Stamford Bridge hosted Spurs this week where once again Benitez made his usual rotation, changing three players for this game compared to the XI starting at Old Trafford few days ago. Lampard gave way to Cahill, who slotted alongside Ivanovic in defence – Luiz was therefore pushed in midfield. Hazard returned to the starting XI at the expense of Moses with Torres starting over Ba up front.
Spurs also made three changes, with two of them based on some injury troubles. Defoe was fit only for the bench, hence Adebayor got the nod as the lone striker. In midfield Dembele was injured, so again Parker came in. The third change was perhaps due to form issues – Dempsey was replaced by Holtby. Surprisingly Bale was reverted to the left wing with Holtby acting as a proper third midfielder ahead of the double pivot, hence making the formation akin to a 4-2-1-3.
Context and build-up to the game
Before the game both teams would arguably have settled for a point each. Granted that if offered neither team would have rejected a potential win. But the ramifications of a potential loss here for either would have been drastic, hence making both teams little bit more cautious and not so ambitious to chase a win at any cost.
Strategically it could be said Chelsea fulfilled their ‘program minimum’ in the last few weeks having drawn at Anfield and won against Swansea and Man Utd. A case could be made that for Benitez – a traditionally strategically oriented manager who is looking at the next few fixtures before deciding how to play out and what are the aims for each game – a good outcome would have to avoid loses in these four fixtures (including the game with Spurs) and have at least two wins. Logically he could have aimed for two home wins (Swansea, Tottenham) and two away draws (Liverpool, Man Utd) to have enough of a head start before the last two games with Aston Villa (A) and Everton (H). By beating Man Utd, Chelsea could have afforded to be happy with a point against Tottenham – or at least not chase the win at all cost and risk losing to a direct rival for the Top 4 spots. Especially given the congested fixtures and the fact in the past almost half of year the Blues are playing constantly every three or four days.
Meanwhile, for Villas-Boas’ team this game had simultaneously the bigger need (compared to Chelsea) for a win but also posed the bigger risk of losing here and quite possible having hugely decreased chances for a Top 4 finish. If they win their last two games (at Stoke and with Sunderland at home), Spurs would be needing Arsenal only to draw one of their games (Wigan at Emirates and away at Newcastle) to finish fourth. Were Spurs to lose this game, they wold have needed Arsenal to lost and draw their last two games (due to the better Arsenal goal difference) to stand a chance to finish above them. Not to mention that purely theoretically had Chelsea won this game, they would have been out of touch with Spurs. Now, there is still the mathematical chance Chelsea to slip for Spurs to take advantage. Logically, the current context is by far the preferred for Spurs, rather having Chelsea out of touch and counting on Arsenal completely falling apart in the last two games.
Based on all this it wasn’t a major surprise both managers approached the game cautiously and with a safety-first mentality. What made the game fascinating – if not properly exciting – was how tactically the teams were set up to act on the pitch. Although both the hosts and the visitors were having similar cautious strategy, the tactical execution of this strategy was different. It was that diversity in both teams’ patterns of play which provided the main interest in the game.
The reactively proactive Chelsea
As soon as the XIs were officially confirmed something made immediate impression. This Chelsea’s XI wasn’t containing a single immobile outfield player. Or in other words – this XI was overly mobile and arguably the most mobile Benitez could have lined up with based on the current resources. There was no Terry in defence (something that is far from a surprise) and there was no Mikel (injured) or Lampard (unsurprisingly rotated) in midfield. As much this could be count as a pure coincidence, there were strong hints bubbling up what was Benitez’ attitude to the opposition and how he might has been thinking to approach the game. Perhaps he feared Spurs’ physicality in terms of sheer pace, coupled with the usual for any Villas-Boas’ side ‘verticality’?
