Tottenham 1-1 Chelsea: Spurs play neat passing combinations but fail to adjust defensive line

September 30, 2013

The starting line-ups

A fair result at White Hart Lane as Andre Villas-Boas’ starting strategy proved successful, but Jose Mourinho’s in-game changes worked better.

Villas-Boas named roughly Spurs’ expected side – Kyle Naughton continued at left-back, while Andros Townsend continues to keep out Erik Lamela.

Mourinho named Ramires on the right of, the first time he’s played that way. John Obi Mikel started in midfield and Fernando Torres got the nod upfront.

This was a game of two halves – Spurs dominated the first, Chelsea the second.

AVB v Mourinho

The interesting feature of this game was not the specifics of what happened on the pitch – not the actual tactical battle in terms of who was positioned where, who was finding space, which players were combining nicely. It was interesting on a broader level: the strategy rather than the tactics.

It was a meeting, of course, between two coaches who used to work together, Villas-Boas being Mourinho’s former opposition scout. It’s slightly peculiar, then, that despite being accustomed to concentrating on the opposition, finding strengths and weaknesses and advising his boss accordingly, Villas-Boas is actually the coach with more of a grand, overarching ‘philosophy’, compared to the reactive Mourinho – who tends to play more defensively and varies his tactics more frequently.

But that’s the character of the two coaches, and this was a perfect demonstration of the difference between them. Villas-Boas ordered Spurs to play positive football, pressing in midfield and keeping an extraordinarily high defensive line throughout the contest, whereas Mourinho named his most defensive line-up of the season and wanted to play primarily on the break. Villas-Boas’ side were trying to dominate the game, Mourinho’s side were trying to soak up pressure and pounce unexpectedly.

The caricatures of the two coaches were also emphasised by the use of substitutions. Mourinho was much more effective with his use of the bench, introducing Juan Mata for Mikel at half-time, allowing Chelsea an extra playmaker between the lines in a central position, taking advantage of Spurs’ lack of a true holding midfielder.

That move genuinely changed the game, but Villas-Boas remained entirely committed to his starting strategy and shape. His three subs were all straight swaps, with the first – Nacer Chadli on for Townsend – particularly baffling when Spurs clearly needed reinforcement in the centre of the pitch, most obviously in the shape of Sandro.

In all, the game somewhat underlined the strengths and weaknesses of the two coaches. Villas-Boas can get his side playing tremendous attacking football but might be too stubborn to compromise his beliefs, while Mourinho can change games excellently but has a habit of setting up too cautiously.

Spurs attacking combinations

Anyway, the first half was dominated by the home side, and the opening goal was a fine example of their build-up play. They were particularly threatening in the inside-left channel, as Christian Eriksen played left-of-centre and found pockets of space in that zone – which is a fairly damning indictment of Mikel’s performance, considering he’s a natural defensive midfielder, was playing to the right, yet was unable to halt Spurs’ attacks.

The role of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who scored the opener, was also particularly interesting. The Icelandic midfielder is a curious player – at Reading, Hoffenheim and Swansea he received plenty of attention for his goal threat from the edge of the box, but at Spurs last season when played as a number ten his passing and creativity was somewhat disappointing.

However, Sigurdsson is excellent at breaking into goalscoring positions from this wide role, and he’d already skipped past Branislav Ivanovic dangerously in the opening moments, before the Serbian let him go free for the goal. Sigurdsson might have found his best position, cutting inside from wide by making good runs off the ball – Spurs fans won’t appreciate the Arsenal comparison, but maybe Freddie Ljungberg is a good template.

Another key part of Spurs’ build-up play was Mousa Dembele – who remains one of the most distinct and fascinating footballers in Europe with his unusual slaloming dribbles in central positions. He attempted – and completed – eight dribbles, although there remains a feeling he could be more decisive and penetrative with his final pass.

The disappointing part of Spurs’ attack was Roberto Soldado. Although he played a part in the goal, his all-round contribution was almost non-existent – he lost all three of his aerial duels, had no shots, and from 15 passes he completed just five (one was the assist for Sigurdsson, another involved taking a centre, another was a backpass).

Chelsea exploit space between lines

Spurs’ lack of a proper defensive midfielder (Dembele is a shuttling dribbler, Paulinho a box-to-box man) caused problems after Mata’s half-time introduction. It should be noted, of course, that Mourinho was essentially correcting his own surprising – and in hindsight, incorrect – decision to start Ramires on the right and Mikel in the centre, and Chelsea may have caused even more problems had Mata been deployed from the start.

Still, the Spaniard continually picked up the ball in dangerous positions, partly because Spurs’ pressing naturally dropped in the second period, and Chelsea found it easier to play forward passes. The positions of his passes received in the below graphic would suggest Mata played quite a deep role – but with Spurs defence so high up the pitch, he was actually fairly close to the opposition’s centre-backs.

Spurs high defensive line

Mat’s role was also a problem in conjunction with Spurs’ high defensive line, which was the most important feature of the second period. This has caught out Villas-Boas before (most obviously in the 5-3 defeat to Arsenal when he was managing Chelsea) and it was amazing he didn’t order his side to drop ten yards deeper in the second half, when they were continually being turned and exposed by simple through-balls.

Hugo Lloris did his usual excellent sweeping job behind the defence, but continually asking your goalkeeper to dart off his line and make desperate clearances is hardly an ideal approach.

The insistence on using a high line was particularly surprising considering there was no particular need to push Chelsea away from goal. They had no significant aerial threat, and while it would have made sense to play high up against, say, Didier Drogba, Chelsea had Torres and Eden Hazard (and later, Andre Schurrle) continually sprinting in behind.

Torres’ performance was interesting – he seemingly enjoyed this contest despite his eventual red card for a (second) tangle with Jan Vertonghen. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that Torres only seems to be petulant and fiery when he’s playing well – in his Liverpool days he got into trouble with referees surprisingly frequently for a centre-forward, and while his red card and subsequent suspension is hardly a cause for celebration, it might be a sign of his confidence levels returning.

The Spaniard has done a decent job throughout 2013, particularly in cup competitions – but this was a rare example of him playing like the Torres of old, scampering in behind in the channels.

Chelsea’s offside count was staggeringly high – an example of how they weren’t timing passes and runs correctly, but also evidence that Spurs were giving the away side an extremely obvious route of attack. Spurs had plenty of warnings before the equaliser, and although that came from a set-piece, it’s entirely arguable that they wouldn’t have conceded the free-kick had the defence been 10 yards deeper, with Sandro sitting in front.

Eventually it was Torres’ red card that halted Chelsea’s momentum, rather than anything Spurs did to hold back the tide.


“They were better than us in the first half,” said Mourinho after the match. “In the second half, there was only one team. And the team was very, very strong.”

Really, neither side deserved to win – Chelsea didn’t start positively enough, Spurs didn’t react well enough.

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