Tottenham 2-4 Chelsea: Mata stars in an eventful game
Tottenham had a strong spell either side of half-time, but Chelsea were the better side.
Andre Villas-Boas was unable to select either Moussa Dembele or Gareth Bale, so used Clint Dempsey on the left and Tom Huddlestone came into the centre of midfield. Brad Friedel started, with Hugo Lloris on the bench.
Roberto Di Matteo left Frank Lampard on the bench and persevered with three rotating attackers behind Fernando Torres. John Terry was banned.
This was a strange game – it was open and enjoyable, yet lacked a defining tactical feature.
Tottenham started extremely poorly, robbed of the dribbling quality of Bale and Dembele that inspired them to victory at Old Trafford earlier this month. Without those two, it was quite an underwhelming starting XI on paper – there’s no significant area of strength in that side, and it’s difficult to work out what Tottenham were trying to do in the first half. They were essentially playing the same system as Chelsea, but lacked the away side’s individual quality and couldn’t compensate with for it with reliable combinations.
The loss of Dembele meant Tottenham’s midfield fluidity, a key feature of their strategy this season, was much less evident. Dembele can drop back and allow Sandro forward, or speed forward into attack – Huddlestone is nowhere near as mobile, and Tottenham were flat and structured.
The contrast between Huddlestone and Ramires, who quickly sped forward typically to turn defence into attack, was huge.
The major feature of the first half was both sides pressing high up the pitch. It was a similar thing at both ends – the goalkeepers tried to pass out, the opposition striker and number ten pressed the centre-backs two-versus-two, so a holding midfielder (Sandro or Jon Obi Mikel) dropped between the centre-backs to create a 3 v 2. Chelsea did this more efficiently than Tottenham, but the pressing meant both sides found it difficult to work the ball forward.
The game was rather an old-fashioned English game of football, about momentum and pressure. The first two goals were “coming” – from set-pieces after spells of dominance for Chelsea (in the first 25 minutes) and then Tottenham (either side of half-time).
A subtle change from Villas-Boas had helped Spurs get back in the game – he switched Dempsey and Sigurdsson – Dempsey was better at connecting the midfield and Jermain Defoe, while Sigurdsson could carry the ball down the line more effectively, although he didn’t enjoy a very good game overall. Tottenham also pressed more vigorously when 1-0 down, and won the ball quicker.
Chelsea didn’t change anything significant to turn the game around, but Mata’s influence increased after the break. Tottenham weren’t very compact, with too much space between the lines – the Spaniard exploited that by drifting inside from wide positions. Oscar was relatively quiet but always occupied a Spurs midfielder, generally Sandro, allowing Mata to pop up unnoticed.
If Mata was the game’s best player, William Gallas was the worst – poor clearances resulted in the first two Chelsea goals, while he was caught out by Eden Hazard’s pass for Mata’s second goal, Chelsea’s third.
Villas-Boas sent on Emmanuel Adebayor in place of Dempsey to go 4-4-2 and chase the game, but this left space for Chelsea to counter-attack into. Their attacking transitions were very impressive all day – almost every Tottenham corner seemed to result in a promising Chelsea opportunity at the other end. Direct attacking looked promising for Chelsea the whole game – Spurs’ high line meant a through ball to Fernando Torres was always a possibility, although a couple of times his declining pace was sadly obvious.
The game was so frantic that is was difficult to find an overall theme. “The amount of intensity was a problem. We wanted to calm the team down,” said Villas-Boas. But there was lots to talk about: both side’s pressing, Tottenham’s lack of quality without two star players, Mata’s influence from the flank, Chelsea’s counter-attacking.
The away side were better all over the pitch, and the real feature of the game was Dembele’s absence – Spurs don’t have another player that can play his fluid, exciting role from deep in central midfield. The Belgian’s unique style within this system makes him one of the most interesting players in Europe in a tactical sense, and he is arguably already Tottenham’s most important player.