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Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur Preview: Could there actually be a race for third?

The League Cup semis were not competitive, but the gap between the rivals is shrinking in the table.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Thanks to a legendary performance by Steven Bergwijn on Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur has technically snatched last-minute wins in each of its two most recent Premier League contests. In both fixtures, Spurs were clearly the better side, which can be said for nearly every league appearance since Antonio Conte arrived.

The “technically” part speaks to how long ago it feels like the Watford match occurred, especially because of the team’s subpar showing against Chelsea in the League Cup in since then. The exact opposite can be said for Sunday’s opponent, who have won just one of its past seven league fixtures, but obviously looked pretty strong against Spurs in the semifinals.

Thanks to Chelsea’s terrible slide, Spurs are now just eight points back of third place with four (!!) matches in hand. That means even a loss this weekend would still leave the gap smaller than the maximum potential makeup points to be earned. However, a win would make things very interesting...

Chelsea (3rd, 44pts) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (5th, 36pts)

Date: Sunday, January 23
Time: 11:30 am ET, 4:30 pm UK
Location: Stamford Bridge, London, England
TV: Peacock Premium (USA), Sky Sports Premier League (UK)

League form aside, it is hard to be too optimistic for this derby given how things played out a couple weeks ago. Chelsea owned Tottenham for much of the 180 minutes, starting in midfield where the regulars were simply overmatched by the Blues’ talent. With the injured starters still mostly unavailable, the adjustments will need to be more tactical than personnel-based.

Bergwijn’s late heroics could give Conte something to think about. While the 3-5-2 with Lucas Moura near Harry Kane seems like the preferred structure, the manager has also used plenty of 3-4-3 looks, particularly when Heung-Min Son was healthy. Going back to this would force him to swap out one of his central midfielders — which seems like a gamble given the last trip to Stamford Bridge — but both Lucas and Bergwijn offer direct attacking that has often been missing.

This is a big conundrum though, as the Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg—Oliver Skipp—Harry Winks combo did quite well in the midweek and led to one of the best offensive performances (by xG) ever. Providing a little extra defensive coverage from the CM spot allows the wingbacks to get high up the pitch and even gives the centerbacks more freedom going forward. Perhaps this solution best helps the output by maximizing multiple players instead of simply swapping on another pure attacker.

Three themes

  1. While Chelsea was undoubtedly superior in the League Cup semis, its two matches since then were...rough. A 1-0 loss to Manchester City and 1-1 draw against Brighton yielded very few scoring opportunities, and while the back line mostly did its job, these were not great performances. A derby is a derby, but maybe the third battle this month is destined to go better.
  2. As the transfer window is still open, right back continues to be a spot to watch. Emerson Royal has been up and down, though his performance in the second leg was fairly decent. Meanwhile, Matt Doherty was very active against Leicester but does not have the consistency to really seize the role. A few good outings from either could win them the job.
  3. Spurs showed life against Chelsea even when down three goals, and that deficit might have been harsh thanks to multiple VAR decisions that went against them. Combine that with narrow wins over both Watford and Leicester that could have been much bigger, and it seems like this squad is on the cusp of potentially going on a tear. This weekend will be a good test though to show if there is actually progress being made.