1) The buy-in with Jose Mourinho is simple: more so than with any other manager, it feels twice as good when you’re winning but about five times worse when you’re losing.
That is the sacrifice he and his style of football demands. It can be thankless, joyless and useless. It can be tasking and taxing, devoid of imagination or direction. It can be abject. But it somehow magnifies the better displays and results when they are produced, like an abusive boyfriend who convinces you he has changed by cooking you breakfast in bed once every six months.
A prime example of this sporting Stockholm syndrome was the Wolves victory earlier this month. Tottenham had less than half as many shots as their opponent, less possession and considerably fewer corners. Through a potent combination of fortune, defensive resilience and a stoppage-time goal they secured a 2-1 away win that felt transformative – Mourinho in excelsis – but was minutes from being a miserable draw or defeat. And it was improved by the hindsight of the drab defeat to Manchester United, making it seem like tangible progress.
That is the tightrope, the fine line that is to be navigated with Mourinho at the helm. Wins over West Ham, Bournemouth and Olympiakos were great, and the Burnley shellacking a sensational exception to the rule. Losing to an out-of-form Chelsea and woeful Manchester United just makes these performances almost unbearable.
No amount of breakfast in bed makes up for this emotional turmoil.
2) With that said, it is something of an accomplishment to achieve safety-first football that puts you in almost constant danger. Paolo Maldini once supposedly quipped that “if I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”. Serge Aurier made five, Toby Alderweireld three, Davinson Sanchez four and Jan Vertonghen two.
That does rather sum up the nature of the game, with Chelsea either breaking at pace or finding gaps in Tottenham’s dilapidated armour and ruthlessly exploiting them. If the visitors did not manage to shoot from an attack, it is only because they were stopped by either a foul or a last-ditch tackle. Such a reliance on individualistic defending is never healthy. Chelsea, on the other hand, worked and moved as a unit to successfully starve both space and time.
3) While not every win – or defeat – can be boiled down to managerial input, this was a direct result of Frank Lampard’s coaching. Chelsea identified an opportunity, worked on a new shape and plan and executed it to absolute perfection.
Something did have to change. Four defeats from five Premier League games had dragged them back towards a Europa League spot they seemed clear of long ago. They were unlucky against Manchester City but overwhelmed and out of answers against West Ham, Everton and Bournemouth.
Lampard’s response was to revert to a three-man central defence that he last used in October and September, to great effect against Lille and Wolves. It was brave, bold and brash to deploy it away at a direct and in-form rival. It also felt like a pointed reminder that he is more than a nostalgia act, mentor or club spokesperson. He earned this victory through his coaching acumen.
4) The first 15 minutes alluded to a pattern of dominance. Chelsea focused not on counter-attacking but patient build-up play starting from Fikayo Tomori or Antonio Rudiger, playing through the wing-backs and wide forwards and often bypassing their own central midfield until the time was right. In the opening quarter of an hour, N’Golo Kante completed just two passes but created one chance, while one of Mateo Kovacic’s nine simple balls provided the assist for the first goal.
Chelsea controlled possession both in terms of percentages and purpose. Every player had an idea of what they wanted and needed to do, where they had to be. And it built to a delightful crescendo: Tammy Abraham had shots in the 6th and 8th minutes, Rudiger tried his luck in the 10th and Willian scored in the 12th.
5) Tottenham, by contrast, lacked a focus. It was the same against United, where they played for far too long without any discernible structure, intention or pattern of play. It felt like they could not string more than two or three passes together before finding that the door was locked and opting to go long.
That played perfectly into Chelsea’s hands. Lampard set up to exploit Tottenham’s weaknesses but also nullify their strengths, namely the raking ball from Toby Alderweireld at centre-half to Dele Alli or another forward. The Belgian played ten long balls and less than half were accurate; Sanchez found his target with two from nine.
Tomori, Zouma and Rudiger did not struggle in the slightest repelling that particular assault every time. And again, that was down to Lampard’s design rather than coincidence.
6) As impressive as Chelsea were and as disappointing as Tottenham are, the opening goal owed more to individual error than anything. Aurier compounded his initial mistake in heading the ball out for a corner under absolutely no pressure by reacting far too late to Willian’s short delivery.
