Tottenham could use Chelsea debacle to plunge Tuchel into crisis mode
Chelsea are expected to be the favorites as hosts, European champions and top team in the table, but Tottenham look well placed to beat them.
Manchester United stumble awkwardly under Ralf Rangnick knowing a clean slate will come this summer. Everton are preparing to appoint a new manager and repeat the cycle of incompetence. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are heading in the right direction. Manchester City have sewn up the Premier League title but Liverpool are still enjoying life more under Jurgen Klopp.
Things are calm. A little too quiet. Football thrives on crisis and despises emptiness, ready and waiting to create disaster out of thin air, and as we fortunately approach the end of winter there is one candidate who seems ready to step forward as the panicked, spiraling, molten club of the moment.
Chelsea have won just one of their last seven Premier League games and, given Romelu Lukaku’s public outburst and Thomas Tuchel’s visible frustration on the sidelines, if there hadn’t been victory in the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup, Chelsea may already be in crisis mode. They certainly waver; the defeat to Spurs at Stamford Bridge on Sunday would appear to be a significant and symbolic moment.
It would put Tottenham within five points of Chelsea with four (!) games in hand, leading the hosts into a top-four race and reminding fans how good things felt under Antonio Conte – the last manager to win the title at Chelsea. This season marks five years that the club were not even in a title chase, a length unprecedented in Roman Abramovich‘s time and enough to put any manager under pressure. We should never have expected Tuchel to challenge in 2021/22, but the Premier League is a cutthroat division and Abramovich remains more cutthroat than most.
Short-term managerial appointments have been a big hit since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea.
I think I can speak for the majority when I say we want Tuchel here long term. pic.twitter.com/WzIJbNUtdN
—Harry (@HarryCFC170) January 18, 2022
A Tottenham win would not be the catalyst for a full investigation, but it would speed up the process – particularly if, as might reasonably be expected, the game will be a psychological as well as a tactical battle. Chelsea are on a terrible run and seem lacking in confidence or creativity; Spurs have just come back from 2-1 down to beat Leicester City in the most absurd, joyful and fun way imaginable.
Tactically, Tottenham have the upper hand despite Chelsea’s back-to-back Carabao Cup wins this month. Conte’s side played much better in the second leg after changing from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2, introducing a third central midfielder to provide additional control in the middle. He also brought his team down a little further to play more obviously on the counter-attack, which is effective against Tuchel because it annihilates the German’s own will to use this method. At home, Chelsea will “win” the majority of the ball, i.e. they will lose the battle for the ball.
Chelsea’s only really successful mode of attack in recent months has been incisive vertical back passes, the kind that Tuchel would ideally like to play all the time, but have limited use outside of Germany. Teams don’t press high enough, or leave enough room behind, for Chelsea to create enough chances playing this way. Conte’s bottom block, coupled with that extra body in midfield, should overall hold up Tuchel’s attacking lines.
In both Carabao Cup semi-finals, as well as the 1-1 draw with Brighton, Chelsea deployed a new hybrid 4-2-2-2/3-5-2 formation, which oscillates between the two in depending on the phase of play and position on the pitch: to go from 4-2-2-2 to 3-5-2, Cesar Azpilicueta passes from the right side to the central defender, Hakim Ziyech passes from the inside right to the right-back and Mason Mount moves from inside left to central midfield. The main advantage of this system is its complexity, which makes it difficult for opponents to track the movement of key players – especially Ziyech as he moves in and out.
But again, Spurs’ move from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 helped block that, as the extra midfielder – camped in the regimented rows – filled in the gaps Ziyech had exploited at the first leg. Moreover, the way Brighton dominated Chelsea showed that the formation change did little to fix failed connections on the front line.
And so it’s likely to be a low-scoring game as Chelsea huff and puff against blockading Spurs while the visitors, displaying just two forwards to get behind, struggle to find space around a solid three man (or four man) Chelsea defense.
If we want to see the deadlock broken, it will most likely be on the left of Tottenham. A big part of Conte’s tactical plan is to pull the game up one side before switching to a free-back on the other, and Sergio Reguilon is considerably more dangerous than Emerson Royal. It is plausible that Reguilon will figure out how to exploit Azpilicueta’s dual role and take advantage of Chelsea’s tightness when they are in 4-2-2-2 form.
Finally, the indirect battle between Lukaku and Harry Kane is one to watch. The former is hopelessly out of form but should improve if Tuchel pairs him with Kai Havertz (the experiment with Callum Hudson-Odoi ahead of Brighton went wrong), while Kane is slowly returning to his best. The way he slipped Steven Bergwijn for the winner against Leicester on Wednesday night shows Spurs are learning to counter with the precision of a true Conte team.
This threat alone should make Tottenham a slight favourite. Far more important is the psychological lag that threatens not only to prolong Chelsea’s poor run, but also to put Tuchel in danger three days before his first birthday.