiously optimistic about. Although Stamford Bridge has been a place that has haunted Tottenham for thirty years, it may have been blind faith in Antonio Conte that gave Spurs fans hope the club could finally get one against Thomas’ side. Tuchel.
After something like a brilliant start against the Blues, Spurs quickly fell into a swoon in the first half where they couldn’t throw any builder play. The brilliant start lasted around ten minutes, highlighted by the fact that Spurs failed to capitalize on a three-on-two opportunity which saw Dejan Kulusevski drop a pass to Heung-min Son just before. Chelsea quickly dominated possession largely thanks to the hybrid system they deployed when they didn’t have the ball. Spurs sat tight and were fairly compact, but their issues surfaced trying to build play through one of the winger lanes. Chelsea’s hybrid tactic confused Spurs by overloading the midfield and giving no respite when Spurs received passes and waited impatiently. It was a huge reason why Harry Kane looked invisible for most of the first half.
Despite Chelsea’s dominance in possession, completely dictating the pace of play, Spurs dug in and had no problem sitting quite compactly. A Son turnover led to Chelsea’s first big chance when they quickly changed transition and Raheem Sterling left Kai Havertz to try and beat Hugo Lloris. A superb off-foot save from the Frenchman led to a corner and Spurs’ recent trouble with set pieces again led to their downfall when new signing Kalidou Koulibaly netted a superb volley past Lloris. But despite the first goal and being largely outplayed, Spurs did a good job of ‘suffering’ to go into the breakdown with just one goal.
I recently explained here how Spurs can simply activate it in games by stepping up the opposition. Against a well-drilled side fueled by rivalry, this was simply not an area where Spurs could find their way to success. Chelsea’s dominance continued in the second half, with the Blues again looking threatening, and Spurs were again forced to take the back foot.
A concern for Tottenham last season was their lack of innovation when chasing games, especially against better teams. We can use this game, especially the second half, as an example of how Spurs have improved in this area. Let’s use the timeline below to figure out what Conte and his team likely thought.
Spurs made their first change of the game here when Conte decided to replace left winger Ryan Sessegnon for striker Richarlison, resulting in a tactical change.
Almost immediately, the extra striker gave Spurs another dimension as well as another option in attack. Tactically, the change took away one defender, moving the full backs three + wingers into a back four form, which saw Eric Dier and Cristian Romero as centre-back paired with Ben Davies moving wide to play as a full-back left and Emerson Royal operating right back. By guarding Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Spurs’ formation suddenly changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4 and it became clear that they were chasing after the game.
Spurs’ best chance so far came four minutes after Richarlison came on when a simple pass out to Kane left him on the loose. He was played by Reece James, but the Chelsea defense was confused because of Richarlison’s inclusion and the type of dynamic runs the Brazilian can make. This led to a staggered back line, which Kane took advantage of. Kane’s shot was fired wide, but the change in form changed the mood of the game as Spurs became much more opportunistic. Moments after Bentancur’s controversial tackle on Havertz, Jorginho was taken into possession inside his box. A turnover led to Højbjerg converting on a deep shot from long range.
Immediately after the goal, Chelsea again looked likely to score another. Recognizing the danger of a poor pass from Havertz from a whipping cross from James, Conte returned to his bench, bringing in Ivan Perišić and Yves Bissouma, respectively, for Son and Bentancur. With these substitutions, Conte was clearly trying to return from the attacking 4-2-4 form they were in to the original 3-4-3 form, with Perišić at left-back and Bissouma as a similar substitute for Bentancour.
Before Conte could make the two substitutions, Kulusevski was caught in possession in a dangerous area by Koulibaly. Immediately after the turnover, Spurs were in a form where giving the ball away in the build-up would prove deadly. N’Golo Kanté received from Koulibaly and once Kanté played a ball to Raheem Sterling through the middle, Spurs – being in a back four at the moment – were caught conceding plenty of space as Davies came to defend against Sterling. That gave James space on the outside, and he converted a great scoring chance. The streak proved that Spurs looked extremely vulnerable and out of form as they can usually rely on an extra defender in the space James is occupying.
As Tuchel ran along the touchline to celebrate Conte and Spurs’ bench, Perišić and Bissouma finally came in. -4-3 – the form they were probably trying to see the game in before Chelsea’s second goal – to the more attacking 4-2-4.
Minute 90 + 6′
After Spurs equalized a second time, they still had around two minutes to see the game over. Happy to have scored a point on the road in a difficult location and environment for them, Spurs once again returned to 3-4-3, with Perišić and Lucas returning to winger positions to give them more defensive options. Spurs held on and eventually saw the game to score an important point on the road.
It’s pretty clear and understandable that Spurs have of course changed tactics to become more aggressive in hopes of getting back into the game. However, the decision to do so came with concerns that Spurs would move away from their usual three-man formation and towards something less comfortable. Spurs managed to get away with it in this one, but we saw how quickly they were exposed in that second Chelsea goal when Kulusevski was tackled (some would say fouled) and gave away the ball . Spurs form was all over the place as they looked to develop in a different form than they were used to. As the season progresses, Spurs will at times be forced to become more attacking. They’ll need to get more and more comfortable with the ball when they’re in this form, especially in build-up plays where turnovers lead to goals, as the team didn’t have the same assurances they did. playing with a back three.
One discussion over the summer has been how Spurs could and should showcase their formidable attacking quartet. In this game, Richarlison was deployed as a dual center forward partner with Kane. Last season, Spurs’ bench options were extremely short and it was really Steven Bergwijn who was seen as a supersub for them. But thanks to the reinforcements that have been brought in over the summer, Spurs finally have the necessary sticks of dynamite on the bench to influence the game and it showed quite well on Sunday. It was a resilient performance where Spurs were topped but escaped and still got something out of the game. And while the result itself is hugely important, perhaps more important to Spurs is the whole process in how they were able to adapt to equalize twice against a very good team. As the team continues to become more familiar with Conte’s tactics, it is a benchmark game for Spurs to refer to when needing to get back into games and get results in games. where they may not have performed as well as they would have liked.
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