* That was bloody fun. It was fast. It was intense. It was impassioned. It was a game which pitted against each other two elite sides managed by two elite coaches. That two sublime instances of brilliance balanced the game on a knife-edge before a great team goal settled matters made this one of the more intriguing clashes of the season so far, and that there is a definitive winner and a definitive loser makes it ultimately more satisfying – at least for the neutral. Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and each of their players deserve credit for an engrossing game – one of the better ones we will see between two title contenders. I’ll take this over Red bloody Monday any day.
* Chelsea were dealt a blow as soon as the squads were named: Moussa Sissoko was nowhere to be found in the Tottenham starting line-up or substitutes.
David Hytner of The Guardian claimed that the Frenchman’s omission was due to comments he made in midweek about playing at Wembley. Pochettino was delivering a ‘slap down’ as he put it, but that seems like a case of over-analysis. Sissoko hardly ever helps himself during media interviews, but his absence was surely due to his terrible form. His wait for a goal or an assist for his new club goes on.
When Tottenham broke their club-record transfer fee in the summer, it never truly felt like a Pochettino signing. This was a 27-year-old who had only intermittently impressed for relegated Newcastle in a completely different system. But this is the kind of occasion, the kind of game Sissoko was perceived to thrive in. That he did not even make a substitute’s bench containing youngsters Harry Winks, Josh Onomah and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou is an indictment of both the player and the transfer.
* Looking at those benches, it is a wonder that these two sides have the same aspirations both domestically and in Europe. Tottenham’s six outfield substitutes had three goals and six assists in 78 Premier League games between them; Chelsea’s sextet had 100 goals and 148 assists in 794 games.
The point is exemplified when you consider the changes each manager made during the game. Conte could afford to bring on the nous and experience of Branislav Ivanovic, Oscar and Willian in the second half, while Pochettino called upon the raw, novice talents of Nkoudou, Winks and Vincent Janssen. On that evidence, it is unfathomable that the latter manager is expected to compete for the title. He has comprised a young, inexperienced squad so that he can mould them to his preferred style but, when they were forced to chase the game, it meant they had no proven quantity to call upon.
* For those thinking Tottenham would be suffering a hangover from their Champions League exit in midweek, the visitors provided the perfect response. In the opening stages they were quicker, more aggressive, more energetic. Stamford Bridge could only watch as the Premier League leaders, who had looked so imperious in winning six successive games, were bullied into conceding their first league goal in 601 minutes. Tottenham made 30 more sprints than Chelsea in the opening 15 minutes, as they pressed higher and with more purpose than they had in months. Their reward came when a slick passing move culminated in Dele Alli playing the ball into Christian Eriksen, who struck a wonderful left-footed effort past Thibaut Courtois.
Chelsea could hardly complain, and we would learn more about them in the next 80 minutes than we had in the previous two months.
* The immediate response in most quarters to Tottenham’s opener was predictable. Chelsea as a collective were guilty of lapses of concentration and nervousness from the first whistle, but the finger was pointed firmly at David Luiz before Eriksen’s strike had even nestled in the back of the net. The Brazilian had committed to a tackle on Alli, but was left sprawled on the ground as he failed to dispossess the England international. It was perhaps naive on Luiz’s part, but the failure of Nemanja Matic, N’Golo Kante, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta in closing down the angle on Eriksen was considerably more costly, and typical of Chelsea’s sluggish start.
* As uncharacteristically poor as Chelsea were in the opening stages, Tottenham’s first-half dominance should not be downplayed. With the exception of the 2-0 victory over Manchester City in September, it was as good as we have seen them this season. They pressed in numbers, attacked with intent, and Chelsea were shell-shocked. They had ten shots in the first half, as well as more possession and more passes. Yet, for all their superiority, they were made to rely on one moment of magnificence from Eriksen.
It must be worrying for Pochettino that his side have scored fewer goals from open play then Watford, and as many as Crystal Palace (13). They are able to express their authority in games only up to a certain point, and their struggles in front of goal continue. It felt like only a matter of time before Chelsea would make them regret not being able to capitalise on their poor start.
* And so it proved. Comfortable for the majority of the first half and with Chelsea on the ropes, Tottenham looked to deliver a knock-out blow, but they lost balance and slipped face first onto the canvas. As has been the case so often since the start of last season, they were their own worst enemy. A poor Hugo Lloris goal-kick invited pressure, and Eden Hazard registered Chelsea’s first shot on target as a result. The Blues grew in confidence and within minutes, they were level. Pedro benefited from yet more poor decision-making to turn, shape to shoot, and beat Lloris with a wonderful curling effort. After displaying so much energy and fight in the previous 44 minutes, Tottenham were suddenly level due to static defending. Come back soon, Toby.
* And you too, Erik. Tottenham have now won just one of the six games Lamela has missed through injury. Tottenham were one point off top spot in the Premier League when the Argentinean featured in his last match – a 0-0 draw with Bournemouth. They are now seven points behind Chelsea and out of the Champions League. Tottenham were able to press the Blues into submission for almost all of the first half, but that same intensity – the intensity Lamela brings better than most – was absent in the second. Combine that with the fact that he ranks second in per-game stats for key passes (two), shots (two) and dribbles (1.7), and the player that so often sets the tone for the forwards is bound to be missed. Tottenham are struggling to replicate his effectiveness.
