* ‘The mood around the place is dark, the atmosphere sombre. There is something sinister going on at Stamford Bridge. Something is very, very wrong around here. Never in the history of the Premier League has the after-glow of a title win worn off so quickly’ – The Sun’s Neil Ashton, August 14.
“I think there are cracks which are appearing. I think there’s a power struggle. I just wonder, with these 11 days left in the window, whether Conte is going to last at Chelsea. Things aren’t right at Chelsea, they’re absolutely not, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Conte isn’t here in two weeks” – Chris Sutton, August 19.
“They can almost finish Chelsea’s season. That would be two defeats on the bounce if Spurs can do it” – Martin Keown, August 19.
And that is just a small selection of the doom-mongers who had gathered outside Stamford Bridge, expecting yet another manager to fall foul of the Chelsea hierarchy and their demands.
That match-winner Marcos Alonso noted after the game how there had been “a lot of noise” surrounding the club over the last week in particular was telling. Talk of an internal collapse did not apply the pressure; it simply inspired Chelsea to rebuild. Tottenham were the victims.
* The danger for Tottenham is that a first home loss in 15 months is incorrectly diagnosed. The problem with the idea of a ‘Wembley curse’ is that it distracts from legitimate concerns.
Dele Alli was not so confused by the dimensions of the Wembley pitch that he was forced to foul David Luiz to concede a free-kick mere yards from the penalty area. Victor Wanyama was not so overawed by the Wembley arches that he first failed to control a ball, then neglected to track his runner. Hugo Lloris was not so fearful of Wembley losing its lustre that he was beaten at his near post. Mauricio Pochettino did not make the wrong substitutions because the half-time pies at White Hart Lane were better than the ones on offer at the national stadium. Tottenham’s squad does not still lack pace because Wembley is slightly more difficult to get to via public transport.
To declare that playing at Wembley is the root cause of this defeat is to neglect analysis of any actual issues. It is to overlook the fact that a new, slightly tweaked formation did not work. It is to disregard some insipid performances from important players. It is to ignore that there are deficiencies in the squad which were obvious throughout the summer, and have to be rectified in the next fortnight.
There is a reason Pochettino has emphatically denied on a number of occasions that playing at the national stadium is an issue for his players. Tottenham wish to be regarded as an elite club, or at the very least in the echelon just below. Said sides make a habit of winning at Wembley; they do not use it as an excuse for failure.
* With Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas both suspended, Conte was forced to shuffle a pack of cards he already deems too small. The departures of Nemanja Matic, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek meant that Tiemoue Bakayoko was handed his debut, despite the summer signing having only just recovered from a knee injury.
Gary Cahill’s absence was slightly less straightforward to manage. Andreas Christensen made his first Premier League start in central defence, with David Luiz pushing further up. Conte matched Tottenham’s three-man central midfield with one of his own.
Conte might feel that he has been hamstrung by an inability to add further numbers to his squad this summer, with the four first-team signings each replacing a respective outgoing player. But the Italian can be thankful to have an existing group of players so fluid and adaptable. Even the slightest of tweaks to an established system would see many sides struggle, but Chelsea’s players acclimatised well to their new roles and expectations, Luiz in particular.
“We will find the right solution,” said Conte after the defeat to Burnley. After Sunday, his reputation for problem-solving has only increased.
* Of all the criticisms that can be levelled at Alvaro Morata, his one greatest strength cannot be ignored: the Spaniard has mastered the art of the punchline.
“For a striker it’s the best league I think,” he said ahead of the game. “You have many chances to score a goal.”
At Wembley, he had one after five minutes, but little else thereafter. An unmarked header 12 yards out was a Wembley present gift-wrapped by an uncharacteristically lacklustre Tottenham defence, yet Morata proceeded to miss the target.
Such was the nature of his arrival to the Premier League – Manchester United having publicly courted him while privately securing a move for Romelu Lukaku – the Chelsea striker will unfortunately always be in direct competition with the Belgian. The desperation to compare their records and performances is tiresome but inevitable and unavoidable. But it is important to remember that they will only ever be relevant when Morata is given time to settle and reach full fitness.
His hold-up play provided a much-needed outlet in the second half, and Tottenham’s defenders struggled at times with his movement. A second-half chance to double Chelsea’s lead when played in by Willian illustrated his lack of match sharpness, but the early signs are worth hesitant positivity at least.
* The ‘crisis’ club would indeed start quickest. Morata flashed a header just wide as Tottenham took time to settle. By the time they had, Chelsea struck a hammer blow.
The excellent Luiz won a free-kick on the edge of the area, and a queue formed. The Brazilian himself was in the near vicinity, as well as compatriot Willian. Both have quite the track record when it comes to such situations.
