By Thomas Tuchel’s own assertion, there were no tactical tweaks at half-time against Tottenham Hotspur. The praise laid at his feet as Chelsea charged to a 3-0 win off the back of their second-half work alone, he felt, was misguided.
“Actually, we did not change the system,” revealed the head coach when asked of a notable shift from being dominated to doing the dominating. “That is maybe the whole point. It seemed we changed the system but we just played it with more belief, more energy, more quality. Sharper.”
Bringing that belief, energy, quality and sharpness was N’Golo Kante. The credit sent Tuchel’s way was redirected to the Frenchman, who came on at half-time, with interest: “If you have N’Golo, you have something everyone is looking for. You have everything that you need in midfield with work rate, intensity, ball wins, skilful play, off the ball, with the ball, dribbling and even a goal.”
A scrappy goal, it must be said, benefitting from the wickedest of deflections. But an important one: giving Chelsea a 2-0 lead, deflating the hosts and prompting the first cohort of disgruntled Spurs fans to head for the exits.
The luxury of calling on a two-time Premier League champion, Champions League and World Cup winner from the bench is a measure of the disparity between the squads Tuchel and Nuno Espirito Santo had to call upon. Kante’s introduction for the second half was also the biggest compliment to Spurs’ work up to that point.
Chelsea, perhaps a team who manage games better than anyone (as they showed to close out this encounter), could not live with Spurs’ intensity. Nuno’s side were sharp with the ball, both with its movement and how it was wrestled back.
Spurs won almost twice as many duels in the opening period (34 to 18), shading possession with 52 per cent against an outfit who are often on the ‘right’ side of this metric (they had just 34.3 per cent against Liverpool last month when Reece James was sent off in first-half added time). “Aggressive” and “very brave” was how Tuchel described Spurs’ initial approach.
Nuno’s starting XI looked a gamble. With question marks over key personnel following the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace and the Europa Conference League stalemate with Rennes, the team sheet felt like something out of a video game rather than necessity. An XI comprising purely of the best available ball-players. And it worked, for a bit. Those who took to the pitch at 4:30pm did so with no uncertainty and no sense of inferiority. All to a man armed with clarity.
When they pressed high, they did so with conviction and were rewarded with possession deep in Chelsea territory on numerous occasions. The usually unflappable Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger misplaced the odd pass, at times even losing their first touch.
Most encouraging was what Spurs offered going forward beyond the known quantities of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Giovani Lo Celso, stationed as the auxiliary forward on the right, ventured into midfield and occasionally behind Kane when the situation presented itself.
When Son mimicked those movements, Dele Alli would drift over to the left touchline. In turn, Mason Mount – who was replaced by Kante – was forced to do more towards his own goal. In between shifts of breaking up whatever Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho tried to conjure and offering an alternative hold-up option to Kane, Dele’s movement was a nod to the dynamic midfielder of old.
When Tanguy Ndombele wasn’t using his hips to misdirect and create space to start or continue moves from deep, he was showcasing those dancer’s feet. One notable mazy dribble that rendered Chelsea’s right side utterly inadequate felt like a flex of Spurs’ control at the time.
File it under “moments preceding unfortunate events”, but the cheers from the home crowd that accompanied the half-time whistle was as sincere as they have been these last three seasons. The match was goalless, the end of the half to Chelsea’s advantage rather than Spurs’. But those 45-plus-two minutes of play were arguably the best woven together since the best of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure. And yet a group of fans that predict rain tomorrow when the sun shines today went into the interval with authentic hope of a brighter future. It was not their fault they did not see the following 45 minutes coming.
Now, as they awake on Monday nursing consecutive 3-0 Premier League defeats, that faith will be severely tested, if not broken entirely. That first-half performance lost in a sea of “here we go again” as they failed once more to build on clear positives. As Chelsea fans sang: “It’s happened again”.
Nuno, however, believes otherwise. To him, the contents of that half in his eighth game in charge should be regarded as a norm to pursue rather than an anomaly to ignore.
“Now, I honestly believe the first half was really good, really good,” said the Portuguese manager. “The energy that we put on the pitch – the attitude, the spirit the players had. So if there’s only one positive today, that was the first half.”
He was keen to point to the nature of Chelsea’s first two goals – a corner four minutes after the restart, then Kante’s borderline fluke – which altered the dynamic of the fixture and then settled it. Even before Antonio Rudiger’s crisp finish on 90-plus-two, the game had morphed into one-way traffic. Chelsea finished with enough openings to win by five.
Lest we forget, a crisper first touch from Son on 33 minutes might have resulted in a meaningful finish instead of a tame poke into the midriff of an on-rushing Kepa. Other nearly moments came with Sergio Reguillon’s weak cross that failed to find Lo Celso at the back post in a two-on-one situation and a handful of poorly executed final-third balls that should have created more openings.
There is a saying about aunts and wheels that comes to mind here. But that’s not to say time spent wondering “what if” is time wasted. However, the most pressing question for the 33 remaining games in the league, not just Arsenal this Sunday, is “what now?”
So much of the focus internally at Spurs has been about righting the wrongs. And no doubt when they revisit Sunday at the start of this week the focus will be on how Dele could have tracked Thiago Silva’s late run into the box better, and identifying who of Dier or Cristian Romero should have closed down Kante.
But they should also rewatch that first half and take heart. To recognise that not only did they frustrate one of the best-drilled teams in the world, but bettered them with such quality that Tuchel doubted the attitude of players who have been nothing but trustworthy to him over the last eight months.
They ran rings around the defending European Champions. Out-muscled and out-classed the favourites for this season’s Premier League title. Even if only for a half, that needs to count for something.
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