16 Conclusions: Tottenham 0-3 Chelsea

Date published: Sunday 19th September 2021 9:21 - Dave Tickner

Thiago Silva celebrates after scoring for Chelsea

Spurs actually started pretty well, but were ultimately swatted aside and swept away by a team and manager operating at a different level. If it’s still too early to say Chelsea are title favourites, it would be a major surprise and disappointment if they don’t at least challenge…

 

1) There can be no starting point other than the game’s starting point with tributes to the great Jimmy Greaves, who passed away at the age of 81 after a lengthy illness. There could, obviously, be no more fitting fixture to mark the day than Spurs at home to Chelsea. They are the two clubs with whom he will always be most closely associated having scored the vast majority of his vast number of goals in their colours.

Greaves is the only man to score more goals for Spurs than Harry Kane’s 223, while his tally of 132 goals in 169 for Chelsea, most while still in his teens, set the tone for his absurd career. You can read a full tribute here, but it was a rare yet heart-warming sight to see Spurs and Chelsea fans united in common cause for a brief moment before a typically full-blooded London derby took over and they got back to the more important business of hurling abuse at each other. Football, that.

 

2) On such a day, inevitably the focus fell on Kane and Romelu Lukaku. Which world-class striker would settle the game between two clubs who had both lost a legend? Chelsea won it thanks to goals from two centre-backs and a holding midfielder. Sometimes the narratives will be false.

 

3) And what a win. Chelsea weren’t quite run ragged in the first half, but they were certainly second best against a Spurs side playing with invention and purpose rarely seen since the Mauricio Pochettino days. Nuno Espirito Santo had thrown caution to the wind and named an unexpectedly attacking team with an unexpected number of injured/quarantined players returning. Nuno, probably rightly, concluded that this was Spurs’ only way to take Chelsea down. It didn’t work. Thomas Tuchel’s side weathered the storm – and for all Spurs’ running and purpose and menace they mustered just one shot on target against a defence that simply refuses to be breached – and then blew Spurs away after the break.

Tactics Tom made the difference with a half-time-switch in which Mason Mount was sacrificed for N’Golo Kante. Switching from two in midfield to three saw Chelsea start the second half with a control they would never relinquish and never look like relinquishing.

 

4) The two goals in the opening minutes of the second half that settled the contest and sucked all the life from Tottenham’s challenge were not classics. A set-piece and a wicked deflection. But that’s not the point; the point is that those were just the two chances Chelsea happened to convert from a relentless barrage that Spurs simply could not withstand. There could be blame attached if you went looking to do so. Dele Alli couldn’t track Thiago Silva’s run for the first goal. Emerson Royal played Giovani Lo Celso into pressure in the build-up to the second goal, with the Argentine indecisive and robbed.

But this was more a case of Chelsea bending the game to their will in a way that Spurs when on top in the first half simply couldn’t do. If not Thiago’s header and Kante’s deflected strike then it could have been Marcos Alonso’s effort that was cleared off the line or any number of Lukaku and later Timo Werner chances.

 

5) To make the most obvious of points, this is a Chelsea team that absolutely must now challenge for the title. They have 13 points from five games that have already seen them tick off Anfield, the Emirates and now WHL2.0 from the itinerary. It remains way too early to say they should win the league or even that they’re favourites given the calibre and number of teams in contention this year, but anything less than a significant and sustained title fight from this team would be a major disappointment.

Spurs are no longer a member of the elite, but they made life fiendishly difficult in that first half and this was a performance that would have earned a result against most Premier League teams. They were in the end swatted away with ease. We’re always told after Manchester United do things like they did at West Ham that winning without playing well is a sign of champions. There’s truth in it, of course, but we reckon that absolutely demolishing a half-decent side playing better than half-decently is probably an even better sign.

 

6) Thiago Silva was phenomenal. He spent the first half busily and expertly dealing primarily with Heung-Min Son, whose conscious attempts to target his runs against the elder statesman of Chelsea’s defence made perfect sense but ultimately came to nothing as he and Spurs ran out of steam. Having done all that dirty work, Thiago then helped himself to some limelight with a wonderfully timed run and header for the opening goal. He almost repeated the trick later in the half and has that defender’s knack of knowing the sort of runs that are hardest for defenders to deal with when defending set-pieces, and making them himself.

