1) ‘Who’s in charge at Chelsea?’ asked Chris Sutton on Wednesday. It turns out that it is very much Maurizio Sarri as he eschewed the easier option and chose to replace Kepa with Willy Caballero against Tottenham.
Quizzed before the game, he said it was a “message” to the team – not just to the petulant keeper – and that is clearly the pertinent point.
The message was that they were not 25 individuals but one team. The Italian recognises that 25 individuals will neither win matches nor keep him in a job; perhaps history will judge that the Spanish keeper has done him a massive favour by giving him the chance to assert his authority. Like a teacher in charge of a class exhibiting low-level disruptive behaviour, he needed to make an example of the first snotty kid to push things too far. Kepa is in the corner and the rest of you have been warned.
2) Certainly, Chelsea played like a team who had been given a message/bollocking, making a mockery of the Wednesday newspapers that claimed the club was now ‘toxic’. That narrative looked ridiculous as Chelsea played with admirable levels of intensity, concentration and determination, even though half the team had played 120 draining and ultimately disappointing minutes just three days before. They were quick to press in numbers, swift and decisive in the tackle and more than prepared to engage in a physical battle.
This is clearly not a team that has turned on their manager. Attempts to paint Sarri has some kind of pathetic Andre Villas-Boas-style character who can be pushed out of the club look very wide of the mark. Whether fighting for him, themselves or the fans (but more likely all three), this is a Chelsea side motivated to put an admittedly terrible month behind them.
3) There were no shouts of “f*** Sarriball” at Stamford Bridge, where the fans gathered with renewed positivity after 120 minutes against Manchester City that proved that they could be defensively organised, that Jorginho could have a future as something other than a scapegoat and that Sarri had – if not a Plan B – at least a less ambitious and rigid tweak on Plan A that could give them a chance against the Premier League’s better sides.
Obviously the 120 minutes against Manchester City had also reminded them that their club is more capable than any other of the preposterous, but by the time they had seen Chelsea’s line-up, they were reassured that their manager had balls. And then they could switch their attention to being a bit annoyed about the return of Marcos Alonso, whose name was booed louder than that of their villainous goalkeeper ahead of the game.
4) While Chelsea played something closer to Sarri (not Sarri) ball than the version that was torn apart so easily by Tottenham in November, their opponents did a passable impression of the worst moments of the Italian’s nascent reign. Spurs had the lion’s share of possession and passed the ball neatly enough, but there was no creativity, no invention and no impetus. They were incredibly flat.
While Sarri had clearly fired up his troops with his angry message, Mauricio Pochettino’s public takedown of a team lacking the mentality to win titles had the opposite effect: they looked not only like they lacked the mentality, but also the quality. Christian Eriksen was anonymous, Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min could not match Chelsea’s energy. Harry Kane’s greatest contribution was a faux headbutt that made you remember that he does have a little temper when things are not going his way.
5) In the space of five days, Tottenham have gone from title outsiders to looking anxiously over their shoulders at three teams who all have the quality to overhaul the gaps of four or five points (assuming Chelsea win their game in hand). Only two of those three teams need to have a run of form – while Tottenham continue to stutter – and the new White Hart Lane will not be hosting Champions League football next season.
The visit of Arsenal on Saturday now looks massive. And very, very sexy to the neutral. The Gunners – buoyed by a breeze against Bournemouth – would be able to narrow the gap to just one point with victory. Now that’s what you call excellent motivation.
The last time Spurs lost three Premier League games in a row was November 2012, when Villas-Boas was in charge and his Tottenham side somehow lost 5-2 to, well, Arsenal. It’s got the potential to be delicious.
6) The media will happily switch the crisis baton to Tottenham if they do lose to Arsenal, having watched Chelsea let down everybody by being infuriatingly professional and motivated on Wednesday night. There will be no Sarri sacking; there will be no bloodshed; there will be no wringing of hands about this despicable club where the players decide on a daily basis whether they want to play well. At least not yet.
It’s worth remembering that this same set of players were in a Champions League place and in three knockout competitions in mid-January. This has not been a disastrous season under the management of a man who has been described in incredibly patronising terms this week; it has been a disastrous six weeks that may now be over. They have not conceded a goal in 345 minutes of football and Tottenham did not manage a single shot on target at Stamford Bridge. Toxic? Really?
7) And it was the first time in over five years – since the last days of the Villas-Boas reign – that Tottenham had not managed a single shot on target in a Premier League game. “We didn’t shoot,” was the short explanation offered by Pochettino. They did shoot – a credible nine times away at elite opposition – but over half of their shots came from outside the box. Which is usually an excellent indicator of a lack of ideas.
Their closest effort came from outside the box, Harry Winks hitting the ball sweetly but finding the crossbar to be far harder to beat than Caballero. Other than that effort, there was a pathetic attempt by Kane when central to the goal; the Englishman being put off by the diving body of Lamela pretty much summed up their night.