But it was Alonso who would honour his namesake with a brilliant strike. The left-back curled the ball over the wall and away from the despairing grasp of Hugo Lloris. He would get the better of the Frenchman in the closing stages, turning unlikely hero once more.
Alonso’s face has never seemed to fit at Stamford Bridge. The Spaniard facilitated the tactical switch that helped deliver a Premier League title last season, but was never at the forefront when it came to plaudits. Chelsea’s pursuit of Alex Sandro and Danny Rose this summer suggests the left wing-back role is an area Conte is looking to upgrade. But with two goals, the most touches of any visiting player (59), and a solid defensive performance, he continues to prove his worth.
* In praising Dele Alli last weekend, Mauricio Pochettino was careful to emphasise two words in particular.
“He was calm – that’s important,” said the Tottenham manager after the midfielder scored in the win over Newcastle. “He’s mature enough now to accept sometimes what happens on the pitch, but he is so calm.”
The 21-year-old himself was vocal before the game, discussing how these two sides have “history”, and adding that ending Chelsea’s 13-match winning run last January was “without doubt among the highlights of my time at Spurs”.
Alli has indeed made considerable strides in terms of ridding his game of infantile petulance, but there is still work to do. It was his needless foul on Luiz that presented Alonso with a free-kick opportunity he duly took, and one that looked as though it would win the match.
But everyone makes mistakes; only fools do not learn from them. Just as Luiz bought the free-kick from Alli in the first half, Bakayoko was a willing – and absolutely knackered – customer for the Englishman in the second. Christian Eriksen delivered, Michy Batshuayi blundered, and Alli’s craft had been rewarded. Tottenham were level.
* Spare a thought for Cahill, watching from the Wembley stands as a result of his suspension. The Chelsea captain will have plenty to discuss with one particular England teammate during the international break in a fortnight.
Many questioned the 31-year-old’s sending-off against Burnley last week, but the salient point, as ever, is one of consistency. If Cahill’s tackle on Steven Defour was a red card, then Eric Dier should have met the same punishment for hacking down both Luiz and Victor Moses in one fluid movement. Tottenham should have been reduced to ten men, and only Chelsea’s eventual victory will prevent it being a major talking point. The FA should breathe a collective sigh of relief, but this issue has to be addressed soon.
* The race to be crowned Tottenham’s man of the match was declared a no contest even before half-time. Mousa Dembele was brilliant, a ball-winning, ball-carrying ballerina who had the poise, skill and strength to compete with the champions. Unfortunately for him, he was alone on that front.
The Belgian weaved in and out of challenges as only he can, completing more dribbles (4) than any other player, and generally looking a level above. Had even one of his teammates matched his level of performance, Tottenham would not be scrutinising a defeat.
* In his pre-match press conference on Friday, Conte dismissed the idea of changing Luiz’s position. “In the past he played in the midfield, I prefer him to play central defence,” said the Italian.
Perhaps next time he won’t approach a similar situation with such trepidation. Luiz proved last season that he had matured considerably since his last spell in the Premier League, but many still felt he flourished because he was protected in the centre of a three-man defence. Sunday brought irrefutable proof that the boy who departed for France in 2014 returned two years later a man.
With five tackles, one interception and four clearances, the Brazilian led from the back. But his defensive impact was not his most telling. It was Luiz who won the free-kick for Alonso’s opener, and Luiz who retrieved possession which led to Alonso’s winner. The second instance in particular was impressive, the Brazilian launching forward from midfield after a failed attack to dispossess Wanyama. Had he missed that tackle, Tottenham would have been able to break with numbers. It is on such moments that intense games are so often decided.
* For every protagonist, there is often a villain of the piece. Luiz deserves great credit for his role in the winning goal, but Wanyama’s mistake compounded one of the few woeful displays of his Tottenham career.
In the opening ten minutes, the Kenyan’s sloppiness in possession provided Chelsea with two chances to break forward, and he appeared to lack match fitness on his first start of the season.
N’Golo Kante named Tottenham as his most difficult opponents back in July, adding that: “In midfield Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele are so strong.” On Sunday, he would have been forgiven for thinking he was facing only one of them.
Dembele not only offered far more going forward than Wanyama, he made two more tackles and two more interceptions, and recorded a higher passing accuracy. For a supposed luxury player, the Belgian fared well as both creator and destroyer. Wanyama held him and Tottenham back.
* Perhaps Wanyama shouldn’t even have been on the pitch. Pochettino made his first substitution just before the 70-minute mark, and despite Wanyama struggling with the pace of the game, it was Dier who came off for Heung-min Son.
