Midweek fixtures at the start of the holiday period are always tricky, and no fixture is as tricky as a meeting of rivals when Tottenham Hotspur pay a visit to Stamford Bridge to face the league leaders Chelsea. Despite Spurs having not won at Stamford Bridge since 1990, there have been a few memorable encounters between the two sides with a couple of 3-3 score lines and the like in recent years. Regardless, the situation this year is that Spurs come into this match with a bit of an identity crisis, trying to mesh as a team under manager Mauricio Pochettino, and Chelsea are flying high at the top of the table under Jose Mourinho.
However, both teams come into this match with a bit of a point to prove to themselves and to their critics. While Chelsea’s critics have been few and far between, the critics have sensed a bit of weakness in this Chelsea side after their 0-0 draw against Sunderland on Saturday. The fact that the Blues were held goalless for the first time this season and failed to break down a very organized defence had some up in arms, questioning Mourinho’s lack of rotation this season and saying that they looked tired and sluggish in that match. That does a disservice to Sunderland, who were excellent in maintaining their shape and staying disciplined throughout the 90 minutes and definitely earned a point.
For Tottenham, this season has been full of ups and downs. Their form has been slightly erratic, with a number of subpar performances over recent weeks. However, they were able to overcome a good Everton side last Sunday and will be looking to build a bit of momentum. Luckily for Spurs, their top-four ambitions are still possible given that the rest of the teams outside the top three have all had their struggles. If Spurs can put together and run of wins, they could very easily stake a claim to fourth place. But to do so, they’ll have to silence their own critics who say that Spurs are a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive group.
Sunderland may have shown the league a way to stop Chelsea from playing. Are Spurs capable of doing so?
On Saturday, Gus Poyet may have put together one of the best game plans to stop Chelsea of anyone this season. He’s been a bit of a thorn in the side of Mourinho, having only lost once in the last four meetings, earning wins last season at home in the League Cup and winning at Stamford Bridge. A feature of his play has been the ability to sit deep with an organized defence, and rather than simply clearing the ball to relieve pressure, using controlled passing to get out of their own half, and countering with numbers. From a Spurs perspective, the question is whether they are capable of employing that same strategy.
One of the features of Pochettino’s sides is the way they defend and apply pressure. What worked so well for Southampton last season was their ability to press the ball from the front, disrupting your ability to play out from the back, and then winning the second ball when you had to inevitably play a less-controlled out ball. However, the personnel he has at his disposal at Spurs doesn’t really allow him to play the way he did at Saints last season, and they also aren’t really built to sit and absorb pressure and play on the counter, unless spaces are given them. It’s almost like they’re caught between two worlds, in terms of defending.
As Manchester City showed, if you allow Spurs the opportunity to come forward and attack, they become vulnerable on the break, particularly because they start pressing the midfield and play a higher line that quicker players, both of thought and of pace, can break easily. It led to a beating from City that still lingers in the minds of City fans. They’re also not really built to sit and defend, as their back line is prone to the odd mistake, as we saw last season with the last two goals in the 5-0 thrashing of Spurs.
Somewhere along the line this season, someone is going to take a real beating from this Chelsea side, but it hasn’t happened yet. Sunderland and their shaky mentality looked like a prime candidate, but in terms of weak defending and allowing space, Spurs may offer another option.
Spurs front line has severely let them down.
One of the major problems that Spurs have faced this season is an inherent lack of finishing ability. While they do have the players to create chances, those chances have either led to shots off target or simply not reading where the ball is heading. It’s telling that their 18 goals in the league is the worst of any team in the top six and is the same number of goals that Crystal Palace have scored coming into the midweek round of fixtures, and they are down in 14th. It’s also telling that 21-year-old Harry Kane is being asked to lead the line now on the back of his six goals scored in the Europa League this season. He’s also the leading goalscorer on Spurs with 11 goals; their second-leading scorer being Nacer Chadli.