* Altogether now: That goal changed the half-time team talks. Except that surely is not true, for Conte must have still unleashed hell on his players in the dressing room. They were lethargic, listless and, Pedro’s equaliser aside, lacking in any true quality. As soon as the second half began however, they were a different side, and finally took the game to a Tottenham team who always stand on a fine line between impressive and implosive. The roles had suddenly been reversed, Pochettino’s side looked demoralised after having little to show for their first-half efforts, and Stamford Bridge, as it had in May, smelled blood.
* Within six minutes of the restart, Chelsea had their lead. The unusually poor Mousa Dembele was caught in possession, leading to a lightning-quick break from the hosts. In a scene of role reversal which would become commonplace throughout, Eden Hazard laid the ball into Diego Costa, inviting the selfless Spaniard to break down the left-hand side with purpose. He broke to the byline unattended and crossed – but not before dragging five Tottenham defenders out of position. It felt like a lifetime before Victor Moses finally found his cutback, the Nigerian having sprinted 60 yards to finish a simple move. The man of the match had his deserved goal, the decision to play Wimmer at left-back was exposed further, and, more importantly, the pendulum had swung.
* Just to reiterate, playing Wimmer at left-back was a poor choice, and it proved costly for Moses’ winner. The Austrian was pulled into the centre as he attempted to block Costa, but there were two defenders already in front of him. That momentary lapse of concentration allowed Moses the time and space to pick any area of Lloris’ goal.
To be fair to Wimmer, he looked like a centre-half playing on the left for a reason. He also was not helped by Eric Dier, who looks a shadow of the player who impressed last season. With half of the defence rather suspect, Tottenham did well to emerge with just two goals in the conceded column.
Wimmer might have been playing out of position, but that does not excuse losing possession 15 times and not gaining it back once. He made just one clearance and one interception and, unsurprisingly, could not offer the same threat that Danny Rose does going forward. Did Pochettino make a mistake in not playing Jan Vertonghen at left-back?
* At what stage does Dele Alli pay for his lacklustre performances with his place in the first team? He did not have a single shot, was silenced by the Chelsea midfield, and struggled throughout. He will be credited with an assist for Eriksen’s sublime individual effort, but that was the only moment of incisiveness he provided. The 20-year-old could yet prove to be the Next Big Thing, but we are in danger of allowing that to cloud our thoughts of the here and now. Still think he’s better than Paul Pogba, guys? Guys?
* As for Costa, he truly has come full circle. For anyone looking to learn the nuances of the lone-striker role, watch the 28-year-old’s performance on Saturday evening. He thrived amid the madness in May, playing his role as villain to a nefarious tee. Here, he was the self-sacrificing, altruistic focal point through which Chelsea expressed themselves. The Spaniard provided a constant outlet in the channels, held the ball up well and, in keeping with his new attitude, allowed his talent, not his utter bastardry, to do the talking.
Costa was the main striker, but had just one of Chelsea’s nine shots as he strived to bring his teammates into play. He gained possession four times; Kane did so just once. He set up two goalscoring opportunities, made one tackle and four clearances, and drew four fouls – the most of any player throughout. That last statistics may seem superfluous, but his presence so often relieved the pressure and afforded his teammates the necessary time to regroup and re-position themselves.
* The question was posed to Chelsea, and they provided an emphatic answer. It was the first time they had gone behind in a game since their much-vaunted change in formation, and the pressure had been increased even further after victories for Manchester City and Liverpool earlier in the day. They rose to the challenge.
Now it was Tottenham’s turn. They had squandered a one-goal lead away at the Premier League leaders, at a stadium where their title challenge of last season capitulated in such dramatic fashion. The stage was set; this was the perfect moment to reply to their critics, to prove that they belong on the same level.
The only thing more disappointing than the visitors’ ability to slip out of the ascendancy so easily was their lack of response after doing so. After overcoming their early stutter, Chelsea were rarely troubled. They had four shots after Moses’ goal; Spurs had just two. A front four of Eriksen, Alli, Son and Kane does not provide enough pace to worry even Gary Cahill, while the club’s complete lack of a plan B was exposed once again. If you can stop Kane – and the hosts had no problem in doing so – you stop Tottenham.
* Tottenham threw down the gauntlet with a brilliant victory over Manchester City in September; Chelsea have now picked it up and are running with it. The seventh consecutive win in a sequence which stretches back to the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal was by far the most impressive. This tested their character, their mettle, their desire to fight back to come from behind against an undefeated team who had conceded just nine goals in 12 games all season. A team who had deserted a sinking ship last season rallied to recover. Conte might well have even taken more pleasure in that than in the 4-0 win over Manchester United.
Five of Chelsea’s next six league opponents are: West Brom (h), Sunderland (a), Crystal Palace (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (h). Secure a result away at Manchester City next week, and they will justifiably become clear favourites.
* For Tottenham, the inquisition begins. What is worse for Pochettino is that this was not a particularly bad performance – the first half was excellent – and so there is little obvious room for improvement. Chelsea were simply better during their period in the ascendancy.
The returns of Alderweireld, Lamela and Rose will be a boost, but this remains a squad significantly malnourished in comparison to their direct rivals. The curse of Stamford Bridge continues, the mentality of a young squad is tested once more, and they are in danger of being cut off from the rest of the contenders.
The only positive is that the unbeaten run has finally fallen. Draws and narrow victories have papered over the cracks of a season’s worth of poor performances littered with brief spates of excellence. Pochettino now has no excuse but to address the problems.