Chelsea – Tottenham Hotspur: Sarri Has Not Lost The Dressing Room Yet (2-0)
This was a decisive match in Chelsea’s season and maybe even in Maurizio Sarri’s managerial career. With Kepa benched for his refusal to be substituted, would the Chelsea team show up? We got a clear answer, and even though this tense game could have easily gone Tottenham’s way, Chelsea fought for every loose ball, pressed ferociously and were clinical with their chances.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
These two teams do not like each other. Even though Tottenham’s archrivals of course are Arsenal, this game is always heated, even more so since Chelsea ended Tottenham’s title chase in the 2015/16 season, in a game that was so violent it later became known as the ‘Battle of the Bridge’. A lot of players that were present on that day were on the pitch today as well. Chelsea also won the FA Cup final against Tottenham in 2017. Doesn’t help. Going into the match, the difference between third-placed Tottenham and sixth-placed Chelsea was a whopping ten points.
The biggest team news came from Chelsea, as Maurizio Sarri decided to bench Kepa Arrizabalaga, after the Spanish goalkeeper had refused to be substituted in Sunday’s League Cup final against Manchester City. Willy Caballero, who was denied potential penalty heroics on Sunday, got the full ninety minutes here. Whether Sarri’s decision is permanent is not clear yet.
Further up the pitch, in Sarri’s customary 4-3-3 formation Marcos Alonso was fielded at left back, even though he was left out on Sunday after a series of truly horrific performances. As left central midfielder, Mateo Kovačić got the nod ahead of Ross Barkley. Gonzalo Higuaín was the striker, Eden Hazard found himself on the left and Pedro acted as the right winger.
Even though a 4-4-2 diamond / 4–3-1-2 set-up had been hugely effective against Chelsea at Wembley, Pochettino opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation here. As Jan Vertonghen was still out with a hip injury, the central defenders were Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez. The double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. was formed by Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks, while Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min played just behind Harry Kane.
Match opens at breakneck speed
The Premier League is the most high intensity league in the world. The first twenty minutes of this match were played at a bizarre tempo, even by Premier League standards. Very seldom did one of the teams settle in a medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. and let the opponent play. Both teams were hunting for the ball at every opportunity and when they got it, immediately looked for a vertical pass. It resulted in a lot of duels, a lot of turnovers and a lot of transitional moments, aided by the referee, who officiated the game in traditional English fashion.
When looking at the teams, one would expect Tottenham to thrive in this kind of environment, but it was actually Chelsea that had the better of play in the opening phase. For the first ten minutes or so Hazard played in an inside-right position, with Pedro deployed on the left. After five minutes, Higuaín struck the post with an awkward outside-of-the-boot finish, a chance originating from Hazard’s presence on the right, as he combined quickly with Higuaín, Kanté and Azpilicueta, the latter crossing the ball. It would turn out to have been the biggest chance of the first half.
For large parts of the first half, both teams would ferociously press one another and the game was more about containing the opponent than creating chances, even though that was mitigated around the half hour mark. Chelsea would often begin their press if Alderweireld would receive the ball from either fullback or from a midfielder, as Kanté would step through on the Belgian central defender. Both Winks and Sissoko were very ineffective in aiding the defenders and playing around this pressure, which resulted in a lot of turnovers.
Kanté’s pressing on Alderweireld, which was backed up by the midfielders stepping up and the wingers tucking in if necessary.
On other occasions, Kovačić would step through on Trippier, and the other midfielders would shift towards his side to prevent Chelsea from progressing the ball, which they did fairly well as a unit.
Tottenham’s offensive plan ineffective
In possession, Spurs’ attacking players have a ton of freedom to go wherever they want, and Lamela, Son and Eriksen are very smart players in terms of not all occupying the same space. That means their formation in possession can be hard to point out. One second, it can appear a 4-2-3-1 with Kane supported by three attacking midfielders. When Eriksen drops into midfield and the wingers tuck in, it can appear to be a 4-4-2 diamond. Sissoko also at times offered more room for Winks to play in by positioning himself higher up the pitch.
