Sunday’s primetime derby match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea was expected to be the first eye-opening contest of the new Premier League season. Many expect Spurs and Chelsea to compete with each other and are perceived as evenly matched. Even so, due to Spurs’ robust additions in the summer, in contrast toChelsea’s retooling of its roster and club ownership instability, this was a match where many Spurs supporters felt cautiously optimistic. Despite Stamford Bridge being a venue that has haunted Tottenham for the past thirty years, perhaps it was the blind faith in Antonio Conte that gave Spurs fans hope that the club could finally get one over against Thomas Tuchel’s side.
After something like a bright start against the Blues, Spurs quickly fell into a swoon in the first half where they could not get any build-up play going. The bright start lasted all of ten minutes or so, highlighted by Spurs not capitalizing on a three-on-two opportunity which saw Dejan Kulusevski leave a pass to Heung-min Son just short. Chelsea swiftly dominated possession in large part due to the hybrid system that they were deploying when off the ball. Spurs sat tight and were quite compact, but their issues came to light while trying to build up play through either of the wingback lanes. Chelsea’s hybrid tactics confused Spurs by overloading the midfield and not giving any moments of breathing room when Spurs received passes and looked forward. It was a huge reason why Harry Kane looked invisible for nearly the entire first half.
Despite Chelsea’s dominance in possession, completely dictating the pace of play, Spurs dug their heels in and had no problem sitting quite compactly. A turnover from Son led to Chelsea’s first big opportunity when they quickly shifted in transition and Raheem Sterling left it for Kai Havertz to try and beat Hugo Lloris. A stunning foot-save from the Frenchman led to a corner and Spurs’ recent troubles with set-pieces led to their downfall again when new signing Kalidou Koulibaly squared a stunning volley past Lloris. But despite the early goal and being thoroughly outplayed, Spurs did a good job in “suffering” to only go into the break down just a goal.
I have talked recently here how Spurs can simply turn it on in games by out-intensifying the opposition. Against a well-drilled side fueled by rivalry, this was simply not an area where Spurs could find a path to success. Chelsea’s dominance continued into the second half, with the Blues again looking threatening, and Spurs were once again forced onto the back-foot.
A concern for Tottenham last season was their lack of innovation while chasing games, especially against better sides. We can use this match, particularly the second half, as an example of how Spurs have improved in this area. Let’s use the timeline below to determine what Conte and his staff likely thought.
Spurs made their first change of the game here when Conte decided to sub out left wingback Ryan Sessegnon for attacker Richarlison, which resulted in a tactical shift.
Almost immediately, the extra attacker gave Spurs another dimension as well as another option in attack. Tactically, the shift took awy a defender, moving the back three + wingbacks into a back four shape, which saw Eric Dier and Cristian Romero as the centerback pairing with Ben Davies shifting out wide to play as the left back and Emerson Royal operating at right back. By keeping on Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Spurs’ formation suddenly went from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4 and it became clear that they were chasing the game.
Spurs’ best chance up until that point came four minutes after Richarlison came on i when a simple outlet pass to Kane left him on a breakaway. He was played on by Reece James, but Chelsea’s defense was confused because of the inclusion of Richarlison and the type of dynamic runs the Brazilian can make. It led to a staggered back line, which Kane took advantage of. Kane’s shot was dragged wide, but the change in shape changed the mood in the game as Spurs became much more opportunistic. Moments after Bentancur’s controversial tackle of Havertz, Jorginho was caught in possession inside of his box. A turnover led to Højbjerg converting on a deep shot from out wide.
Immediately after the goal, Chelsea once again looked likely to score another. Recognizing the danger from a poor miss from Havertz on a whipping cross in from James, Conte went back to his bench, bringing on Ivan Perišić and Yves Bissouma, respectively, for Son and Bentancur. With these substitutions, Conte was cleary trying to transition back from the 4-2-4 attacking shape they were in to the original 3-4-3 shape, with Perišić slotting at left wingback and Bissouma as a like-for-like substitution for Bentancour.
Before Conte was able to make the two substitutions, Kulusevski was caught in possession in a dangerous area by Koulibaly. Immediately after the turnover, Spurs were in a shape where giving away possession in the build-up would prove to be deadly. N’Golo Kanté received from Koulibaly and once Kanté played a ball to Raheem Sterling in the middle, Spurs — being in a back four at the moment — were caught conceding a lot of space as Davies came over to defend against Sterling. This left space for James on the outside, and he converted an excellent scoring opportunity. The sequence proved that Spurs looked extremely vulnerable and were unfamiliar with the shape, as they are usually able to rely on an extra defender in the space that James occupied.
While Tuchel was running down the touchline celebrating past Conte and Spurs’ bench, Perišić and Bissouma finally came in. But minutes later in the 82nd, Conte brought off Emerson in exchange for Lucas Moura, signaling once again that Spurs were moving shapes from the 3-4-3 — the shape they were most likely trying to see out the game in prior to the second Chelsea goal — to the more attacking 4-2-4.
Minute 90 + 6’
After Spurs equalized for a second time, they still had roughly two minutes or so to see the game out. Happy with getting a point on the road at a difficult venue and environment for them, Spurs did once again shift back to the 3-4-3, with Perišić and Lucas moving back to the wingback positions to give them more options in defense. Spurs held on for dear life and eventually saw out the match to pick up an important point on the road.
It is pretty clear and understandable that of course Spurs shifted tactics to become more aggressive in hopes of getting back into the match. However, the decision to do so came with the worry of Spurs moving away from their usual back three formation and into something less comfortable. Spurs were able to get away with it in this one, but we saw how quickly they were exposed in that second Chelsea goal when Kulusevski was tackled (some would say fouled) and gave the ball away. Spurs’ shape was all over the place as they were looking to build up in a different shape than they were accustomed to. As the season goes on, Spurs will be forced at times to become more attacking-minded. They will need to get more and more comfortable off the ball when in this shape, especially in build-up play where turnovers lead to goals as the side did not have the same assurances they do when playing with a back three.
A discussion over the summer was how Spurs could and should feature their fearsome attacking quartet. In this match, Richarlison was deployed as a dual center forward partner with Kane. Last season, Spurs’ bench options were extremely short and it was really just Steven Bergwijn who was seen as a supersub for them. But due to the reinforcements that were brought in this summer, Spurs finally have the sticks of dynamite required off the bench for them to influence the game and that was shown quite well on Sunday. It was a resilient performance where Spurs were outplayed but escaped and still got something from the match. And while the result itself is extremely important, perhaps more important for Spurs is the process as a whole in how they were able to adjust to equalize twice against a really good side. As the squad continues to get more and more comfortable with Conte’s tactics, this is a blueprint game Spurs can reference when they need to get back into matches and get results in games where they may have not played as well as they would have liked.
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