Tottenham 1-1 Chelsea: both goals from left wing

December 22, 2011

The starting line-ups

There were plenty of goalscoring chances at either end in an eventful London derby.

Harry Redknapp was without Aaron Lennon, but Gareth Bale passed a late fitness test to give width on the left. Rafael van der Vaart started with Sandro also in the side, and Ledley King at the back.

Andre Villas-Boas had David Luiz injured so started Jose Bosingwa and Branislav Ivanovic. Jon Obi Mikel started rather than Oriol Romeu, and Frank Lampard was again on the bench.

This was a classic English football game, a classic London derby – end to end, plenty of chances and the game saved in the final minute by the England captain getting his backside in the way of a goalbound shot.

Opening battle

Rather than putting Rafael van der Vaart behind Emmanuel Adebayor, Harry Redknapp played a very fluid 4-5-1 system with van der Vaart starting out on the right, and Modric in his usual left-of-centre position – there had been suggestions it would be a 4-4-1-1, with Modric out on the right.

Van der Vaart, as always, spent the game coming inside and doing whatever he wanted, rather than sticking to tactical instructions. This had both positive and negative consequences. It meant that Tottenham had a 4 v 3 in the centre of midfield so they dominated possession early on, and created a few chances. Bale often came inside to create more rotation, allowing the full-backs forward, but also stayed wide on occasion and crossed for the opening goal.

The problem with playing van der Vaart on the right, however, is that he offers no defensive protection. As he readily admits, he doesn’t like playing on the wing. “You want to play in the position where you do best,” he said after the win over Arsenal earlier this season. “But if I have to chase after an attacking full-back every time, I can’t play my own game to my best ability. Sunday was not the first time I have played out wide and I was given the freedom to move infield. But you could see from the goal I scored that my strength lies in the centre of midfield. It proves that I am more dangerous when I am close to the goal than when I play out on the wing. I do what the manager asks me to but I hope this won’t be a regular occurrence.”

He played more like a central midfielder than a right-sided midfielder:

The only surprise was that Chelsea’s goal came when van der Vaart was trying to defend (and doing so poorly) rather than him not bothering at all. Ashley Cole crossed for Daniel Sturridge at the far post, which is becoming a common method of scoring – Cole has assisted Sturridge goals against Wigan, Everton and now Tottenham.

Injuries and substitutions

A crucial factor in the game was the injury problems both sides suffered. Ivanovic had to depart before half-time, which meant that (with Luiz out and Alex effectively discarded) Villas-Boas had to push Jose Boswinga inside and play Paolo Ferreira at right-back. Ferreira actually played very well against Bale here last year, and the double right-back combination actually helped stop his charges.

Mikel also got injured, which meant Romeu came on. Again, this might have helped Chelsea – Villas-Boas probably used Mikel because he expected him to have to mark van der Vaart behind the forward, but since van der Vaart was actually playing out on the right, Chelsea’s holder was free, so Romeu’s superior distribution probably worked better.

Van der Vaart departed at half time with a hamstring strain, although it wouldn’t have been a hugely surprising tactical move considering how much Cole was getting into good positions. Roman Pavlyuchenko came on in his place, possibly with the idea that he and Adebayor could challenge Chelsea’s makeshift centre-back pairing in the air – but he had little impact.

Second half

The second half line-ups

As Redknapp conceded after the game, Chelsea had the 3 v 2 midfield advantage and dominated for long periods of the second half, although Modric did drift in from his new right-sided position to help out. Bale wasn’t 100% fit, tired quickly and threatened little.

Modric getting dragged inside meant Cole got equally as much space as in the first half, and with Juan Mata (quiet by his standards) taking Kyle Walker inside, that looked a potential danger area. The runs of Ramires from midfield were also a huge threat – his ability to get into goalscoring positions is remarkable, but his finishing is average.

The game was so open that the tactical battle was almost divorced from the events of the game, where the main chances were often from set-pieces. In the second half neither manager did anything to significantly alter the course of the match – Fernando Torres came on for Drogba but did nothing of note, and that was Chelsea’s only remaining substitution.  A cameo role from Lampard would have been likely otherwise.

For his part, Redknapp kept the shape that lacked balance and was largely outplayed in the second half, even if Spurs had chances to win it. It seemed odd to persevere with the second half line-up, and substitute Niko Kranjcar, who can play anywhere in midfield, remains bizarrely underused.


Villas-Boas said Chelsea deserved to win, but Redknapp thought a draw was fair – probably an accurate reading: the game was reasonably evenly balanced, with Chelsea getting the better of the tactical battle over the course of the match, despite Tottenham’s bright start. Neither manager was brave enough to make a further tactical change in the second half.

The main tactical theme was the freedom given to Cole by the nature of the formation match-up. The value of that freedom was summed up by the fact he assisted the goal, and also picked up the man of the match award.

ZM is now on a Christmas break, and back on January 3rd for Man City v Liverpool. For anyone desperately short of reading material, try The Football Pantheon’s 100 Greatest Football Moments or The Blizzard. Merry Christmas!

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