If there’s a Tottenham Hotspur league opponent that I look forward to playing the least, it’s Chelsea. You look forward to the North London Derbies against Arsenal because they’re the big rivals. You don’t like the West Ham derbies but those are just annoying. The Manchester clubs are tough matches, but you don’t get the same existential dread that you do with Chelsea. With Chelsea, not only is it a big match, but deep down you know that Spurs are going to play really well before getting football’d, losing another close match thanks to a wonder-strike from someone like Marcos Alonso or some other stupid s—t.
After last season’s drama and the departure of Antonio Conte, Chelsea were supposed to have a period of adjustment under Maurizio Sarri. As Ben Daniels said on Wheeler Dealer Radio this past week, that period of adjustment seemingly came early in the season in a win over Arsenal. Chelsea are good now. One of three teams that are still unbeaten in the Premier League through 12 matches, they have the second highest xG in the Premier League, and fourth best xGA.
With Sarri, Chelsea also seem to have regained their swagger. Under “Sarriball,” Chelsea line up in a 4-3-3 and play front-forward, possession football with a high defensive line and a lot of quick passes, especially in the attacking third. They like to play out of the back, get forward quickly, and can punish defenses that are drawn out of position via their movement. They are direct, progressive, and scarily proficient — they average over 18 shots per game in the Premier League and have turned those into 27 goals, the highest non-Manchester City scorers in the league.
A lot of that efficiency comes from the play of Chelsea’s midfield trio, which focuses on Jorginho, N’Golo Kante, and Mateo Kovacic (but increasinlgy Ross Barkley). With Kante converted from a midfield destroyer into a shuttler and Jorginho as the pivot, Chelsea can move the ball around quickly and easily, and have the midfield strength to steamroll many teams in the league. That frees up Eden Hazard, Willian, and Alvaro Morata to run into the box to receive passes and score. And they do.
Defensively, Sarri’s Chelsea teams press high and try to deny opposition players space on the ball, pushing them backwards. That can sometimes lead to vulnerability on the counterattack, and if Mauricio Pochettino is content to let Spurs sit deeper and absorb pressure they might find some happiness on the break.
But Chelsea definitely have the skill and the firepower to punish mistakes, and they will be ruthless, especially against Tottenham. Spurs will be heading into the match with tired players and not a lot of depth, and in the absence of Mousa Dembele their central midfielders may have a rough time against Chelsea. This will not be an easy match, even at Wembley.
How will Tottenham line up against Chelsea?
The Chelsea match is the first in a rough week of matches that continues with a home match against Inter Milan in the Champions League, and concludes next weekend with the North London Derby at the Emirates. However, coming off the international break it makes sense to throw a strong lineup at the Blues. Under Pochettino, Spurs don’t have the best record against the top six, but they do have the talent to get a result against Chelsea on Saturday, if they avoid mistakes and capitalize on their chances (which is not a given).
Thursday morning’s injury report ruled out Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose, so the fullbacks pick themselves — Serge Aurier and Ben Davies will start, and they will need to play extremely well, especially Aurier. Chelsea likes to attack on their left-hand side through an offensively minded Marcos Alonso and Hazard, and Aurier will need to be extremely careful not to leave space behind him. Similarly, Ben Davies is already giving me palpitations at the thought of trying to contain Willian.
In fact, the only question in Spurs’ back line is who will partner with Toby Alderweireld. With Davinson Sanchez injured and Juan Foyth jet-lagged, the choice comes down to either starting Eric Dier or throwing Jan Vertonghen back into the fire right away. (Technically you could start both in a back three but I doubt we’ll see that.) While Poch doesn’t usually throw his best non-Kane players into the deep end after injury, I almost think he needs to do so here and start Jan. It’s a dice roll, but the alternative — Eric Dier going up against Eden Hazard, Pedro/Willian, and Morata/Giroud — is even scarier.
If we assume Vertonghen in defense, that means Dier is in the midfield, likely with Harry Winks. That’s also scary, especially going up against a likely Chelsea midfield three of N’Golo Kante, Jorginho, and Mateo Kovacic. Pochettino could try and throw a spanner in the works by starting a third central midfielder, but it’s more likely that Dele Alli periodically drops deeper into midfield to help with the overload. Another option would be to play Dier and Victor Wanyama instead of Winks, but there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that Pochettino wants to surrender midfield possession in this way.
If Spurs want something out of this match that means they need to throw on their best attackers at the same time and play on the counter, so I predict they go full DESK — Dele, Christian Eriksen, Son Heung-Min, and Harry Kane. That means Lucas moves to the bench as an impact substitute to run against a Chelsea defense that hopefully will be tired from all that pressure.
That’s my predicted starting lineup against Chelsea. What’s yours?