Tottenham Combine Strategy and Execution to Dismantle Chelsea

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On Wednesday night at White Hart Lane, Tottenham managed to snap Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak by propelling themselves towards a 2-0 victory. It wasn’t easy for them, especially given the intensive defensive strategies employed by both teams, but courtesy of a well-developed plan and an impressive ability to execute, Spurs managed to consign Antonio Conte and his players to defeat.

Without the ball, Mauricio Pochettino asked his players to press high from the foundation of a 3-4-3 formation. In that sense, they matched Chelsea for shape, effectively going man-on-man in a bid to stifle the progress of guys like Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa before they could even get the ball. Up top, Tottenham’s front three of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane pushed up, with the winger on the far side moving into a more central position, while midfielders Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama set about imposing themselves physically upon Chelsea’s central holding duo, N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.

Tottenham’s wingbacks also pressed up onto Chelsea’s wingbacks, and with all of this man-oriented marking, the two sides effectively cancelled each other out. Crucially, however, Spurs were more proactive in defence, and this allowed them to create a number of solid if unspectacular openings in attack. This dynamic was perhaps best exemplified by a first-half chance for Eriksen, in a move which started with an intense Spurs press. The press was so intense, in fact, that Kante soon found himself surrounded by three players, and although the former Leicester man is no slouch in possession, he could do little but rush his pass. Eriksen, who, as the winger on the far side, had taken up that more central location, latched onto the loose ball and drove towards goal. The Dane followed up with a powerful strike, but despite a decent connection with the ball, his effort sailed just wide of the mark.

Pochettino’s aggressive defensive strategy quickly became the defining feature of the first half, with Jan Vertonghen’s commitment to it, exemplified by a yellow card and a broader desire to tackle high up the pitch, particularly striking. In terms of closing off the options available to Chelsea in attack, it worked beautifully, with the Blues failing to register a solitary shot on target in the first 45. But in terms of generating significant looks at goal, it wasn’t really doing the job. Sure, Spurs were winning the ball back high up and allowing themselves to take long shots and even swing in the occasional cross, but that was about as concrete as as it got. They had a general sense of control over the contest but nothing to show for it on the scoreboard, and in a match that was often characterised by imprecision on the ball, largely due to the frenetic defensive intensity, it was maybe surprising that it took an extended spell of possession to break the deadlock.

This is where Tottenham’s more proactive approach to defence actually helped them, as Chelsea, in contrast, were more than happy to sit back once Pochettino’s players established themselves on the ball. It was in these moments, after Chelsea’s initial press had eased and they had filtered back into a 5-4-1 defensive structure, that Spurs could take a little more time to construct their forays into the final third. They could lower the tempo and assess their options, something which allowed them to get their creative maestro, Eriksen, into the game.

As is typical of Eriksen’s approach when he plays out wide, he regularly looked to drift inside, as a means through which to take up dangerous pockets of space. Just as importantly, Eriksen’s desire to float infield also enabled Kyle Walker, Tottenham’s marauding right-back, to bomb on up the touchline in support, and between the two of them, they put together the chance for Alli to open the scoring.

Eriksen kicked things off by dropping deep to pick up possession, and he followed up with a quick pass out to Walker on the right. The fullback then held onto the ball, and when his Danish teammate ghosted into a little pocket of space just inside of him, completely unmarked, he gave it back to him. Now in clean air and without any immediate pressure from the opposition, Eriksen had time to pick his spot. He took a quick touch before lofting a cross onto the head of Alli, its precision so impressive that the young attacker had little to do but turn the ball into the back of the net.

The move featured a fine cross and a fine header, and as if to prove it was no fluke, Tottenham scored their second in near enough to identical fashion. Eriksen initially brought the ball forward before again passing to Walker, and Walker again responded by shifting it back to Eriksen. The ex-Ajax man had a little less space to work with this time, but still more than enough to curl in a pinpoint cross to the far post. Waiting at the fall of the ball, Alli again rose above Cesar Azpilicueta to nod home, and now leading 2-0 in a game where opportunities were limited, Tottenham were never likely to fail from that point on.

In short, Tottenham won it through a combination of clever strategy and execution. They came into the game with a very solid plan, and on the defensive end, they applied it with aggression and intensity. Chelsea simply never found the time to settle on the ball, especially for the first hour, and that meant that Tottenham were usually in charge of proceedings. Then, when Spurs could put their foot on the ball, they made use of the playmaking talents of Eriksen to generate the openings they needed. Throw in the fact that Alli did a brilliant job of isolating the much shorter Azpilicueta in the air, and there was plenty of intelligent thought behind what the home side were doing out on the pitch.

This approach enabled Tottenham to defeat a Chelsea team who hadn’t previously lost in the league since last September, and although it isn’t always easy to execute a manager’s tactics against a top-of-the-table side, Pochettino’s men managed to do it in style.