Spurs’ XI was far from a surprise, with the only real unexpected (or at least not so anticipated) detail being Bale’s position as the left winger. That XI contained two properly direct players in Bale and Lennon, with Adebayor capable to both latch on through balls down the channels but also receive first time balls from deep when with his back to the goal. Add to this that Huddleston’s main asset is his pinging passes that are switching the play from deep; that Parker is as roaming and vertical in his positioning as a pure box-to-box midfielder (although with an increased emphasis on ball-winning that pure attacking). Also – both Assou-Ekotto and Walker – if given space – are not ones to dwell and wait for a second invitation but are quick to exploit any gaps left down the flanks with their bombing forward runs. And on top of this the fact Vertonghen is one of the very best in the PL at stepping out of defence and playing as an auxiliary midfielder on and off the ball. It was only Holtby who – as a genuine ball-playing midfielder – was the only one whose natural instincts are to seek ball retention and patient build-up play.
Both the fitness issues (fixtures congestion, playing every three or four days, lack of naturally fit players in the mould of Ramires and David Luiz across every position etc) and the strategic aims for this match meant Benitez would be happy to first and foremost aim to nullify the opposition and ensure his team wouldn’t be vulnerable to their strengths. For this to happen the first step was to select players capable to, more or less, keep up with Spurs’ pace and mobility – hence the actual starting XI. Often the central quartet (centre-backs and the double pivot) is containing at least one slow player (more often than not it’s Mikel). Here the slowest player was Ivanovic, and he is far from being slow or lacking mobility on the turn. With Luiz and Ramires in midfield Chelsea had players who could both support the attack but also quickly drop back in position and guard against counter-attacks.
The next logical step was to ensure Spurs’ players wouldn’t have much space to work around and construct their trademark quick, vertical attacking moves. The manner in which Chelsea did this was a classic Benitez way.
First, the Blues were asked to play within a compact 4-4-1-1 shape with the band of three behind Torres used in a defensive roles. But in contrast to, for example, the game at Anfield few weeks ago here the three of them were used as a ‘runners’ to initiate sharp breaks based on quick transitions. Against Liverpool Benitez deemed the Red’s passing capabilities too much of a threat. To ensure Liverpool wouldn’t have the ball to be able to show cast their passing skills, Chelsea were focused to ensure they would be the team keeping the ball and dictating the passing tempo. To do this Hazard, Oscar and Mata were used largely as ‘passers’, told to drop deep, make a midfield five and retain the ball passively within that unit. Here, the emphasis was obviously different. The three of them were sitting deep without the ball, aiming to keep the intended 4-4-1-1 shape with tight lines, then quickly burst forward with and without the ball to exploit Spurs’ high line. It’s obvious from the below chalkboards how deep and predominantly wider both Hazard and Oscar received the ball. This illustrates their initial deep positioning (as per the need to have compact defensive shape) but also their emphasis on breaking forward down the channels.
Mata too was used in a slightly different role. Usually he is constantly dropping deep and drifting wider to receive possession and initiate passing moves based on overloads. Here he, similarly to Hazard and Oscar, stayed deep without the ball then quickly aimed to push forward and pop in in various positions in and around the penalty box to add the counter-attacking threat. In the first 15 minutes of the game he had two very good chances thanks due to his appreciation for space present himself as a goal-scoring, rather ball-playing, threat.
It’s debatable, but there is enough to suggest Benitez’ deemed Spurs biggest threat to be their ability to construct penetrative vertical attacking moves and catch opponents’ out of position. Especially given the nature of the front players (all direct attacking players, rather players based on ball retention). To limit that threat the Spanish manager aimed to suffocate the space for Spurs to break into (relatively deep defensive line and compact shape). But in the meantime he also gifted the majority of the possession back to Tottenham and forced them to be more possession-based than their XI would have been comfortable with.
Obviously that re-activeness was devised to ‘lure’ Spurs to spread their formation high up the pitch, allow for space in behind and around their defenders to open up for Chelsea’s counters to have space to shine. Not only the attacking band of three behind Torres was highly energetic and quickly morphed from their deep defensive positioning into direct attacking presence down the flanks and through the middle. But due to the dynamism offered by the presence of Luiz and Ramires in midfield, Chelsea had the ability to sudden break often with no less but five or six players heading at speed in Spurs’ defensive third. Both Brazil midfielders received the ball predominantly in Spurs’ half, showing their presence in their own half was limited mainly due to keeping their positioning solid and limiting the space for Spurs to attack into before quickly burst forward to support the counter-attacking moves. The second goal was the perfect evidence how by bursting from deep, one of the midfielders – Ramires – could catch Spurs by surprise and head into a goal-scoring positions.
