More encouraging signs for Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel, but Spurs are playing some extraordinary football right now. And not in a good way.
1) We’re not going to lie, most of these are going to be about Spurs because… well, bloody hell that was quite something. But we should at least start with the winners, shouldn’t we. The encouraging thing for Chelsea fans should be the very obvious and understandable fact that this team is still coming to terms with how Thomas Tuchel wants them to play yet despite the periods of uncertainty have now taken seven points from the first nine available and conceded no goals. It’s a pretty decent foundation and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Callum Hudson-Odoi already looks like being a key beneficiary of Tuchel’s appointment and was excellent again, especially in the first half, in a more attacking role on the right-hand side where he formed quite a partnership with Reece James.
James, presumably, was preferred at wing-back in a bid to counter the threat posed by Son Heung-Min. Understandable, but as it turned out unnecessary. Both James and Marcos Alonso on the other side were able to thoroughly enjoy themselves throughout a first 45 minutes in which they had almost zero defensive responsibilities. James in particular relished the opportunity and watching him and Hudson-Odoi enjoy themselves – especially when Mason Mount got involved in some nice neat triangles – it was hard not to think of how good that could be for England if they get to a major tournament and play against a team managed by a joy-consuming succubus.
2) Mount was excellent, exposing holes between Spurs’ static lines of paralysed zombie footballers. The standard of opposition provides a necessary caveat for any and all praise of Chelsea tonight, but he was the best player on the pitch and any lingering concerns that Tuchel might be beastly to him can probably be safely binned.
3) This was a dominant performance from Chelsea in every way apart from chance creation and conversion. Sounds glib, but it’s true and will cost them against less generous more committed opponents (it already has against Wolves). Mount had a good chance well saved by Hugo Lloris with 20 minutes to go but it’s a slight concern that for all Chelsea’s utter control against a team as poor as Spurs were their only shot on target in the first 65 minutes came from the penalty spot, with Eric Dier’s wildly overhit backpass the closest they had come to a second goal. Spurs, woeful as they were (and we’re coming to that, at great and punishing length, shortly), did marginally buck up their hitherto entirely absent ideas in the closing stages and had a couple of pretty presentable opportunities to burgle the most ludicrous of draws.
It’s one thing at a time for Tuchel and Chelsea at the moment, but it’s clear where the areas in need of improvement remain. “A bit more killer instinct and aggression in the box,” was how Tuchel put it afterwards. Yes.
4) A big part of that, of course, is the ongoing struggle of Timo Werner. It’s now reached the point where he’s painfully aware of how badly he’s playing and it’s becoming self-fulfilling. Even the proverbial One In Off His Backside is just nowhere to be seen. A lot of promising Chelsea work came to nought through either his hesitancy or the ball bouncing off him. He did win the penalty, I suppose, but he had quite a bit of help with that.
5) Right then. Spurs. Christ. That was bad, and it comes on the back of two almost identically bad performances. Sarcastically slow, reactive football. Jose’s “fewest mistakes wins” mantra leading to entirely counter-productive paralysing dread fear on the few occasions Spurs players accidentally find themselves in possession. Total lack of movement. Total lack of creativity. Total lack, in the first 45 minutes in particular, of anything at all. The cracks Harry Kane was papering over are now laid bare for all to see and it’s an ugly mess. We thought the Brighton game was a significant low for modern-day Spurs. The first half here was worse.
6) There was, it would only be fair to note, a mild improvement after the break. It would have been pretty hard for there not to be some improvement on that first-half display, but Spurs had managed not to do so in their previous two games so this was still slightly noteworthy. The second half did feature some kind of attempt at a press. It was botched, don’t get me wrong, with the forwards all pressing high up the pitch but the midfield still standing stock still in pretty much the exact same positions they’d taken up in the first half. It turns out that pressing isn’t something you can just decide to do at half-time in a Premier League match and actually requires some degree of training and preparation. We mention this improvement, though, primarily to note that it absolutely must not be used as any kind of mitigation or excuse for manager or players. The improvement was so small and from such a staggeringly low base that opprobrium remains the only correct response.
7) That’s three games in a row now where Spurs have been very bad in very similar ways. It’s not so much the results – although those certainly don’t help – as the utter absence of any reason to find cheer or encouragement or a single source of optimism. “The second half was a bit less sh*t, and the forwards tried to press a bit, and Erik Lamela sh*thoused quite well and got a decent shot away” isn’t really enough and Mourinho should be in very serious trouble and under very serious pressure.
Spurs have taken nine points from their last 10 games and have deserved no more than that. If you want to be more mischievous still, Mourinho has taken 13 points from his last 12 games in charge; Mauricio Pochettino took 14 in his final 12. Any other manager would be in deepest jeopardy. But will or can Daniel Levy part with the manager he coveted above all others and upon whom he lavished such unexpected summer riches? It still seems unlikely.
8) The delayed Carabao Cup final is a trump card for Mourinho right now. He’s fond of pointing out that Spurs are still in all the competitions they were at the start of the season. Now that probably has less than a week to run based on current form, with Everton ready and waiting in the FA Cup next week, but that Carabao Cup final allows Mourinho to dangle the at least theoretical possibility of season-salvaging silverware well into April.