Dier had hardly put in a game-changing performance by that point, but he at least offered some steel in midfield, and assistance to Dembele. Wanyama was little more than a dead weight at times, yet he survived the full 90 minutes.
The conventional wisdom is that a football game is won or lost in midfield. Pochettino might have had the chance to change the course of the battle, but instead sent out his troops with knives to a gunfight.
* For Bakayoko, there are promising signs. Matic’s instant impact at Manchester United has put the midfield arrival from Monaco under immediate pressure, but the first glimpses are positive.
The statistics betray his influence – he had no shots, created no chances and recorded a 62.5% passing accuracy – but his display extended beyond mere numbers. His presence in midfield counteracted Tottenham’s perfectly, and his ball control was sublime. The foul on Alli is the sole blemish on his report card so far.
The 23-year-old certainly offered something different to Matic. His dynamism and the ability to carry the ball from midfield was obvious – although his decision making must improve.
But for a young player making his debut for a new team in a new country for a new manager with new teammates, having only just recovered from knee surgery and therefore having missed pre-season, this was a 90-minute showing that suggests money was well spent.
* It seems harsh to question one of the Premier League’s finest goalkeepers, but Hugo Lloris’ part in Chelsea’s winner should not be overlooked. Not only did he commit the most unforgivable of sins – Alonso beat him at his near post – but the Frenchman turned a potential Tottenham attack into a failed Tottenham defence in one moment.
A Chelsea break led by Kante was thwarted by Dembele, and Lloris gathered the ball. But the Frenchman’s subsequent throw out to Wanyama was lazy, careless and invited pressure. The midfielder was at fault for not reacting quickly enough and preempting the situation, but many others would not know how to react after having a live grenade thrown towards them. Lloris was the real culprit here.
Tottenham had six shots on target at Wembley; Courtois kept out each of them. Chelsea had two shots on target; they won 2-1.
* Conte’s complaints over his squad depth could quite easily fall on deaf ears considering the past two days. Just 24 hours after Kurt Zouma inspired Stoke’s defence to a clean sheet against Arsenal, Christensen emerged from the Chelsea reserves to thwart Tottenham.
Christensen departed London for Borussia Monchengladbach in 2015, and returned this summer with two years of Bundesliga and Champions League experience to his name. The German side wanted to sign him permanently for £20m, such was his development there.
But the Dane has returned to England and acquitted himself well at the heart of the Chelsea defence. The Burnley defeat was a blip largely out of his control, but against Tottenham he impressed. He recorded a perfect passing accuracy which, against Tottenham’s press, is no mean feat.
Both wing backs and Luiz were tremendous. Christensen excellent in the second half, his reading and positioning for clearances was superb.
— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) August 20, 2017
The 21-year-old is the litmus test for Chelsea’s oft-criticised loan system. If he clears that pathway even slightly, it can be considered a success.
* “I want four players,” said Pochettino on Friday. “It’s possible yes but it’s not easy.”
This was the sort of performance that makes a difficult task even harder. Tottenham waited until August 18 to sign their first player of the summer. They now face a busy but crucial two weeks.
The north London club have tackled a different market to their peers. With a settled starting XI that the manager feels he cannot improve without harming morale, Tottenham are battling to sign squad players for inflated prices. Davinson Sanchez is their only arrival thus far.
But Pochettino cannot ignore the importance of adding more forward options. Tottenham struggled to breach a determined Chelsea defence, and did so only because of Michy Batshuayi’s error. Eriksen’s delivery is wonderful, but it cannot be relied on to produce goals in every situation.
The obvious deficiency is one of raw pace, and one the manager has looked to address in each of the last two summers. Clinton N’Jie joined in 2015; Georges-Kévin N’Koudou arrived the following year. Neither had the desired impact.
Against Chelsea, Son, Moussa Sissoko and Vincent Janssen were the substitutes. In 25 combined minutes they had no shots, created no chances and posed Chelsea no different threats to the ones they had faced and thwarted for the previous hour. Sissoko alone is proof that waiting until transfer deadline day is a gamble which can backfire.
* So the ‘crisis’ is over, but only a fool would consider Chelsea’s issues to be conquered. This was a victory to bring the players and the manager closer together after a week of tribulations, but a rift remains between manager and board.
Chelsea’s bench tells its own story. Batshuayi and Pedro were the only players Conte called upon, with the other four outfielders sharing one Premier League start since March 2016 between them. Kenedy, Charly Musonda, Fikayo Tomori and Kyle Scott are hardly soldiers worthy of an assault on the Champions League. The Blues need considerably more investment, and Roman Abramovich must be painfully aware.
Fortunately for the manager, combined with his success of last season, this result might afford him enough goodwill for more additions. Conte can only hope they are more Marcos Alonso than Abdul Baba-Rahman.