8) It was not just Tottenham’s lack of invention that prompted their scarcity of shots, but the excellent and committed defending of Chelsea. Alonso, David Luiz and Pedro all produced moments of brilliance in their own area that belied the constant cry of the commentators that this was a game of little quality. Little attacking quality, perhaps, but the defenders deserved some love.
There is a theory that defending is coming back into fashion. Some of us would welcome that.
9) Some say that Jorginho cannot tackle. He made those people look like fools on Wednesday night as he time and again thwarted Tottenham attacks with a well-timed boot. His six tackles were the most he has managed in any Premier League game this season; add four interceptions and you get closer to the English definition of the defensive midfielder. He may yet survive this season without being strung up as an example to young footballers who might think that keeping the ball is a useful skill to nurture.
On nights like these, it’s easy to see why Sarri favours N’Golo Kante in a slightly more advanced role. His energy is simply ridiculous and this way, that energy is not confined but allowed to make a difference on pretty much every blade of grass. Often he is the one carrying the ball forward seconds after it was won, and then somehow appearing to be on the end of his own pass. He is utterly fascinating to watch.
10) It really isn’t helpful that a portion of the Chelsea fans have decided that Jorginho is the living embodiment of all that is wrong with modern football. The audible groans whenever he loses the ball will not make him play any better. Know this: for as long as Sarri is in charge, Jorginho will be in that team. It really is in everybody’s interest if the fans cut him some slack, especially on nights when he really does play quite well.
11) That’s not to say that Chelsea displayed much more brilliance in an attacking sense than their opposition; they did, after all, manage to win 2-0 from just one shot on target. There was obvious tiredness in the legs of Eden Hazard, who was bright in opening exchanges with Gonzalo Higuain (who put in a credible if ultimately frustrating shift) but then faded. Without his effervescence, Higuain often looked isolated in attack, with only Kante busting a gut to get beyond him.
It was telling that Chelsea dominated in that opening 20 minutes but their pressure was unsustainable after the efforts of Sunday. Higuain hit the post with one chance and put another wide as Spurs struggled to break out of their own half. There was then a notable drop-off in energy and Tottenham were invited to attack Chelsea. That they could not make any inroads was due in equal parts to their lack of movement and Chelsea’s new-found discipline.
12) Although short on attacking quality, this was not a game devoid of aggression, with referee Andre Marriner doing an excellent job of allowing the two sides to knock two or three bells out of each other without needing to resort to cards until late in the game. There was no shortage of needle, with a running battle between Luiz and Kane the most intriguing clash in a game that teetered on the edge of becoming another Battle of the Bridge.
Kane was a little lucky that Marriner either did not see him move his head into Azpilicueta’s, or simply decided to diplomatically ignore the incident. The intent was certainly there. But, typical of Kane’s night, he did not make clean contact.
13) The game’s first and only shot on target came in the 57th minute, with Pedro producing one of the only real moments of attacking quality with a switch of feet that embarrassed Toby Alderweireld and a shot that nutmegged Hugo Lloris. It was collective failure by Tottenham that was gratefully accepted as a gift by the Spaniard, who had previously frustrated everybody in the ground with poor decision-making and wayward first touches.
That a few minutes later Pedro won the ball in his own area, emerged with possession, produced a couple of stepovers and then carried the ball 30 yards from his own goal probably promoted a cheer as loud as the goal. An attacking midfielder who scores a goal and then does the dirty work? The man’s a bloody hero.
14) The decision of Sarri to remove Hazard and bring on Willian inevitably invited pressure – and left his striker even more isolated – but it was the pragmatic decision. And at least it wasn’t Mateo Kovacic (who had one of his more effective nights in a Chelsea shirt) being replaced by Ross Barkley. Sarri clearly felt confident enough to take off Chelsea’s talisman. And Hazard was too tired to ‘do a Kepa’ and refuse to leave the field.
Tottenham have picked up so many barely deserved points late in underwhelming games this season, but Chelsea never really looked in danger of becoming their next victims. A ball swung harmlessly into the arms of Caballero by Eriksen pretty much summed up their night; they were impotent.
15) The second goal was farcical and the culmination of a disastrous season defensively from Kieran Trippier. He had all the time in the world to gather Olivier Giroud’s flick-on, but instead chose to pass it back and around the hapless Lloris, who suffered the ignominy of conceding two goals from just one shot on target.
It should have felt like ‘game over’ but Tottenham had barely made it ‘game on’. It was an embarrassing end that will obviously spark much social media hilarity, but the real story is why Spurs never looked like threatening Chelsea from anything other than a long-range shot.
16) But still, they remain in third place and Pochettino was right to stress after the game that this was a positive position for a team without a home ground who operate on the smallest budget of the Big Six. They will not have failed by finishing third or even fourth, just as Liverpool will not have failed if they finish a close second.
“I think everyone before the season would sign up to have that position before the start of the season, to have the possibility to be five points the gap,” said the Argentine. True. But he will also know that Tottenham cannot afford to be that poor again. The margin for error is narrowing.