The timing of this fixture could hardly be better for Tottenham and could hardly be worse for Chelsea.
A month ago, the visitors would have anticipated arriving in north London this weekend safely out of sight in the top four. Instead Frank Lampard’s side enter the match on a run of four defeats from their last five and, with Spurs closing in, fearing their former manager will fulfil what is starting to look ominously like narrative destiny. Jose Mourinho has won 12 of his 13 career home matches against former clubs.
When he replaced Mauricio Pochettino in November, with Tottenham 12 points off the pace, Mourinho suggested catching Chelsea was an impossible task. How he would relish defying the odds so early. How he would revel in the anti-romance of grinding out a win against the sort of free-wheeling, attacking coach so many fans and pundits have pleaded with him to become.
And make no mistake that will be the pattern of this match. Mourinho may indeed wish to embrace a more progressive playing style moving forward, but he is a pragmatist first and foremost. And the most pragmatic way to beat Chelsea at the moment is to sit back, deny them space, and hit them with a sucker punch on the counter.
Chelsea’s creativity issues
The problems have been coming. That early season form was always going to drop off, as Lampard himself warned at the time, and you could see it coming from the sheer freedom with which his team were playing.
Elite clubs tend to coach specific attacking patterns, their appearance of improvisation and illusion in fact coming from diligent work on the training ground. By contrast, Chelsea’s forwards really are creative – and that’s why things have started to fall apart now confidence is waning and the winter schedule brings heavy legs. Emotional and physical lows lead to a poverty of imagination.
Not that Lampard is without a tactical plan. His goal is move the ball as quickly as possible into the final third, using inverted wingers to crowd the number ten space with relentless waves of attacking football.
The problem is that opponents now know exactly what’s coming. West Ham, Everton, and Bournemouth all stunted Mason Mount and company by standing off the Chelsea centre-backs while sitting patiently in a mid-block.
The idea is fairly simple: instead of dropping into the final third, as was happening earlier in the season, teams are sitting ten yards higher up the pitch (staying just as compressed and defensive). Consequently the number ten space is crammed with defensive bodies, drowning out Chelsea’s playmakers where before Mount could get on the ball just in front of the lines of defence and midfield.
Mourinho will follow suit, perhaps pressing for the first ten minutes or so but ultimately dropping into the sort of cagey shape for which he is well known in big games. We can anticipate N’Golo Kante again struggling to get on the ball, Mount getting lost, and Matteo Kovacic looking irritated as he hogs the ball with nobody to pass to. Frustration is the emotion Mourinho most enjoys triggering in his opponent.
Spurs counters & Chelsea’s poor transitions
Chelsea’s second biggest problem is a failure to sort out their transitions from attack to defence, an issue first raised by Mourinho himself as a Sky Sports pundit in the aftermath of their 4-0 defeat to Manchester United on the opening day of the season.
The Portuguese opened his palm wide, and then tightened it into a fist, to signify the importance of recompressing when the ball was lost. "Good teams all defend compact," he said. "Higher block or lower block, but always in a block."
They haven’t really improved since then. Chelsea are too haphazardly spread out across the pitch to then recompress and screen against the counter-attack, again highlighting the freedom Lampard gives to his players. Unlike Man City or Liverpool, whose positions are always set to engage a team press when the ball is lost, Chelsea can be got at with quick breaks straight through the centre of the park.
Spurs will look to exploit this via Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura, Dele Alli, and Harry Kane, all four of whom are excelling under Mourinho because of his emphasis on fast, counter-attacking football. Mourinho will give detailed instruction, telling each of them exactly where and when to hit Chelsea.
Spurs’ defensive issues give Chelsea a chance
Spurs have just the defensive system to blunt Chelsea and just the attacking plan to expose their weak spots, and yet that does not necessarily mean Mourinho will get the three points. His team remain seriously flawed, nowhere near the level required of them – hence conceding 12 goals in his seven matches so far.
Tottenham’s full-backs seemingly just aren’t good enough to recover, while Mourinho’s 3-2-5 formation in possession is leaving too much space on the flanks; Serge Aurier is a constant liability, plus Ben Davies’ injury means Jan Vertonghen awkwardly filling in at left-back. On the break, Chelsea have the chance to build momentum via Christian Pulisic and Willian.
Mourinho hasn’t got his central midfield sorted out yet either, the chopping and changing betraying his lack of faith in the options available. As usual, there will be at least one 20-minute period of the game in which Spurs begin to drift and their midfield loses control. This is when Chelsea – if they get the ball forward quickly enough following a Tottenham attack – can pounce.
Any danger of an end-to-end match clearly favours Chelsea, the team playing without confidence and desperate to finally be given the chance to play attacking football with space in front of them. And that’s precisely why Mourinho will be particularly conservative, preaching measured and risk-averse counters.
Lampard revels in chaos, Mourinho in control. The latter’s vastly richer experience of management suggests he will get his way and Tottenham, ridding themselves of any semblance of a Pochettino team, will complete their transformation.