Tottenham 2-1 Chelsea: Spurs better in defence, midfield and attack

April 17, 2010

Sam Allardyce recently said that 4-4-2 is ineffective at at the highest level, and therefore is now irrelevant to the Premiership. The traditionalists will be delighted, therefore, that Tottenham have managed to beat two of the top three sides in the division within four days – by playing a 4-4-2.

Although Spurs’ formation was the same as on Wednesday, the actual tactics were slightly different today. Whereas they defended extremely narrowly against Arsenal, almost forcing Arsenal to go around the defence rather than through it, today it was a more traditionally-spaced back four, playing higher up the pitch. Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavluychenko played up against the Chelsea centre-backs, with one (generally Defoe) doing well to drop into midfield to pick up Chelsea’s deepest midfielder when not in possession.

Chelsea played a 4-3-3 similar to the one they played recently at Old Trafford, albeit with Didier Drogba in for Nicolas Anelka, featuring Joe Cole and Florent Malouda supporting from moderately wide positions either side.

The key when playing a 4-4-2 against a 4-3-3 is to use your wide midfielders well. Stuttgart showed this when they outplayed Barcelona earlier in the season. If you have a forward dropping deep to pick up the holding midfielder (as Spurs did) then you can afford to tell your wide players to maintain their wide position, making it difficult for the opposition to pick them up. If two strikers remain high up the pitch against the defenders, then the opposition holding midfielder will be free, forcing your wide midfielders inside and then leaving space for the opposition full-backs to exploit.

Tottenham consistently looked to Gareth Bale, and he caused Chelsea no end of problems. Joe Cole was only supposed to track him as far as the halfway line, Deco would leave the playmaker Modric open for a pass if he came to the wing, and so the responsibility fell to Paulo Ferriera. But this resulted in the Chelsea full-backs playing extremely high up the pitch even when not in possession, and therefore basically left a 2 v 2 situation at the back. There, Tottenham’s strikers were able to drag John Terry and Alex around the pitch, making it perfect for counter-attacks, and Tottenham caught Chelsea out when breaking quickly from their own half, particularly through balls towards Bale.

Bale had the beating of Ferreira both for pace and in the air – and it was no surprise when Chelsea’s right-back was replaced at half-time.

Tottenham’s intention to get the ball to Bale as often as possible can be demonstrated by Heurelho Gomes’ passing Chalkboard:

by Guardian Chalkboards

It was also notable that Luka Modric often took up a position deeper than Tom Huddlestone. That was the case in midweek, but the effect was even more obvious here – with Chelsea’s midfield three playing deep, Modric had time and space on the ball to dictate play. Carlo Ancelotti didn’t instruct one of Chelsea’s midfielders to track Modric, and Tottenham were happy to play through the Croatian – he completed 49 passes compared to Huddlestone’s 15.

Chelsea were sluggish in possession throughout in midfield, but the problem may have stemmed from the front. Against Manchester United, Nicolas Anelka played the lone striker role brilliantly in the first half, as he dropped deep and linked with the wide players. Drogba’s link-up play today was really poor, and it was no surprise when Ancelotti sent for Anelka – although he replaced Joe Cole, rather than Drogba.

Compare Anelka’s first half performance at Old Trafford with Drogba’s today, playing in the same role:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Chelsea’s problem, though, was that the system that struggled in the first half didn’t change. Anelka on for Cole didn’t change much – Anelka is generally quite ineffective in the wide-right position (Branislav Ivanovic on for Paolo Ferreira offered Chelsea slightly less going forward from right-back, although they were more secure against Bale).

Ancelotti may have been better switching to the diamond formation he favoured at the beginning of the season. That system was abandoned when opponents realised they could play a 4-3-3 with high wingers, deny Chelsea’s full-backs space, and Chelsea would struggle for width. But that was not the case here – Tottenham were 4-4-2. By switching to a diamond, Chelsea would have dominated the midfield area in a 4 v 2 situation, which would have forced Bentley and Bale to move centrally (where they would be less of an attacking threat) and Chelsea’s full-backs could have bombed forward. The situation at the back would have been the same (2 v 2) and Tottenham would have had another striker to contend with. Tottenham would have had an advantage in the full-back area – as Younes Kaboul and Benoit Assou-Ekotto would have been free – but neither are particularly exciting coming forward, and at 2-0 up would have played a defensive-minded game in the second half anyway.

It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but these are the tactical changes you expect from Ancelotti, rather than the simple Anelka-for-Cole move that changed nothing. Chelsea are still odds-on for the title, but it still seems that Ancelotti isn’t quite sure of his best XI, nor his best formation. Chelsea weren’t caught out in a specific position, they were weaker all over the pitch.

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