This weekend Chelsea will be facing Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and they are likely to do it without midfielder Ramires and defender and captain John Terry, both of whom join goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on the bench after suffering midweek injuries in the club's Champions League fixture against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.
Normally entering a game like this without your skipper is a recipe for disaster, of course. Chelsea's form this season has been erratic, Spurs have looked like one of England's three best sides, and they are heading to the stadium where they lost 5-3 on their last visit.
But if you recall more about the Blues' last visit to White Hart Lane then you know precisely why the absence of Terry may not hit the team as hard as many expect. The 5-3 scoreline perhaps flattered Tottenham for the simple reason that Spurs didn't necessarily beat Chelsea as comprehensively as a five goal performance might suggest. Rather, Tottenham found a perfect weakness in the Chelsea defense that happened to coincide with their preferred way of playing anyway and then exploited it to maximum effect.
Though a generally excellent partnership, the Gary Cahill-John Terry duo have one great problem: Neither one of them are particularly good dealing with players running straight at them. However, Jose Mourinho's system is perfectly designed to counter this obvious problem: Mourinho deploys a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 which generally has one designated defensive midfielder shielding Terry and Cahill. Typically that man is Nemanja Matic. But last season against Spurs Mauricio Pochettino found a way to exploit that system: The Argentine manager deployed Christian Eriksen centrally and directed him to make lots of quick, vertical dummy runs toward either channel between the Chelsea fullback and center back. This consistently pulled Matic one way or the other as the Serb destroyer tracked Eriksen's runs. This movement also created a huge space in front of the Chelsea defense which Harry Kane and Nacer Chadli, both of whom love to receive the ball in wide areas and move inside, were able to exploit to maximum effect. This is, after all, how Pochettino prefers to attack teams anyway.
After that throttling in which, if memory serves all five Spurs goals came from this outside-in movement, Mourinho made major adjustments. He basically binned Fun Chelsea of the fall of 2014 and replaced them with Typical Mourinho Chelsea for the remainder of the season. The Matic/Fabregas partnership with Oscar just ahead of them, which was used in virtually every game in the fall of '14, nearly disappeared entirely in the spring of '15. Instead, we saw Fabregas or Oscar benched and replaced by Ramires or John Obi Mikel or even Kurt Zouma, as in the League Cup final which Chelsea won rather comfortably.
With that background, it should be more apparent why the absence of Terry may not hurt the Blues as much as many might expect this weekend. Though Mourinho would likely prefer to drop Cahill rather than Terry, starting both defenders against Pochettino's Spurs was never a good idea anyway. Playing two big, not terribly mobile center halves against an in-form Pochettino side is suicide, particularly given that this Spurs team is far more explosive than last year's and that we're likely to see all four of Kane, Eriksen, Erik Lamela, and Heung-Min Son this weekend. (With phenom Dele Alli suspended, I expect Lamela to start in the number 10 role and to be flanked by Eriksen on the left and Son on the right.) Starting two immobile center halves against that foursome would be madness. This was always going to be a game where we'd expect to see Kurt Zouma starting for the Blues. Terry's injury simply means that Mou doesn't have to choose which of his English stalwarts to bench.
Three Other Thoughts Heading into the Game
1. This game should terrify Tottenham fans.
The last time Tottenham was looking this good was the late fall and winter months of the 2011-12 season. Harry Redknapp's final Spurs squad, buoyed by the summer signing of Emmanuel Adebayor and their ability to hold onto Luka Modric for one more season, looked like a title contender through early February when the team thumped Newcastle 5-0 at White Hart Lane with Adebayor having one of his finest performances in a Spurs shirt.
The next game was a derby against an under-achieving London rival. It ended Arsenal 5, Spurs 2. Granted, many of the problems on that day are unlikely to come up this weekend. As far as tactical selections go, Pochettino is to Redknapp what Daniel Day-Lewis is to Hayden Christiansen. So no one should be expecting Spurs to set up in a suicidal 4-4-2 nor should anyone expect the team to fold up and concede five consecutive goals.
That said, there are still uncomfortable similarities. This is a Spurs team that has, if anything, looked even more impressive than Redknapp's squad. But they have also struggled to finish chances, as in their opening day defeat to Manchester United and their draws against Everton and Liverpool, and to put games away, as in their draws to Stoke City and Leicester City. These are weaknesses that an in-form Mourinho squad is particularly good at punishing.
And, of course, that brings us to Chelsea. Though they have suffered one of the worst ever starts to a title defense and are basically out of the title race already, the Blues can still salvage their season. We are only 1/3 of the way through this campaign and Chelsea is only 12 points behind fourth placed Arsenal. That may sound like a lot—and it is!—but with 25 games remaining there are still 75 points to play for. So there is plenty of time for Chelsea to chase down the Champions League places. And what better way for them to begin that comeback in earnest than with a vintage Mourinho 1-0 win against a surging London rival that they have mostly dominated in recent years?
This, more than any other fixture so far, may be the best test of how far Mauricio Pochettino has taken Tottenham as a club.
2. Costa v Vertonghen spells trouble for someone.
This weekend will feature a pivotal matchup between a footballer who is remarkably good at being a d*ck without getting caught... and Diego Costa.
Not many people have commented on this, but Jan Vertonghen is basically Belgian David Luiz if David Luiz had positional intelligence. He's much subtler about it than the ex-Chelsea man, but the similarities are undeniably there, as uncomfortable as that might make Spurs fans. Whether it's getting Fernando Torres sent off, depantsing Nicklas Helenius, or grabbing Olivier Giroud's family jewels, the Spurs defender is... well, kind of a d*ck.
And this weekend he is lining up against quite possibly the biggest instigator in world football right now in Chelsea striker Diego Costa. If you think there won't be fireworks and yellow cards at some point in the game, you're mad. And it may not stop at yellow. Keep an eye on this.
3. Will the Spurs system work without Alli/Dembele/Dier?
Without doubt, Tottenham's best performances this season have come with a midfield trio of Dele Alli, Eric Dier, and Mousa Dembele. Dier does his deep midfield destroyer thing while Dembele and Alli prowl the midfield, break things, and provide support to the attacking trio of Son/Lamela, Eriksen, and Kane. And this isn't really a surprise. Pochettino's teams always look their best when one of the three attacking midfielders is a central midfielder playing as an advanced destroyer whose main role is to initiate the press in the attacking third. His Southampton sides looked far better with Steven Davis than without even though Davis was probably only the fifth or sixth best player in those teams. But in this game Spurs will likely not have that player due to Alli's suspension brought on by a foolish and unnecessary yellow card in last week's win against West Ham.
Though Pochettino could play Ryan Mason in an attacking three with Son or Lamela and Eriksen and just ask Mason to do Dele Alli things, that seems unlikely. Instead, he'll probably play Son on the right in something like the role Nacer Chadli played in last January's win with Eriksen drifting in from the left in his wide number 10 role and Lamela playing as that runner/destroyer hybrid in the number 10 slot. On paper this still works quite well. Indeed, swapping Lamela for Alli and playing Son (rather than Lamela) on the wing could allow Spurs to retain their defensive solidity while also giving the team a pacey wide attacker who will give the Chelsea back line a ton of trouble. The chief issue is whether Lamela, who is not nearly as vertical in the attack as Mason or Alli, can fully replicate what they do for the team.