The Brazilian played the ball a few yards out to Kovacic on the edge of the area and, after Lucas was similarly lackadaisical in closing the midfielder down, he received the ball back. Some nifty footwork was a familiar plot device to an oft-told story of Willian creating space to cut inside on his right foot and curl the ball into the far corner.
There is something to be admired in Aurier’s faith in his instincts to thwart Willian within a matter of milliseconds as he invited both the prospect of running towards the byline to cross or inside to shoot. It at least completed a hat-trick of defensive incompetence from the most likely of sources. Who could possibly have known a right flank of Aurier, Sissoko and Lucas might be susceptible?
Spurs’ right side:
The right side generally consists of Lucas, Sissoko, and Aurier. In their past few games, this side has been caught out a few times. It’s no secret that defensively these 3 players are suspect. Someone like Pulisic has to capitalize,
— Miz (@Miz9Rahman) December 20, 2019
7) “Willian’s had his critics this year,” roared the commentator as he conducted his contractually obligated duties of wheeling away in celebration.
That much is an understatement. Willian’s had his critics this and every year since undergoing a Tottenham medical in 2013. His vote as Chelsea’s Player of the Year in their nightmare season of 2015/16 seems like a perfect encapsulation of his frustrating nature.
But this, fuelled by his apparent intense dislike of the opponent, was wondrous. The goal, the penalty, the insatiable touch before creating a chance for Michy Batshuayi in stoppage time – it was sumptuous and masterful.
He created as many chances (5, Tottenham managed 4) as he misplaced passes. And such accuracy from an attacking player verges on the offensive. Willian’s spectacular performances are often characterised as tenacious, tireless and workhorse displays; this was just irresistible and undefendable prowess going forward.
8) It at least prompted a genuine reaction from the home side, who were driven on to improve by their manager bellowing from the sidelines and their fans chanting from the stands. Chelsea were reminded that this would be far from straightforward.
Except from the minute straight after the goal to the 25th, Chelsea had 65.8% possession, three more shots and two more corners, while Tottenham still could not muster a single attempt. And Chelsea played their next corner short to Kovacic on the edge of the area because learning lessons is for nerds.
If appointing Mourinho is by no means a guarantee of an improvement in quality, it is always sold as an upgrade in mentality and durability. Tottenham under the Portuguese look inherently weaker and more vulnerable immediately after conceding, not stronger.
9) When their moment did come, Harry Kane looked as surprised as anyone else in the stadium. A minute after his miss, Heung-min Son skied a similar opportunity. You wait ages for a north London chance, and then two come along at once.
The key was in a member of that central midfield actually showing some drive and determination to progress and move the ball. Moussa Sissoko burst through and played a one-two with Lucas for the first chance, ghosting past Marcos Alonso and crossing for Kane to miss. The second was Tottenham momentarily riding a wave of momentum as Paolo Gazzaniga’s long kick rebounded to Lucas, who played in Kane. His delivery, as it so often is, was perfect. Son could not quite convert.
Tottenham showed more fight and impetus in those 90 seconds than they had in the previous 27 minutes. It took one of their more limited players in Sissoko almost literally dragging them by the neck.
He’s been largely awful as the isolated Mourinho centre-forward, by the way, Kane. Dreadful.
10) That central area really was a problem for Tottenham. Chelsea were happy to recycle possession in wide areas but by no means neglected either Kovacic or Kante – they just used them as and when they were needed. On the other hand, Tottenham were desperate to involve Sissoko or Eric Dier but were simply incapable of playing through a concerted press to get to them.
Alanis Morissette probably wasn’t watching, but would have cringed at the irony of Tottenham having four better central midfield options on the bench than the two on the pitch. Pick Tanguy Ndombele for the dribbling ability, Harry Winks for being able to pass under pressure, Giovani Lo Celso for combining the two or Christian Eriksen in the hope of him conjuring something out of nothing. Don’t fight the fire of Kante, even on one of the Frenchman’s quieter days, with a water pistol.
Eriksen was introduced at half-time, but by then it was too late. Chelsea were too comfortable and assured, his teammates too overawed. The manager who hauled Dier off after 29 minutes of a retrievable Champions League game just watched on in horror. The horse had bolted and been made into lasagne and glue by the time Mourinho reacted.
