The final round of the busy festive period kicks off on New Year’s Day when Chelsea travel to North London to face Tottenham Hotspur. The two teams faced off just under a month ago at Stamford Bridge where 2 goals in 3 minutes killed off the contest and saw Chelsea comfortably win by a 3-0 scoreline, though the possession stats don’t fully represent the match as a whole. Spurs will be looking to gain a measure of revenge and keep their good run of form going, and a win over the league leaders will achieve both.
For Chelsea, that 3-0 win seems a long time ago. Since that time, Chelsea have advanced in both the Capital One Cup and the Champions League, but they also suffered their first defeat of the season at St. James Park against Newcastle and could have dropped 2 vital points against Southampton at St. Mary’s if not for Manchester City’s slip-up against Burnley. The latest performance, that 1-1 draw with Southampton, will be a result that Jose Mourinho will want to put behind him. The result itself was not terrible. Southampton are a very good team this season. But the squad players that featured in that match failed to produce performances that would challenge the incumbent starters, and that will worry Mourinho going forward. The first 11 should be restored against Spurs, and it will be interesting to see how they perform, particularly since rotation seems ineffective right now.
For Spurs, they’ll be flying high off of a 0-0 draw against Manchester United, which saw them continue the unbeaten run of 5 matches that started after the defeat to Chelsea in early December. Spurs have performed much better as of late, finding a good balance in defence and attack, and should be disappointed that they didn’t try to take advantage of United’s fatigue earlier in the second half. From the start of that period on, they were the better team in that match. They will hope to carry that confidence against the league leaders, particularly at White Hart Lane where their record against the Blues has led the ground to be renamed “Three Point Lane” by Chelsea supporters.
Harry Kane has become the striker that Spurs have needed since the start of the season.
Early on in the season, Tottenham’s biggest concern was the inability of their strikers to score goals. Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado made a bit of a mockery of the striker position at the start, with the former only producing performances when it suited him and the latter inventing new ways to not score goals. Since that time, Harry Kane, a youngster who came through Spurs academy, produced a number of good performances in the Europa League and has taken on the role of the number-one striker for the club.
Interestingly, he’s a very unique player stylistically. Some have compared him to Germany’s Thomas Mueller, and in some ways, they’re right. For a player who’s 6’2”, he’s not a striker that relies on brute force. There is an elegance to his play that allows him to not only link-up play coming deep, but also win headers in the air and be a threat there. All of that comes down to his good instincts and his good football intelligence. Despite not being blessed with pace, he knows how to glide into good positions to not only score goals, but also create chances.
However, he does have two main limitations that you can exploit. First, he’s not the most natural finisher just yet. He gets himself in those positions, but he does have a penchant for missing chances by flashing shots and headers just wide. He doesn’t often miss by much, but considering the positions he finds himself in, he should score more goals. The second is that he relies very heavily on service. He can get past players in deeper positions, but he doesn’t always create the space for the shot when in the box. He has to use his movement to beat defenders there and receive the service. In the first matchup, Chelsea had trouble with that for the first 15 minutes, but after that time, they cut off that service, and Kane was nowhere as effective from that point onward.
If Spurs are reliant on Kane as a striker, they’re just as reliant on Christian Eriksen to create goals.
Spurs major problem lies in the ineffectiveness of their wingers and midfield beyond Christian Eriksen. If you look at their squad, the complete ineffectiveness of Paulinho and Moussa Dembele to create chances or get into scoring positions has given them a real problem in the deeper midfield. Of the players that play in that midfield two, they are the most accomplished players and they’ve failed to consistently produce, meaning that Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb have been the players relied upon in that area. While the two are very promising, their final ball is quite inconsistent and their ability to really provide a creative outlet from deep has been a problem for Spurs.
If the deep midfield is one problem, it is one that can be explained by inexperience. The wide players inconsistency is more concerning. Right now, Spurs wingers fall into two categories: creative but not very good defensively, and willing to play defensively and not very good creatively. I think you saw that against United. To aid against the attacking four of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Falcao, and Robin Van Persie, Andros Townsend was deployed on the right to help out with Ashley Young. Nacer Chadli was tasked to play on the left, and when Rafael came on and play started to come down the left, Chadli was a bit exposed.