Even their on ball activities betrayed the emphasis being on forward-thinking passes and swift transitions than ball retention. Statistically this lead to their decreased passing accuracy, but tactically it was vital they wouldn’t dwell on the ball and will as quickly as possible feed the swiftly developing counter-attacking moves.
It was that re-activeness leading to Chelsea being soundly out passed and seeing less of the territorial advantage in the first half.
But in the meantime it was the kind of a platform that the team looked to have, enabling the team’s pro-activeness to shine through as well. Based on it Chelsea created the better attacking moves, leading to the more dangerous goal-scoring chances in the first half. The majority of the created chances were in close proximity to the goal, showing how successful the home team was to penetrate the away team’s defence and constantly work openings in the last third. Not only Chelsea had space to break into, but their midfield players all had the required speed, technique and dribbling skills to constantly threat on the break.
Spurs’ proactive reactiveness
However, it was the visitors’ game plan that seemed the more unnatural but had similarly pivotal role to how the first half panned out in reality.
By the looks of how Spurs started to right from the start, it seemed Villas-Boas was fearing Chelsea too. If Benitez and Chelsea were scared of Spurs’ mobility and verticality going forward, Villas-Boas and Tottenham were most probably worrying about Chelsea’s passing capabilities, especially from their three playmakers (Mata, Hazard and Oscar).
To minimize, if not fully limit, that risk the Portuguese manager had adopted similar strategy to the ones displayed by Chelsea at Liverpool. Obviously if Spurs were to press hard Chelsea in order to try and disrupt their anticipated passing flow, there would have been a risk of leaving too much space for their creative players to slip through balls in behind and around the defenders. With Parker positionally unreliable and Huddlestone lacking mobility to effectively join in such high pressing game, this risk would have turn into reckless and completely needless gamble. So it was natural to see Villas-Boas opting for the alternative route.
The first step was to ensure the high defensive line will compress the space towards the midfield zone, making it heavily congested. Doing this the aim was clearly to make any Chelsea’s ball retention process harder and slower due to the less available space.
The other – and the more crucial – decision by the former Chelsea manager was to have his team explicitly focussed on keeping the ball in deep areas and either gradually move forward as a unit (hence keeping the compactness and the effect of congested pitch) or wait for decent chances to break forward swiftly. Right from the start it was clear to see Tottenham’s emphasis on dwelling on the ball in possession, constantly working it from side to side and not rushing to make the forward pass. Not only Parker but even Huddlestone displayed clear focus to keep the ball retention process safely by passing the ball over short distances. Only a few times the latter tried his trademark long balls from deep. By constantly dropping towards the centre-backs, Huddlestone ensured the deep recycling process would be always intact and it wouldn’t be risk ruined in the same way as in the last game against Southampton. Back then the back four didn’t have a constant link with the midfielders as the Saints’ forward duo positioned themselves between the centre-backs and the midfield duo. Here Huddlestone prevented that possibility by displaying more readiness to drop deep and link the two lines.
Still, the players crucial for this approach to be working so successfully were Holtbly and Vertonghen. The former was seen constantly coming towards the play, dropping in deep zones from his advanced starting position from between the lines. By doing this he ensured two things: a) the midfield duo would have available link via short pass to the forward players; and b) Spurs would have a proper unit of three midfielders oriented to keep the ball (hence preventing looking a man short in that zone of the pitch). The Belgian was doing something that he is often seen doing anyway – often stepping out in defence and playing as an auxiliary midfielder. But it was the whole approach and the detailed patterns and the surrounding him players’ role that made the whole process seemingly more cohesive and his particular role in it more important. With Huddlestone and Holtby dropping deep there could have been the risk of Spurs looking rather flat in possession without the required variety and ability to morph the deep possession in advanced positions. With Vertonghen constantly pushing on he ensure the ball circulation would always vary and there would be players stepping in each other’s zone to ensure the passing angles wouldn’t be cut higher up the pitch. Then as Huddlestone dropped deep Vertonghen pushed slightly forward, then when the ball was in him and Holtby came towards the play too Parker would step forward with Huddlestone now initiating the next wave of re-arranging to allow the team continuance transitioning forward and as a result gaining territory. The whole process was players constantly coming in and out of each other’s zone, overlapping and then re-arranging again to keep up the position fluency and ball circulation.