Given how well Spurs had played until that point, Thiago’s double-threat significance to the game was unignorable. A key reason why Chelsea had been able to ride out their own tough period ensured Spurs could not and would not do likewise. The man-of-the-match doesn’t always make himself so obvious in both elements of a football match as Thiago did here; he was both the game’s clear standout defender (among plenty of fine such performances on both sides, despite the scoreline) and then provided the first moment of clinical precision in front of goal.

Chelsea players celebrate

 

7) So what to make of Spurs. Unlike last week’s 3-0 defeat at Palace, there is at least something to take from the game beyond the realisation that something has to change. There were actual positives here. The first half – especially the first half of the first half – was genuinely impressive and would have broken most teams. Its failure to do so said more about Chelsea than it did about Spurs. The Tanguy Ndombele Cycle has once again reached the period where he works quite hard and looks like his obvious talent could actually be put to use, and as ever Spurs look a far, far better side with Son in it doing his thing.

But in the world-first carbon ‘net zero’ game, Spurs found that all their endeavour was unsustainable. They were all absolutely spent by the hour mark. And where Tuchel had been able to change the game by bringing on the man of the match from the Champions League final, Nuno was forced to attempt damage limitation with a couple of kids and, eventually, another centre-back. It doesn’t excuse Nuno from criticism (nor detract from praise of Tuchel) but ultimately this really did just show us clearly a gulf we already knew existed.

 

8) And yet… there was still enough in that opening 30 minutes in particular for Spurs fans to look forward without total pessimism even if not quite optimism. As much as those three successive 1-0 wins in the long forgotten days of August flattered them, so too do successive 3-0 defeats not tell the whole story. They really will need to stop conceding three goals a game quite soon and also start creating far more opportunities themselves, but they at least took tentative steps towards that today. Despite Mourinho’s constant gaslighting, Spurs do have the players and ability to play on the front foot in most games. They did so today out of something approaching desperation, but it should be the default position. With the players Spurs have available, attempting to play on the front foot should be the starting position unless there’s a truly compelling reason – the City game being a prime example – to go the other way.

It will not always work, but nothing will always work for a Spurs squad in a state of flux. The painful rebuild grimly foretold by Pochettino all those years ago has finally begun, and on early evidence Spurs have not recruited quite as well this summer as all the ‘Don Paratici’ memes seemed to make out (although Cristian Romero did at least look something like the defender we saw in Italy here), but they do have players who can hurt most teams. Chelsea just aren’t most teams; they have conceded one goal in the Premier League this season. And that was a penalty. At Anfield.

What matters now is that Nuno holds his nerve. This team was objectively a superior one to any he has previously selected as Spurs manager and with a few tweaks it can absolutely get them into the fight for fifth place which, frankly, is all anyone can reasonably expect this season. And at least the side he picked today is one that you can imagine providing some enjoyment on less taxing afternoons than this one.

 

9) Having picked Giovani Lo Celso, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Ndombele in the same team, Nuno now just needs to take the next stop and go for the NHL midfield, pushing Dele Alli into the front three with Kane and Son. Dele and Lo Celso can undoubtedly play the roles they were handed and did so adequately enough in that eye-catching first half. But swapping them round looks far more likely to get the best out of both of them. Not least because Dele at anything like his best offers far more goal threat, which is absolutely crucial for a Spurs team in which only Kane and Son have outscored own goals in the league since the start of last season.

 

10) Is Harry Kane a serious worry, though? We think so. He really doesn’t want to be there. We have to be careful, because we’ve all seen him make turgid, slow starts to seasons before and then burst into life, and any such repeat of that pattern will likely be extended and deepened by the events of the summer – both the Euros and the whole grim botched transfer escapade – but he looks way off it currently. His mobility looks shot, those drops into midfield lack purpose and precision, and his shooting, on the couple of occasions he got into such positions, was similarly un-Kanelike. He has often played for Spurs while looking this unfit, but rarely while looking this uninterested.

Arsenal next week, though, so expect a week of fevered speculation and then a couple of goals to make fools of us all. (Spurs will still lose 3-2, because Spurs are still Spurs.)

11) Another question for Spurs to ponder. Did their plan fail because it was too aggressive, or because in the end it fell between two stools and was not aggressive enough? When bang on top and presented with a corner, Spurs remained so fearful of Chelsea’s undeniable counter-attack threat that they had only four attackers in the box. When Thiago arrived late to break the game open early in the second half, he was the sixth Chelsea attacker.

