Feature

How Chelsea ended Spurs' unbeaten run in chaotic derby classic

By Alex Keble 7 Nov 2023
Premier League - Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea

Alex Keble analyses breathtaking match as Pochettino returns to hand Postecoglou his first Premier League defeat

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Alex Keble reviews Chelsea's 4-1 victory at Tottenham Hotspur and analyses where the match was won.

Overview

Two red cards, five disallowed goals, endless VAR stoppages, bodies littered on the floor, and an experimental nine-man high line that was perhaps a tactical world-first: Chelsea’s 4-1 victory at Spurs on Monday night was among the most anarchic and absurdist matches in Premier League history.

When Nicolas Jackson’s hat-trick goal in the closing stages prompted a sombre round of applause in praise of Spurs' valiant effort – a surreal moment even by this fixture’s standards – it was tempting to think some of it was simply to celebrate the chaos and carnage of the spectacle.

It was breathless entertainment, thanks mostly to Ange Postecoglou’s infectious commitment to high-energy football no matter the opponent – and, apparently, no matter how many players he has on the pitch.

See: Jackson hat-trick ends nine-man Spurs' unbeaten start

Cristian Romero was sent off for a shin-high lunge and Destiny Udogie for two yellow tackles (the first of which could easily have been a straight red), but still Spurs kept running, fighting, and pushing high up the pitch.

It didn’t work out, but the fans’ were generous regardless.

Here’s how Spurs stormed into an early lead, only to lose their cool – and lose the match in a novel way.

Spurs take complete control via perfect Ange-ball

It had all been going so well for Spurs. Up until the Udogie lunge it had, in fact, been such a textbook Postecoglou tactical masterclass as to be the platonic ideal of the Australian’s tactical philosophy.

The surprising thing from a Chelsea perspective, is that they seemingly had not planned for how to cope with a system so well known to Postecoglou followers.

Spurs were in what you might call a 2-5-3 formation, with full-backs Udogie and Pedro Porro inverting to join Yves Bissouma at the base of midfield, as James Maddison and Pape Matar Sarr floated just ahead of them.

This created a five-man midfield that simply overwhelmed the Chelsea two. Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-4-1-1 formation had Conor Gallagher man-marking Bissouma to leave Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo with far too many players to track.

That numerical advantage was crucial, allowing Spurs to play through the lines with ease, but as important was the way that midfield shape sucked Chelsea infield – creating masses of space for Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski, who held the width.

That, in summary, is the perfected idea of Postecoglou’s formation, although Spurs were helped significantly by the fact that Cole Palmer and Raheem Sterling were a little lost, caught in positions that meant they couldn’t possibly help mark those inverted full-backs.

It was a confluence of these factors that led directly to Spurs’ opener in a move identical to numerous ones before and after it. The move - which sees Maddison release Sarr, who plays in Kulusevski to drive into the box and score – has every part of the plan laid out.

Spurs goal v Chelsea
Kulusevski's surging run into the box to score is made possible by Spurs' midfield shape creating space

Inverted full-backs wreaking havoc; an overloaded midfield dominating the ball and distracting attention from the wingers; plus a hard press that stopped Chelsea from getting control - it was 33 minutes to show in a seminar on Postecoglou’s tactics.

Postecoglou’s novel nine-man approach cannot hold

Everything changed after Udogie’s lunge, which appeared to spark Chelsea into life and inexplicably saw Spurs lose their composure, leading to Romero’s red card and a dramatic rethink.

Palmer's penalty equaliser

But this being Postecoglou, Spurs replaced the fire and fury of their performance in the first 33 minutes with the fire and fury of a bizarre, unprecedented way to play with 10 - then nine - men.

Postecoglou effectively put Spurs into a compact defensive shell, as you might expect, except instead of camping on the edge of the box, they camped on the halfway line.

Don’t press, stay tight, and fight for your lives – oh, and do it all 50 yards from goal. Only Postecoglou would so something so wild.

The problem was that, in a 4-3-2 and then a 4-3-1, there was absolutely no width in midfield. As soon as a Chelsea full-back got the ball, they had all the time in the world to play the through ball.

All Chelsea’s forwards had to do was to make run after run on the shoulder of the last defender, arcing their movement to get clean through on goal.

Here’s a perfect shot of the unique idea, leading to Marc Cucurella fluffing a one-on-one, but it is no exaggeration to say at least 10 other examples could have been picked.

Cucurella shot
Spurs lack the width in midfield to prevent Cucurella and his Chelsea team-mates from getting clean through

It was only a matter of time until Spurs’ rugby-like line was punished, and once Chelsea finally got one right, Sterling assisting for Jackson, the floodgates opened.

All three of Chelsea’s second-half goals were scored in the same way, and they probably should have scored four or five more with the exact same move. Just look at how many times Guglielmo Vicario had to sweep the ball outside his area.

Chelsea have lift-off as Man City take the advantage

It was the rarest of things in football, a true one-of-a-kind football match, and when the dust settles it might just prove to be hugely consequential for the season ahead.

Chelsea have been performing far better than results would suggest this season, but have been waiting for a statement showing like this one to kick-start a surge up the table.

They are back in the top half and, with five of the top seven dropping points this weekend, they are only seven points behind Aston Villa in the (probable) fifth UEFA Champions League spot.

There is plenty of time to close that gap.

Spurs remain a point behind Manchester City, who are the clear winners from the Premier League weekend, and must now be firm favourites to go on to lift the trophy, considering the number of flaws their rivals have shown across the last three days.

Worse still for Spurs are injuries to Maddison and Micky van de Ven, which along with Romero’s and Udogie’s suspensions, significantly weakens the team ahead of a tricky match at Wolverhampton Wanderers next weekend.

But for now, the fallout is secondary. It will take a little while to cool off; a couple of days to process what on earth happened across a 90 minutes that will surely go down as an all-time Premier League classic.

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