16 Conclusions: Chelsea 1-3 Tottenham

Date published: Sunday 1st April 2018 6:21 - Daniel Storey

* London is theirs.

To demonstrate just how long it is since Tottenham finished as the highest-placed club in London, Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest were two of the top three clubs in England that season. But Tottenham will now have that honour. They will probably be the only Champions League representative from England’s capital in the Champions League too.

On the day that Mauricio Pochettino took the record for most Premier League games as a Tottenham manager, this was a fitting result. This is the house that he built, a club that has competed with the Premier League’s financial behemoths despite far more meagre budgets. Tottenham have only once paid more than £30m for a player at a time of wild spending, but they will join Manchester City as the only club to have qualified for the Champions League in the last three seasons. That’s a mighty achievement.

Most importantly, this is a team built in the image of its manager, as all the best are. They have won each of their last two league games away from home having conceded the first goal, and never know when they are beaten. They combine that resolve with being a delight to watch when in their pomp, and have now scored three or more in ten league games this season; six of those have come away from home. Against Chelsea, they scored two Goal of the Month contenders in 20 minutes.

Take a step back to admire Pochettino’s work. In February 2013, Andre Villas-Boas selected a starting XI for Tottenham that had an average age of 29.3. By April 2018, 11 of the 16 outfielders in Pochettino’s match-day squad were aged 26 or under. That doesn’t include Harry Winks (22) or Juan Foyth (20).

Pochettino therefore deserves effusive praise for his achievements, FA Cup victory or not, and I will not apologise for siding with him and this Tottenham team. When you watch a coach come into a club under great scrutiny and revolutionise the playing personnel and coaching to make them far greater than the sum of their parts, how couldn’t you back them to succeed?

For the first time since 1990, Tottenham have won at Stamford Bridge. For the first time since 1995, they will finish above Arsenal and Chelsea in the league table. London is theirs.

 

* That is also that for Antonio Conte and Chelsea. The Italian feigned bemusement when asked whether his job depended on qualification for the Champions League this week, but the truth is that he has been engineering his departure for the last seven months.

In fact, Conte’s behaviour this season, with regular barbs made against his superiors, threatens to cloud his reputation in England. He masterminded Chelsea’s title victory last season thanks to his switch to a 3-4-3 formation, but he has lost plenty of goodwill in 2017/18.

Has Conte been dealt an ideal hand? No. Do many managers get dealt an ideal hand? No. Has Conte’s anti-Chelsea rhetoric affected the performance of his players? Quite possibly. And that’s something that deserves to stick with him like a bad smell.

 

* It’s also pertinent to ask what happens to Eden Hazard this summer, given that Chelsea will surely have to settle for the Europa League. He is far behind the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but Hazard belongs in the strata of players directly below them. He also belongs in Europe’s premier club competition.

Against Tottenham, Hazard again shouldered the responsibility for Chelsea’s success, and once again those around him failed to meet the standards the Belgian expects. He wasn’t even that effective, but that’s largely because Tottenham put two men on him and were physical at every opportunity. That is supposed to create space for Hazard’s teammates. This is a selfless role.

Still, Hazard created two more chances than every other Chelsea player combined, and completed more dribbles than any other player on the pitch. At what point does he get sick of this and push for a move to a European super club?

 

* Without contradicting a previous point, this was a game to prove Conte’s criticisms of his club correct. There are ways of making your point, but Conte is at least right to be annoyed.

Look at that Chelsea team. Three new signings in the entire XI, and one of those a reserve goalkeeper used only as an emergency. Antonio Rudiger has improved as the season has gone on, but Alvaro Morata has struggled.

Look at that Chelsea bench. Four signings made since the end of last season, and none of them considered good enough to start. Add Davide Zappacosta, who did not make the match-day squad, to the list and you have a collection of players who would struggle to make the bench of a current top-four team.

Chelsea bought expensively, and bought badly. The only true game-changer on the bench was 17-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi. Don’t think that Conte not making a change until the 80th minute wasn’t deliberate.