With Dele Alli still out, Spurs are missing arguably their second-best creative player – after Eriksen – and this has been showing in recent weeks. What you get is a solid team that thrives in moments when the ball is lost because they counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. so well, but fails to turn those high turnovers into scoring chances.
Tottenham’s most effective way of progressing the ball up the field against Chelsea was a cross-field pass from Alderweireld to Trippier. In the final phase of attack – Lamela and Son in particular – Spurs were not able to create breakthroughs with their possessions.
They seem to lack a clear offensive plan in these top games, and their strength lies primarily in counterattacking and capitalizing off high turnovers. They did not succeed in pulling off one of these against Chelsea.
As a result, the game was still scoreless at half-time, and to be frank, neither team had really deserved to score. Even though clear cut scoring chances had been scarce, this still felt as a great match because of the intensity on display by both teams and the overall tempo of the match, which was really remarkable.
Chelsea opens the scoring and sit deep
The first half was primarily played in the middle third. If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. As neither manager decided to change anything in terms of personnel or tactics, this trend continued in the second half.
In the 57th minute, Chelsea commenced their build up from the left, as they prefer to do. Hazard managed to find Azpilicueta on the other side, which led to a classic two-versus-one overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. on the wing. Pedro was launched in the back of Davies, dribbled past Alderweireld one-versus-one and finished through the legs of Lloris. Pretty shoddy from all three Spurs players involved, and Chelsea were leading, as Pedro had produced the first shot on target in the entire match.
Hazard plays a long pass into Azpilicueta from here, leading to Chelsea’s opening goal.
With over half an hour left, it was interesting to see how Chelsea would approach this one-goal lead. Sit deep and absorb the attacking pressure by Spurs? Keep the match about turnovers and return to the high tempo of the first twenty minutes? Don’t change anything?
The chose the fist of those options, sitting deep in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Willian from the left, as he was brought on for Hazard after an hour of play. Reminiscent of the League Cup final against Manchester City, Chelsea did quite well this way, as Tottenham’s only inroads into Chelsea’s penalty area came from crosses by their fullbacks, one of those only slightly missed by Kane.
In the seventieth minute, Pochettino brought on striker Fernando Llorente for Lamela, changing the system into a genuine 4-4-2 diamond with Son at the tip and Eriksen from the left. It changed little to the game’s overall dynamics, as the strategy for Spurs remained crossing, as their play through the middle was insufficient. All of the crosses were mopped up by Chelsea’s defense very adequately.
The game was over in the 85th minute, when Trippier scored an own goal. Many own goals are a case of bad luck, but this one definitely was not. After a long ball and a won duel by fresh substitute Giroud, the ball fell between Trippier and Lloris. Trippier, without scanning, played it back for his goalkeeper, even though Lloris had come out of goal as well. As a result, Tottenham’s right back had put the ball in his own net. After that, Tottenham could not produce anything meaningful offensively and Chelsea kept three vital points at Stamford Bridge.
Trippier. pic.twitter.com/bNQmN3aeyK— Busonzio (@Busonzio) February 27, 2019
This game capped off a mixed week for Chelsea and Sarri. In terms of football, the performance against Manchester City in the League Cup final was quite decent, even though it was overshadowed by Kepa’s on-pitch behavior. In this game, the players showed the whole world Sarri has not yet lost the dressing room, in a vibrant match that really could have gone either way, but went Chelsea’s.
Mauricio Pochettino likes to put the emphasis on his team’s mentality and the mentality of the club as a whole, but in this match, they were outdone on footballing terms, really. Not able to play out from the back due to Chelsea’s press, no way of creating chances and a mediocre defensive organization in key moments. It resulted in a tight match they could have also have won had they scored the first goal, but lost.
If that happens, as a manager, do you end up blaming the mentality of the players for not grinding out a result in a tight match, or wondering what should change on the pitch to make sure matches like these tilt their way because you believe Spurs are clearly the better team?
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