For much of this game Chelsea were the dominant force, the attacking threats form the Lillywhites were comfortably blunted and our own attacking endeavour deserved to swing the game. A familiar story for this season, we were once again made to pay for a lack of proficiency and ruthlessness in front of goal. After getting the tactics so right for the majority of the game Benitez and the coaching staff will be kicking themselves for not acting on the warning signs earlier that might have seen us clinch a vital three points.
In terms of the line-up Benitez’s selection was far from conservative and perhaps gave us an insight in his preferred starting eleven for Amsterdam. The mobility and athleticism of Luiz and Ramires were preferred in the holding midfield roles and the established attacking trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar were chosen to support Torres upfront. Torres was an interesting selection as I think he would have been chosen to start regardless of rotation with Ba. Villas-Boas preference for the high defence line and high press always leaves in space behind to run into and pace was the order of the day. Torres’ intelligent runs into the flanks and Ramires’ trademark forward sprints from midfield saw us capitalise on this high line time and again. It was exactly this combination that brilliantly constructed the second goal, quick feet and a superbly weighted pass from the Spaniard found Ramires’ charge forward and he duly delivered with a neat finish.
Excellent work from the full backs and cover from the holding midfielders nullified the pacey threats out wide of Lennon and Bale. Azpilicueta had another strong game (has a Blues defender had a finer debut season in recent memory?), shackling the Player of the Year, who barely touched the ball throughout the ninety except to dive over it. Praise also to Oscar’s tireless tracking and hussle, proving he has the mettle to match Moses’ work rate out on the flanks. Chelsea were comfortably dealing with Spurs build-up play and also mindful of their threat lied on the break. The Blues rarely overcommitted to attack, in the first half in particular, and even when they were caught out by Tottenham’s first equaliser they had a good line and four defenders quickly back in position. Ultimately it was an unexpected wonder strike from the big Tongan that we could do little to stop.
We are all well aware of Villas-Boas’s footballing philosophy and it was the flaws in his approach that Chelsea exploited. Eager to play the ball from the back to start attacks Chelsea pressed high and with intensity, especially after the first equaliser and the first twenty five minutes of the second half. Defenders were pressurised into mistakes and misplaced passes allowed us to break into space high up the pitch and cause havoc. Much like the similar mistakes Wigan have recently been punished with Chelsea should have profited from another goal in this period, it was only by fortune and some last ditch defending that Spurs remained in the game.
However the intensity of the pressing game couldn’t last and midfielders began to visibly tire. With one eye on his fitness Benitez understandably replaced Hazard with Moses. At the same time more drive and energy in the centre would have allowed us to continue to press Spurs’s shaky midfield. Instead our tempo dropped and the opposition were allowed a route back in.
It was clear as the game progressed that rather than Bale the danger man was the (much maligned this season) Adebayor. During the second half Villas-Boas moved Adebayor out to the left flank and, without the pace of a winger, he shouldn’t have been an immediate threat. However he held up diagonal passes from the back well and allowed Assou-Ekotto to burst ahead on the overlap and Sigurðsson on the inside. We’d seen enough warning signs before the goal that this was a problem area. After playing a blinder against Bale, Azpilicueta was no match for the height and muscle of Adebayor. Benitez might regret not moving Ivanovic out to right back or swapping Moses to the right flank. If all the problems of the Villas-Boas short-lived era were plain to see then so too were Benitez’s weaknesses – failing to react to the game quick enough and a lack of flexibility in tinkering during crucial periods of the game. However, of the two managers, Benitez should be the more aggrieved his tactical approach didn’t pay full dividends as it deserved.