It’s become a real problem because Spurs fullbacks are not great defensively, in part due to injury but in part due to lack of quality, so when you help them out, creative duties fall on Eriksen. When you help Eriksen out creatively, you leave the fullbacks exposed.
Fullback is a main problem for Spurs, especially as long as Vlad Chiriches plays at right back.
Poor Vlad Chiriches. A center back by trade, he’s been asked to play at right back with injuries to both Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton, both of whom have also had defensive issues. While Chiriches is more effective at right back than center back, quick attackers on that side give him a lot of issues. In the first meeting, Eden Hazard roasted him for the bulk of the match, and he wasn’t given much help from Aaron Lennon when Cesar Azpilicueta came on the overlap. The roastings continued against United when Ashley Young, playing at wingback but a natural winger, was able to create chances at will down the United left and exposed Chiriches.
If they can’t give him help, expect Hazard to do some damage again on that side, especially with the form that he’s in. It also doesn’t help Chiriches that the center back on that side, Federico Fazio, isn’t particularly quick as cover.
If attacking the right back doesn’t work, Danny Rose and Ben Davies haven’t been that convincing either at left back.
Rotation is a naughty word for Jose Mourinho, and we saw why at St. Mary’s.
Make no mistake about it; Chelsea do have good squad players, but they do change the style of the Blues when they play and only really thrive in certain situations. Andre Schuerlle and Filipe Luis are not bad players. The problem is that they don’t replicate the players that they replaced in Willian and Azpilicueta.
The change of Schuerrle for Willian and Cesc Fabregas for Oscar against Southampton inherently changed the style of play that was seen against West Ham. The skill set of those two new players in those positions meant that the fluidity of the attack wasn’t the same, as Fabregas is not as effective in wide positions and tends to play deeper than Oscar in the number 10 role, and Schuerrle is a prototypical winger/wide forward who likes to run in behind. That works very well against teams that either press in midfield or keep an organized backline, but not against teams that do both at the same time like Southampton. Without that movement, it made it very easy for Southampton to concentrate on running defenders at Hazard, preventing him from coming inside and keeping defenders in front of Fabregas so he couldn’t find Diego Costa’s runs.
Rotation is going to have to happen at some point, but Mourinho is going to have to select specific styles of opponents, like you saw against Derby County and Sporting CP, to make those moves and allow those players to flourish.
Oscar has become as vital as anyone in the team, perhaps the second-most important to Hazard.
Oscar’s absence was felt against Southampton because of the conditions I just mentioned. It’s very hard to sometimes see Oscar’s influence on a match because sometimes his name isn’t mentioned and you don’t always see him on the ball. However, his versatility in being able to play anywhere in the three behind the striker while also being able to come deep and dictate play from a holding midfield position is vital to that fluidity.
Against Southampton, because Fabregas was in that number 10, Saints could shawdo Hazard wherever he went, knowing that Fabregas isn’t one to make runs off the ball behind the striker that aren’t one-twos and isn’t one to pull wide and be effective on the left when Hazard comes inside. It meant that Hazard often had two or more defenders around him, which also meant Fabregas had more men to thread balls behind.
When Oscar plays, that can’t happen as easily. One, it drops Fabregas into a deeper role where, much like Frank Lampard liked to do, he can see the pitch in front of him and pick the passes he wants to play. Likewise, you can’t shadow Hazard with multiple men because you have to be cognizant of Oscar replacing him on the left and still providing a threat. He also at times replaces Fabregas as the midfield control when Fabregas is man-marked out of the match.
His absence against Southampton showed how much is lost when he doesn’t play and how important he is in the fluid style that Chelsea have adopted. It prevents teams from really man-marking both Hazard and Fabregas and forces the opposition to stay compact, which is hard to maintain when players are going everywhere.