 

* The game started in a swarm, with no space in the midfield for either team to get a foothold. The game resembled a child’s football match, where everyone is within 15 yards of the ball in one mass of players. That’s not a criticism of the players themselves, more a tribute to the intensity of the game and the importance of winning the midfield battle.

We also failed to see the early attacking rampage from Tottenham that was so effective against Manchester United and Liverpool earlier this season, albeit in home games. That might have reflected Spurs’ need to only get a point, but also the busyness of Chelsea in central midfield. Willian and Eden Hazard both dropped deep to make it even more manic in the middle third.

 

* That strategy eventually allowed Chelsea to gain the advantage in the game, simply because they had the better counter-attacking options and Tottenham’s central midfielders lost possession too easily. With Erik Lamela and Dele Alli looking a little rusty early on and Heung-Min Son struggling as the lone forward, Tottenham were staccato in attack. Rather than stretching the game and attempting to beat a man, Spurs seemed happy with – or perhaps limited to – passing it around slowly and waiting for the opening. That’s optimistic against Chelsea’s back three and N’Golo Kante.

On the other hand, Chelsea created the best early chances of the game. Willian has been sensational in 2018 and streamed forward when he had the ball. Hazard did the same, and Marcos Alonso played as a wide forward when Chelsea won possession. He enjoys playing against Tottenham.

Hugo Lloris was forced to make two diving saves, while Alonso had a goal disallowed but was only fractionally offside and left in far too much space. The Spaniard’s attacking runs caused an overload when Hazard drifted left.

 

* And yet when Chelsea’s goal came, it was sourced via the right flank. Tottenham are one of the best pressing teams in the country, but they suffered a lapse of concentration when allowing Rudiger to jog forward unchallenged into their half with the ball. It would have been less of an issue had every opposition attacking player been marked, but Rudiger had an easy out ball to Victor Moses on the right wing.

Still, the goal can only be viewed as an error from Lloris. Morata’s header was excellent, but Lloris made the decision to come for the cross, mistimed his jump and didn’t get a touch. The header was well-placed, but Lloris hampered Davinson Sanchez’s jump for the ball. Had Lloris not come, Sanchez would at least have been able to put enough pressure on Morata to stop him having a free header.

 

* It isn’t Lloris’ only mistake in a big game, either. They are becoming a pattern.

The goalkeeper might claim that he is being judged unfairly, and that mistakes in high-profile matches linger longer in the memory than they merit, but that is the lot of playing for a club with aspirations of Premier League and European glory.

Since the beginning of the season, Lloris has made four mistakes directly leading to goals (as defined by Opta), a total ‘beaten’ only by Petr Cech and Asmir Begovic. That’s not good enough.

 

* Still, it would be uncharitable not to also credit the finish from Morata, who has now scored in each of his last two Chelsea games.

More impressively, this was Morata’s seventh headed Premier League goal of the season, the most in the division. For all his faults – and we have seen plenty this season – there is no striker in the league who you would rather see on the end of a cross.

 

* Moses might well be an effective attacking right wing-back for Chelsea, although plenty of Chelsea supporters might disagree with you. But he deserves to receive Conte’s hairdryer treatment for his role in Tottenham’s equaliser.

Decisions should be made by players according to expected risk and reward. When Moses was in his own third of the pitch, near the touchline, there was very little to be gained in doing anything other than sending the ball long down the pitch. Even if he had succeeded in finding a teammate, that teammate would only be subjected to immediate pressure from a Tottenham player.

Instead, Moses went for the delicate chip, which he under hit. Alli applied the pressure and Ben Davies made the interception, quickly slipping the ball to Eriksen. What happened next could hardly have been legislated for, but if you give brilliant players a chance to do brilliant things, don’t complain when they do them.

“I was a footballer, it can happen where you lose the ball,” Conte said. “It’s not the time to put responsibility on a player. We must be in this situation together.”

I’d be surprised if he spoke that kindly behind closed doors.

 

* But we really must talk about the strike from Eriksen, because it was absolutely sensational. If the technology that goes into making modern footballs allows us to see such farcical trajectories, I’m absolutely on board. It moved like those air balls that you played with as a kid and made your little cousin go in goal while you thwacked them in from miles out and pretended to be Nayim.