That’s a lot to ask of a youngster with just 19 appearances for Spurs and who had been loaned out to lower league clubs for the last four seasons. It’s also a massive indictment of how disappointing Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado have been, both seasoned internationals who have mustered just 4 goals between them. Adebayor in recent weeks has looked completely disinterested, and since his arrival, Soldado has failed to find any sort of goalscoring form.
What’s worse is that they’re coming up against a side that boasts one of the best defensive records in the league and has the personnel to limit the number of chances Spurs create by nullifying their creative players’ strengths. If Spurs are to win, they must finish the few chances that they’re likely to create, but given their track record in finishing, that might be a bit of an ask.
Spurs’ signings since the departure of Gareth Bale have left the supporters and the club wanting.
Before the public criticism that Brendan Rodgers is facing at Liverpool over the signings made after the departure of Luis Suarez, there was the cautionary tale of Andre Villas-Boas and the departure of Gareth Bale. Rarely do you lose your best player and get better, and that is understood. However, you also have to guard against the urge to buy lots of players with that money in an effort to rebuild the squad and provide depth, rather than attempting to lure one big replacement. Spurs are seeing the problems with that strategy, as one year since the Gareth Bale sale, many of those signings have yet to make a real impact in the first team.
In the summer window before last season, Spurs shelled out £105M on seven players to attempt to rebuild, but six of them have yet to make any real impact. Paulinho had a brilliant showing for Corinthians in the Club World Cup the winter previous and had a good start to his Spurs career. However, since then, he’s been largely anonymous in the squad and has rarely seen the pitch. The same could be said for Etienne Capoue and Vlad Chiriches. Only Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli have made any impact with the first team.
However, the biggest two mishaps were the aforementioned Roberto Soldado, whose goal return for a £26M striker has been woeful, and Erik Lamela. Lamela, in particular, had a brilliant season at Roma before moving to Spurs for £30M. Rabona goals aside, he’s failed to settle into life in the Premier League to the point that he’s viewed mostly as an impact player rather than one that sustains quality for 90 minutes.
The other problem with the “buy in bulk” strategy is that you have to integrate a lot of different players into a system quickly, and if they don’t work out, you’re left lacking quality replacements. In addition, when you’ve changed managers as Spurs have done with Villas-Boas and now Pochettino, it’s hard to know if the new manager actually has a plan for them. With that many signings from your predecessor, either you play them or you offload them, which is easier said than done. It’s no surprise that sometimes Spurs play like a team of individuals, rather than a cohesive unit.
So far this season, Spurs best player has been Christian Eriksen.
If there is one player at Tottenham this season that has delivered, it has been Eriksen, who is starting to show the promise and the talent that he demonstrated at Ajax. Back at Ajax, he was touted as one of the best of the up-and-coming number 10s in world football, impressing in the Champions League and catching the eye of many of the top teams around the world. So as you can imagine, it was seen as a bit of a coup for Spurs to land him before last season, especially given their lack of Champions League football.
However, there were some concerns over Eriksen, particularly given the track record of Eredivisie players moving to the Premier League, namely strikers, and his ability to cope with the physicality. Despite being 5’10”, he plays smaller than his size, and after Lewis Holtby, another diminutive number 10, failed at Spurs, there were concerns he might do the same.
This season, those fears have been allayed. Of all the Spurs players, he’s been the most consistent of the group, and along with Chadli, have provided Spurs with a bit of attacking thrust that their strikers haven’t always delivered.
Against Chelsea, however, his abilities will be tested against a defence that is organized and reads the game well and against one of the best holding midfielders in the world, Nemanja Matic. The other question will be how well he copes with having to help out his deeper midfielders. In the Premier League, Ryan Mason has been paired with either Nabil Bentaleb or Moussa Dembele as a two in midfield in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2. In either case, expecting them to cover the spaces occupied by Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Willian will be a big ask, and defensively, Eriksen and Chadli aren’t quite as strong.
They will have to be, though, if they expect to stop Chelsea’s free-flowing attack from putting four past them as City did earlier in the year.