When the 2014/15 Premier League season ended, Tottenham found themselves in 5th place with a +5 GD. Considering this was Pochettino’s maiden season, it would have been unfair to expect anything more from the team — especially when you take into account that he was inheriting a deeply unmotivated and fractious squad. This was the season that the ‘Kaboul cabal’ emerged, and the line of who was ready to step up for Tottenham was (somewhat literally) drawn in the sand.
The likes of Kaboul, Adebayor, and Capoue found themselves on the wrong side of that line.
A dressing room in a tumultuous state makes it difficult to produce results on the pitch, something that Chelsea and AVB can attest to. That said, there were clear signs that Pochettino’s Spurs were starting to click mid way through the season. Coming off of a 5 game unbeaten streak, Spurs were set to face Chelsea (league leaders at the time) on New Year’s Day, in a match that would mark a watershed moment for the club in many ways.
Chelsea had found a winning combination in Fabregas feeding Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, and heavily relied on these combinations to open up Spurs defence. Although the likes of Oscar and Willian were fairly dangerous, somewhat creative, at the time, they were largely on the periphery of Chelsea’s plan. They aimed to attack centrally, and entrusted Fabregas to pull the strings. In the starting period of the game their plan was laid bare, with quick movement of the ball to shift Spurs players, and Fabregas dropping into space to pick up the ball and make a pass.
The tactical error here is not the space opening up, rather Spurs’ frontline (namely Kane or Chadli) not reacting quickly enough for the shift in play. Remember that this was Pochettino’s first season at the club, so the pressing system that Spurs became known for throughout his tenure was still being established with Spurs players. Some aspects were being implemented, however, such as a high defensive line. This is where the lack of optimal personnel reared its ugly head, as both Fazio and Vertonghen were asked to squeeze up and constrict Chelsea’s playing space.
The latter became adept at playing in this system, but Fazio simply did not have the main qualities needed for this role (relative quickness, anticipating movement of the ball, ball-playing ability). Granted, he was great in the air, and in a way he served his purpose this match by dominating the box on Chelsea set pieces and nullifying Costa in the air. The Blues relied instead on playing Costa behind Vertonghen/Fazio.
Even when Fabregas picked up the ball in Spurs’ half, he was rarely closed down, so he was able to be just as effective in a technically more dangerous part of the field.
By the 25th minute it was clear that if Fabregas was successfully marked Chelsea’s main creative thrust would sputter.
Chelsea’s game plan worked extremely well in the beginning stages of the game, but they started to slip after Costa scored the opener. Namely, the game would devolve into a battle for the midfield with crunching tackles and misplaced passed. Both teams suffered due to individual errors, but Tottenham had enough in the tank to see the game through.
Tottenham grow into the game
Spurs were much more comfortable progressing the ball through the wings, to cut back or work into the box. Their right side (Townsend/Walker) was largely ineffective so they tended to focus on the left side with Chadli/Eriksen/Kane drifting positions and Rose providing support.
This was probably planned. Pochettino bet on his attackers getting past Ivanovic/Cahill rather than Terry/Azpilicueta, the latter being exceptionally adept at protecting the flank. Ivanovic, on the other hand, had a tendency to get stuck in and push up to support the attack, so the space was there for Spurs to exploit.
However, it was not systemic play that would see Tottenham level the score, just a wonder goal from Harry Kane - a goal that would put him on the radar for people outside of the Spurs fanbase. It should have never occurred, given that he was surrounded by blue shirts. (This is a simply sensational goal, you can catch a video highlights link at the bottom of the page.)
The build up to the goal exemplifies the game really well - Kane battling off two Chelsea players and having a go. Tottenham just wanted it more, and it showed in the second half. Before halftime, Spurs scored two more goals, one on the break and the other a penalty taken by Townsend.
Tottenham began the second half full of energy, and pressed much higher as a result. Chelsea players found themselves with much less space to operate, so Fabregas was less effective in the second half.
The story of individual mistakes + Spurs looking to exploit Chelsea’s right side continued.
Chelsea found a way back into the game with Hazard’s low shot, that was borne out of an inexplicable decision for Fazio to want to dribble through the midfield.
As Spurs attacked they saw much more joy down the left side. Watching this game in 2020 reminded me of Chadli’s performances for Spurs — not a world beater, but respectable with 13 goals by the end of the 14/15 season, including goals against Arsenal and Chelsea, in this game.
He drove the ball forward extremely well this game and used his teammates to help setup a goal and score another.
Chelsea came with a plan to exploit the space behind Fazio and Vertonghen, using Costa as the main outlet while Fabregas dictated the passing. Tottenham, on the other hand, pressed mostly in their own half to regain possession and explode out on the wings, mainly their left side. Chelsea’s plan worked fairly well, but they were unable to match Tottenham’s intensity, inspired by Kane’s first goal in the first half and stoked by their following goals.