A glib comparison perhaps, but still. Spurs were legitimately good in that first half, but they expended an awful lot of energy in the process. It was an effort that simply had to come with at least one goal to show for it. The team selection and general front-foot policy was the right way for Spurs to attack the game – the second half showed just how unlikely it was that they could survive 90 minutes of trying to play back-foot and counter. But did they – players and manager – perhaps slightly lose their nerve and not fully commit to it? The respective positions of Lo Celso and Dele. Kane’s frequent trips into not just CM but DM territory. The safety-first approach to their own corners. There’s a theme.

 

12) And really that’s the worry about Nuno’s long-term future at Spurs. The attempts to paint him as a cut-price Mourinho or retrofit extreme negativity to his Wolves sides are wide of the mark. He is neither as malignant nor divisive a character as Mourinho and his best Wolves sides fizzed with counter-attacking menace. Theirs was a perfectly valid – and successful – way to play, and only when the side was shorn of first Diogo Jota and then Raul Jimenez did it all fall apart.

But there remains no doubt that he is, and by his own admission, a defence-first coach. It’s not his fault, but he is not remotely the coach Spurs were promised by Daniel Levy. His is not ‘The Spurs Way’. And while he has already had a tangible effect on some of the defenders left most scarred by Mourinho and will probably in time do much to reverse the startling loss of fitness among the squad – they really did all look knackered long before the end – will he ever be the man to get the most out of what does look like a collection of attackers that really should be managing far more than three goals (one a free-kick, one a penalty) in five games?

 

13) The widespread surprise at the team news today tells its own story. That was clearly the best XI Spurs could pick from the players available today, and would be for almost any opponent. Almost nobody thought Nuno had picked the wrong side here, almost everyone was surprised he had picked the ‘right’ one.

The big problem comes not with a defeat that was likely no matter what Spurs or Nuno did, but in the longer term. It is as fundamental as this: if that is Spurs’ strongest team – and we firmly believe it is – then Nuno is the wrong coach to get the best from it. And conversely if Nuno is the best coach for Spurs, then that cannot be the best team.

Those three 1-0 wins earned him top spot and manager of the month, but the harsh reality is that it’s already hard to see how he can be successful at Spurs in the long term. It just doesn’t look a good fit; whatever team he selects, however they are set-up to play, it will always look like an uneasy compromise between the players at his disposal, the way he wants them to play, and the way the fans expect them to play.

 

14) We’ve spent about 800 words here and there in the previous conclusions talking about how and why this 3-0 Spurs defeat wasn’t as depressing as last week’s 3-0 Spurs defeat. That in itself is quite depressing. Lose at Arsenal next week, and the two north London teams will find themselves level on points. August really does seem a long time ago. The very existence of positives to take from a 3-0 home defeat to a hated rival is a sign of just how far Tottenham done fell. The Pochettino Era may have famously ended up trophyless, but it’s hard to imagine a point in it where a 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea could be caveated with “Well at least the first half was quite good”.

 

15) Chelsea, though, really are absurdly good at shutting a game down after taking the lead. They’ve done it to better teams than Spurs (Manchester City for one) but Spurs still have some pretty handy players and at 2-0 they never got a sniff. And Chelsea do it without retreating or sitting deep. From the first kick of the second half to the last, at no point did it ever look like Spurs might get the next goal. At 1-0, 2-0 and even at 3-0 the chances were coming for Chelsea even as Spurs were, in theory at least, chasing the game.

It’s a pretty neat trick. Chelsea under Tuchel appear to be able to reap all the benefits of an opponent chasing the game – the extra space in attack, the overloads in wide positions – without any of the drawbacks. While every Chelsea attack in the second half seemed to feature at least four attackers against at most three defenders, Spurs never seemed to have the number of players attacking that such space at the back would imply. Chelsea’s midfield three had such utter control in that second half that Spurs simply had no way through or around them, leading to 45 minutes in which Spurs were simultaneously chasing the game yet getting nowhere and penned in their own half yet somehow undermanned in defence.

 

16) There is no more powerful Opposition Goal Tweet, no clearer sign of what has been in the end a thorough and dispiriting beating, than the one where you stop even bothering to obey the most basic conventions of the genre and at least name the goalscorer.

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