With Chelsea not focused to press from higher up the pitch but just dropping deep and form solid defensive shape before time their ball-winning activities, Tottenham had time on the ball to spread their recycling process from deep. All of this ensured them possession dominance and constant passing flow, but not enough penetration and ability to string dangerous team moves. Spurs’ pro-activeness on the ball seemed like their main defensive weapon and a way to ensure Chelsea wouldn’t have more time in possession. That’s why their possession ended being like a passive one with the majority of Spurs’ chances came following shots outside the penalty area that ultimately failed to seriously threat Cech. The Adebayor goal came in the rare occasion when two things rarely seen in the first half occurred simultaneously. First, Chelsea were caught on the break, with the majority of their players not in their expected defensive positions. And second, Spurs opted to transition quickly going forward with Adebayor running with the ball right from inside his own half to just outside Chelsea’s penalty area before finishing with what was a beautiful semi curled chipped shot to the far post. Still, it should be noted that Chelsea’s defenders were constantly backing off him and even they had numerical advantage over the Spurs attackers their failed to engage Adebayour and ultimately allowed him both time and space to finish his run with shoot into the back of the net.
All in all, both teams generally executed their intended initial strategies and tactics well enough. Still it could be said that although Chelsea were in overall the more reactive team, their clear purpose on the ball delivered the better outcome – better chances and ultimately twice a lead in the score line. Meanwhile, even if Spurs were the generally more proactive team with the ball, their main idea was to keep it as a sort of defensive weapon with the aim not to give Chelsea enough time in possession (not that, as it turned out in reality, the home team wanted this).
The opening fifteen minutes of the second half
The start of the second period saw continuance of the first half. Both teams played largely as before the half-time. For Chelsea it was understandable they just continued to be focused on keeping solid defensive shape and wait for opportunities to break forward. Not only the team was leading in the score line, but the first half proved the approach is successful in creating dangerous attacks, leading to good goal-scoring chances and in the meantime denying the opposition the same thing.
The game’s main pattern continued even in that Chelsea continued to create good chances for goal. Twice the home team led to potent counter-attacks enabling a player to be in good goal-scoring position. First Hazard wasted the chance by trying to curl the ball towards the far post but ended with a wayward shoot off target. His alternative route was to set up one of his onrushing in the box teammates. The other chance saw Mata breaking forward, dragging the attention towards him and squaring the ball for the onrushing Ramires to head through on goal only for the Brazilian to slip and end up on the floor with another proper goal-scoring chance being wasted.
Meanwhile Spurs passing dominance continued to be mainly sterile with the passed being exchanged predominantly in deeper areas. The away team failed to morph the possession into meaningful attacking moves, let alone chances for goal.
Seeing all of this it was logical to see Villas-Boas finally reacting to the ongoing match context and the fact his team was not only losing but not showing any improvement on the first half. Based on the chances created it could be even said Spurs were lucky to be still in the game by the time their manager opted to change something and refresh his side.
In the 62th minute Lennon was replaced by Sigurdsson with the quickly becoming traditional in-game change to see him and Bale inverted on the flanks in the recent games occurring once again. Presumably Villas-Boas’ idea was to make the front four narrower and have his wingers closer to the opposition penalty are to support the main forward. Nothing seemed to change so the second sub came in eight minutes later with Dempsey replacing Holtby, making the change more adventurous and a lopsided 4-2-4 looking alike with Bale higher up on the right and Sigurdsson slightly narrower and deeper on the left.