11) A huge part of Tottenham’s problem was that they just could not cope with Mason Mount. The 20-year-old did not stop running throughout. He was excellent.
The narrative, of course, is all powerful.
Mount has had far from a perfect game “stats” wise, but my God he’s been everywhere.
— Alex Goldberg (@AlexGoldberg_) December 22, 2019
12) That Gazzaniga mistake sure was something else, provided that ‘something else’ is a synonym for ‘what in the name of absolute f**kery has he just done there?’
Alonso was not going to get the ball. It was going out for a goal-kick. Gazzaniga came to challenge for it. He, a goalkeeper, led with a flying kung-fu kick. And then Anthony Taylor awarded him a free-kick.
VAR corrected the mistake – and it is important to note when it works properly – and Willian scored from the spot. But while Gazzaniga can only be blamed for the concession, let it not mask how deficient this performance was, and how systemic these issues are.
A relevant example would be David de Gea’s mistake earlier in the day. Manchester United would have been woeful with or without it, and might well have lost regardless. It does not absolve him of guilt for quite literally chucking the ball into his own net, but it is important not to obfuscate the genuine issues. Gazzaniga suffered a moment of madness; Tottenham are not yet cured of months of ineptitude.
13) After the game, Mourinho scoffed at Lampard’s use of “a system they played for two years under Antonio Conte”. During the game, he tried to replicate it. Before the game – albeit a fair bit ‘before’, back in September 2017 after beating Basel – he derided it as “the trendy tactic of five in the back that some of your colleagues like to call three but they are totally wrong, it is five”.
Mourinho matching Lampard at half-time was a folly in itself. Chelsea had presumably worked on the formation for an entire week and it showed: players in blue knew their roles and requirements to the letter. Mourinho was caught off-guard and his players baffled by its implementation, yet there Eriksen was in defensive midfield, with Lucas Moura at left wing-back. It was a mess.
14) Nor did it engender a particular improvement. Tottenham did not concede again but if that is the sum total of what we can expect from this side when two goals down at home to a team struggling for form then this will be a long three and a half years.
The hosts had one more shot in the second half than in the first, even managing an attempt on target when Kane tested Kepa in the eighth minute of stoppage-time. They were just listless otherwise – not helped by Son’s sending-off for planting his boot in Rudiger’s chest. Still, between the 30th and 86th minute they had a single shot of any kind. It was blocked.
Chelsea stepped off a little to conserve energy and prioritise control, yet still posed a threat. The goal they had correctly ruled out for offside was a microcosm of the second half: Mount dispossessed a Tottenham player in their half to launch a counter-attack that the hosts could not keep up with. 2-0 might have been flattering for Spurs.
15) To inflict upon Mourinho his first ever loss at home to Chelsea, and first at home in 14 games against his former sides, is no mean feat. The most notable aspect of the victory was surely the maturity.
And that is not necessarily from the sort of players who are always described in such terms: Tomori, Mount, Abraham. Rather, it was from Cesar Azpilicueta in an unfamiliar role, Kante in being a little more reserved, Willian in maintaining one level instead of flitting in and out, and Rudiger for leading from the back.
The Blues could quite easily have indulged themselves and contributed to Tottenham losing their collective patience at a time when it felt like they were on the brink. Even if Mark Clattenburg had been in charge it never seemed as though it could have descended into the sort of shambles these two sides have shared before. That is testament to Chelsea focusing solely on the jobs they were asked to do rather than the opponent they were implored to do it against. Tottenham played the team and lost; Chelsea played the match and won.
16) After defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United (twice), it should not be understated how much of a relief this will be for Chelsea. Draws with Leicester and Sheffield United added credence to a flat-track bully argument that has finally been dispelled.
The clean sheet will be most welcome, a first in six Premier League games. Only a third win of the Premier League season without an Abraham goal or assist is a similarly pleasing sign that those behind can carry the goalscoring responsibility for a player who seems to have been weighed down by it recently. And that midfield continues to inspire.
There is considerable room for improvement for both the players and the manager. There is also a healthy gap to fifth place, and a berth in the Champions League knockout stages. Lampard can see the tunnel at the end of his first confected crisis. The challenge for him now is to follow it through to the other side without being dragged back in. Show me someone who thought they’d be comfortable in fourth after 18 games and I’ll show you a liar.