But should Willy Caballero have done better? Of course he could not have predicted the path of a shot that swerved and dipped so much, but neither did he make any attempt to save it. Even a jump straight up into the air (the ball actually went into the centre of the goal) might have stopped it. It sounds incredibly harsh, but would Thibaut Courtois have done better?

 

* There are good times to score goals, and there are better times to score goals. Tottenham picked the perfect moment.

Until then, Chelsea were rampant and looked more likely to extend their lead than sacrifice it, but Eriksen’s equaliser noticeably boosted Tottenham and left Chelsea reeling. The only question was whether Spurs could maximise their period of dominance in a manner that Chelsea had failed to do.

The answer to that question came emphatically in the first 20 minutes of the second half. Firstly Eric Dier played the perfect pass for the perfect Alli run, and his touch and finish were perfect too. Five minutes later, a sumptuous Eriksen pass sent Son through on goal, and Alli eventually poked home after a scramble. Game and season over.

This is the difference between a side playing with confidence in one another and the manager, and one whose manager – and perhaps some players – are going through the motions. The former is able to respond to adversity and be stronger for it, while making dominance pay within matches. The other concedes goals in two or threes, and is made to pay for their profligacy.

Whether you consider Chelsea’s lack of response as proof of fault on the part of players, manager or club in general is open to debate, but the most likely answer is a mix of all three. This season more than any other, we have seen exactly how off-pitch harmony (Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham) and discord (Arsenal, Chelsea) shapes on-pitch performance in the top six.

 

* Alli certainly picks his moments. He is a young man who feeds off criticism, both from opposition supporters (see the celebration for his first goal) and pundits.

This weekend brought tabloid reports that Gareth Southgate is losing faith in the idea of starting Alli for England, impressed instead by Jesse Lingard’s performances this season. Even in the player ratings from England vs Italy, when I remarked that Lingard might have jumped the queue, there were was relatively little disagreement from Spurs fans. He has been far below his best this season.

But Alli remains a match-winner, and a young man who has the potential to delight his manager and supporters for club and country. The run and first touch for his first goal was supreme, but his second almost impressed more. The peace of mind to take the extra touch with the right foot before stabbing home with the left, rather than excitedly swiping at it as soon as possible, demonstrates his composure under pressure.

Unsurprisingly, the goals provoked an antagonistic reaction from Tottenham supporters hurt by the criticism of their man. Meanwhile, those of us who follow England are just delighted to have two fine players competing for positions rather than our national team being picked via the method of finding the tallest dwarf.

 

* Is there a player in the Premier League who uses his elbows when making challenges more than Lamela? Every aerial challenge is preceded by the sneaky look to where the opponent is located, and then up come the arms as he enters the challenge.

It is a clever move. By having the arms up before the contact comes, it makes Lamela look as if he is simply stronger than the opponent rather than deliberately catching them in the face. Add him to the list of Premier League bastards.

 

* And now for the Lamela praise. After a slow start, it was the Argentinean who changed the game with the intensity of his work without the ball. After half-time, Pochettino used him as a false nine, asking him to harry Chelsea’s central defenders in possession and force them to clear the ball long rather than into the feet of Cesc Fabregas.

It worked. Lamela made more tackles than any other Tottenham player, while Fabregas and Alonso were more starved of service than the first half. Lamela did not assist or score a goal and created only one chance (with a simple pass), but that was not the point. He has sexy mode and sabotage mode; this was him excelling in the latter.

 

* I feel like I do this every time, but how mature is Sanchez given his age and Premier League inexperience? Pochettino persuaded Daniel Levy to part with more than £30m for a player for the first time, but he got the purchase spot on.

Twice in the first half, Tottenham left Sanchez in a position where he had to make one of his now customary sliding interventions. Were this any other 21-year-old, you might be worried about him mistiming the challenge or being caught out of position. But not Sanchez.

The Colombian didn’t make a single tackle against Chelsea, the only Tottenham outfielder not to do so. He also made the most interceptions of any Tottenham player. That is persuasive evidence of a novice central defender who is already highly accomplished at reading the game two pages ahead of his opponents. Toby who?

Daniel Storey

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