After the made changes the away team started – as a consequence – to pass the ball from higher up and not dwell so much on the ball in deeper areas. The players seemed inclined to pass with more intensity and urgency, with the team starting to commit more players forward. However, for all the improved theoretical ability to boost increased penetration in attack, the team now seemed overly rushed and without the required stable possession platform to offer sustained pressure on the opposition. There were balls flying down the flanks for the players to run in blind areas; or there were switching of the ball from flank the flank as there was no one who could have step up and start to pull the strings into a cohesive and assertive manner.
In such a scenario where Spurs were found chasing a game and playing with a 4-2-4ish formation with presumably the wingers expected to move infield and the fullbacks to bomb on to keep up the width, it seemed Huddlestone is the most suitable player to let the play ahead of him and pull the strings with his pinging passes down the channels. But either he was often bypassed with or when actually in possession he failed to provide such effect by preferring to pass the ball shortly instead of looking for the quick switch of the play.
It wasn’t a surprise that Tottenham continued failing to threat Chelsea at all, again having hopeless shoots from outside the area as their main chances for goal.
It took the away team another Chelsea defensive slip up (and perhaps a slightly dubious offside call) for their best and only chance from inside the penalty area to result in their second equalizing goal. It was similar situation to the one for the first equalizer in that Chelsea had numerical advantage – here it was even bigger as the majority of the team was back in their defensive shape – only for the players to react slowly or half-heartedly and allow Sigurdsson sneak in the penalty area to curl his shoot to the far post and into the back of the net.
One criticism that could be applied to Benitez’ in-game management was his late changes and the not usage of his third substitution at all. As early as around the 65-70 minute it was clear to see both Oscar and Hazard are tired due to their efforts up to this moment to run up and down the pitch and contribute both defensively and offensively. Hazard was rightly replaced in the 73rd (but arguably could have been replaced around five to ten minutes earlier as he started to jog half-heartedly down the left flank) with Moses coming in. But it was the delay in the Oscar sub that might have ended up being crucial for Chelsea. It was him who didn’t put enough efforts to track back Assou-Ekotto during the build-up for Spurs’s second goal. It’s debatable but there is enough to suggest a player with fresh pair of legs and could have done better to engage the visitors’ left back during that situation.
On top of this, perhaps Mata could have been replaced in the last fifteen minutes to allow for someone to come in and drop deep in midfield. For example Lampard could have come in be alongside Ramires and allow Luiz to drop just ahead of the back four as a half third centre-back, half third midfielder. This would have allow the Brazilian to act as that additional cover player to sweep up between the lines freely without worrying whether if he steps out of position the defensive lines of four would have been compromised.
It was that physical and without doubt mental fatigue that prevent Chelsea to be as effective in defending and counter-attacking in the last ten or fifteen minutes. Seeing Tottenham are going for the jugular Chelsea could have done with fresh players to be able to defend with the same efforts and eventually look to keep the ball and calm the tempo. Instead they seemed tired and unable to keep with what they were doing so effectively up to this moment.
A game that would be remembered mainly with what happened in the first half. Both teams displayed clear strategies and well executed tactics to suit them. The second half was largely underwhelming, especially in the last half of hour where both teams seemed unable to offer anything resembling an effective or assertive enough game plan to suit their needs.
As in the game at Anfield Benitez might feel hard done by. But it could be argued has he been simultaneously more proactive (in the timing of his subs) and reactive (to change his formation and add another defensive body in the closing period of game) in both games with his subs his team might have been sitting now with four more points and comfortably in the third place and the opportunity to challenge Man City for the second spot. Meanwhile as per the recent games’ proceedings Spurs and Villas-Boas are arguably lacking spark, with the team looking tame and ponderous in their play. Not a surprise they’re needing a mixture of rare individual magic and opposition defensive slip up to be able to gain at least a point per match. All of this is not speaking well for them, especially with incoming games they need two wins against a teams that are traditionally hard nuts to break (Stoke and Sunderland).
Anyway, as argued at the start point a piece should left both managers content and surely the preferred than a loss outcome. The lack of breath-taking display and scintillating could be at least partly excused given Chelsea and Tottenham are the two teams playing the most games in their season up to this moment compared to the rest of the league.