Pinned back initially by Tottenham’s high press, Chelsea’s wing-backs took full advantage of some poor defensive transitions in wide areas to convert a woeful opening 44 minutes into a seventh consecutive league win.
Loose Chelsea allow first-half potshots galore
In dumping the congested 4-3-2-1 formation that drew a blank at Bournemouth and came a cropper in Monaco, Mauricio Pochettino switched to a more conventional 4-2-3-1, featuring Dele Alli renewing his ten-nine partnership of old with striker Harry Kane.
Up against Antonio Conte’s unchanged 3-4-2-1, the Argentine was still primarily concerned with control of the centre however, with both wide players Heung-Min Son and Christian Eriksen instructed to interpret their roles narrowly and overload Chelsea’s holders Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kanté.
Son, Eriksen, and Alli regularly found pockets of space between the lines when the hosts’ defensive-midfield pair stepped up to press Spurs’ holders Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembélé.
A surprising lack of compactness from Conte’s normally parsimonious side, particularly in wide areas, helped the Spurs trio’s cause, and it was from the yawning chasm between right-wing-back Victor Moses and right-sided forward Pedro that the opener originated.
With Kanté advanced, in a failed attempt to press Dembélé, Alli was allowed to receive the ball in acres of space behind the Frenchman, with Chelsea’s press-drunk back-five forming a flat, nonthreatening, line in the middle-distance.
Matic failed to notice Eriksen’s inward drift to his right, allowing the visitors to profit from one of five unmolested first-half efforts they were allowed to attempt from around the D.
As is almost customary, that 11th-minute lead inspired a noticeable drop in the hosts’ pressing intensity and defensive line, which Chelsea took full advantage of.
As the half-time break approached, Moses and Marcos Alonso began to detach more frequently from their defensive moorings, and the central tendencies of Pochettino’s chosen wide players came back to bite.
Spurs’ wide players go missing
Pedro’s 45th-minute equaliser, also struck from around the D, was aided by the removal of Dembélé from the central fray by Alonso’s clever, and selfless, overlapping run. Had Eriksen been in the correct position, rather than faffing around aimlessly in midfield, Dembélé’s dilemma would not have occurred.
Son was equally guilty for the early second-half winner, caught in no man’s land as Moses advanced untracked to convert Diego Costa’s pull-back. Makeshift left-back Kevin Wimmer took the BT Sports flak for “over-covering”, but one can hardly fairly barrack the Austrian for not having developed the power of bi-location since his last appearance.
Alonso finished the game with both the highest number of touches and chances created, a clear indictment of the defensive capabilities of Eriksen, who once again enrolled on the missing list when Costa’s ceaseless second-half channel-running produced a gilt-edged chance for the Spaniard.
His side’s new-found lead afforded Conte the opportunity to let his safety-first instincts kick in, and all three of his late substitutions introduced a more defensively responsible player for a less responsible one, without changing his 5-4-1 defensive configuration.
Pochettino, for his part, introduced central midfielder Harry Winks for the disappointing Son, in the hope that pushing Dembélé up to the ten position might see his line-breaking dribbling pay dividends in the final third. It didn’t, nor did a late, late switch to 4-4-2, facilitated by Vincent Janssen’s introduction in place of the Belgian.
Chelsea continued to threaten through Alonso’s freedom, and Costa should have headed home the former Bolton Wanderers defender’s cross to put the game to bed, as Tottenham’s renewed pressing vigour rendered their defensive shape even more muddled.
Conte, therefore, has now masterminded seven straight league wins, at the expense of only one goal conceded, since he first trialed the 3-4-2-1 shape in the second-half of Chelsea’s Emirates Stadium reverse.
None of his previous six opponents pressed as vigorously as Tottenham did here however, and with a trip to a similarly proactive Manchester City up next, the Italian will know that there is work to be done to avoid seeing his wing-backs pinned back again by just such an approach.
Spurs, meanwhile, fall to their first league defeat of a season in which their off-the-ball energy has often contrasted with their on-the-ball dullness. That creativity deficit aside, Pochettino will also be keenly aware of the double-edged sword that both heavy pressing and a desire for possession dominance can represent, as he seeks to improve on his side’s shoddy defensive transitions.