9) Mourinho predictably said afterwards that the absences of Kane, Giovani Lo Celso, Sergio Reguilon and “good Dele Alli” (ffs) were a key factor in things. Well, yes and no. They’re good players – especially Good Dele Alli, the clue’s in the name – but nobody is at full strength right now and Kane – extraordinary as he is – is the only certain starter among that quartet.
Reguilon, though, is a huge miss. The Liverpool and Brighton games proved pretty decisively that a back three is only an option for Spurs when Reguilon is available. They have nobody else comfortable at wing-back. In his continued absence, Mourinho actually got his starting XI pretty much right. It was just everything else that happened after that which was wrong.
But Dier and Toby Alderweireld, while not the most mobile of central defensive pairs, were the heart of Spurs’ best defensive spell of the season in the six-game run after the West Ham Incident during which Spurs conceded only one goal – and that, in a 2-1 win over Brighton, should probably have been disallowed for a foul in the build-up.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko were also key in that run, and if Carlos Vinicius isn’t starting these games then really what is the point of even bothering having a Kane back-up? Keeping precisely the same misery-first tactics and hoping Vinicius will magically replicate Kane’s absurd output is a sub-optimal strategy, but the team selection was pretty good really.
10) Mourinho’s remaining loyalists point to the fact that Spurs still concede relatively few goals from open play and that he can’t be held responsible for individual errors. It’s a bit of a stretch – preventing concession from open play has required putting eight or nine men behind the ball and playing so very deep at all times that it creates an environment that invites pressure and encourages individual mistakes, while ramping up the cost of any such mistakes. You can’t just pin all that on the players when it’s a clear and direct product of the system.
That all said, tonight’s individual error was an absolute doozie. Dier, to be fair, did spend the rest of the night making some form of amends with a series of trademark blocks – at least once using his testicles which is always above and beyond the call of duty – but the damage was done. Interesting to wonder whether Chelsea would have been any better or more urgent had they not been gifted the only goal of the game to utterly cement their absolute control of proceedings, but we have to acknowledge the at least theoretical possibility that Spurs might not have lost this game but for that moment. Mad, huh.
11) Yet bad as the error for the goal was, Spurs’ defending was generally okay. Serge Aurier made a telling tackle on Werner and appears to be back in Mourinho’s good books, albeit quite possibly out of nothing more than sheer pragmatic and practical necessity. Dier and Alderweireld got in the way of stuff. Ben Davies was Ben Davies.
The real problems, again, were further forward. You often hear talk of players “hiding” or “not wanting the ball”. It’s rarely as visibly obvious as it was here. “They’ve forgotten what to do when they get the ball” was the disbelieving assessment of Glenn Hoddle on commentary, and he had a point. But it looked more like fear to us. They hadn’t forgotten what to do; they were just terrified to take the chance. Now that’s on Mourinho, obviously. This, evidently, is not a happy dressing room. But it’s on the players too. They’re better than this.
12) But there’s no escaping the death spiral narrative and it’s hard to see how Mourinho and Spurs pull out of this tailspin. Just as in the final days of his second Chelsea spell and at Manchester United it’s impossible to shake the idea that this is as bad as it’s possible for this group of players to play. It’s approaching the point where literally anyone else could only be an improvement. Or at the very least not make things worse. Give it Ledley until the end of the season. Or what about this: Harry Kane, Player-Manager. Has a ring to it. And he’s already doing everything else.
13) Seventy-four minutes. That’s how long Spurs went between their first and second shots of the evening, between Son shooting tamely straight at Edouard Mendy and Lamela – who did more in 20 minutes than his team-mates combined in the rest of the evening – forcing a more meaningful save from the Chelsea keeper. Spurs were behind for nearly an hour of that time.
14) Still, at least Spurs have moved on from that failed strategy of taking an early lead, trying to sit on it and inviting pressure, conceding an equaliser and then desperately trying to make up for it in the closing minutes. Now they take an early deficit and try to sit on it and invite pressure. This strategy is a strange one, but you can’t deny it’s working. It’s weirdly impressive that Spurs have been as bad as they have in these last three games yet only conceded five goals in that time. A lesser manager than Mourinho would have conceded twice that from such inept performances. That’s why he earns the big bucks.
15) Gareth Bale. All a bit sad, isn’t it? He was pretty awful against Brighton and as a result not even trusted for a 15-minute run out in a game where Spurs were playing conspicuously badly yet still retained the technical possibility of getting back into it. There are several sliding doors moments in this Spurs season that have led them to this point of unutterable bleakness. Roberto Firmino’s header at Anfield is one. The most obvious, of course, is Manuel Lanzini’s nonsense equaliser in the 3-3 ridiculousness against West Ham. But Spurs took 16 points from 18 straight after that game. Yes, it undoubtedly started Spurs down the road of overt and absolute negativity but it also did work for a spell there. Looking back now, arguably an even bigger moment than Lanzini came a minute earlier when Bale – having stepped off the bench for his second Spurs debut to enjoy himself with an unassailable 3-0 lead – missed a sitter to make it 4-2. We all know what happened next, in the short and longer term for Spurs and Bale. What if…
16) Why must he be such a prick?
I asked Jose why he didn’t bring Bale on. He said ‘good question but you don’t deserve an answer’ 😱 pic.twitter.com/Z5ULM94fMu
— Alison Bender (@alibendertv) February 4, 2021