Chelsea and Tottenham were at it again last Saturday.
And that was really horrible news for Spurs.
Hope in the first half for Spurs of earning their first win at Chelsea in the Premier League era turned more sour than six-week old milk as mistakes and card trouble piled on in the second half, leaving Spurs to deal with a demoralizing 4-0 defeat.
Spurs started the game with what appeared to be a gift from the football gods in Fernando Torres’ sudden absence due to a groin injury. Samuel Eto’o had to come in on a light warm-up. This initially panned out nicely for Chelsea, as Eto’o nearly earned a penalty on a questionable non-call on Hugo Lloris’ challenge.
From there, though, things got better for Spurs. Tim Sherwood fielded a Starting XI that he had clearly put a lot of thought into, and they dominated play in the first half. The lineup looked something like this
Sherwood expertly identified how Chelsea would come out to try to attack his traditional 4-4-2 and instead played a 4-2-3-1. Partially, he was saving Soldado for a matchup against Benfica, but Sherwood also understood that his side would need to be more patient in both attack and defense if they wanted to earn at least a draw. To that end, he formed two key defensive pairings to deal with the greatest threats on the wing, Eden Hazard and André Schürrle.
The left side of the defense paired Jan Vertonghen, in the absence of Danny Rose, and Gylfi Sigurðsson, while the right side paired Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker. A couple players played out of their natural position in this case. Jan Vertonghen was brought out wide and paired with the 6’1″ Sigurðsson on the left side to try to match up against the 6’0″ André Schürrle. Kyle Walker moved from the fullback position to a right attacker and paired up with the younger and more inexperienced defender Kyle Naughton to contain Eden Hazard.
Seeing this, Mourinho opted to switch Schürrle and Hazard early in the game. But Walker and Naughton frustrated Schürrle with their speed and physical play, forcing him to defer to the right side of Chelsea’s attack where Hazard was also having trouble with the uncharacteristically tall left flank of Spurs.
The play of Aaron Lennon also begs for analysis. Sherwood played him as a number 10, probably for the first time in Lennon’s career. The matchup here would be against Nemanja Matić, who dwarfs the 5’7″ Lennon at 6’4.” Strangely enough, this worked well for Spurs in the early going. Matić had some issues keeping up with Lennon and Lennon’s freedom as an attacking midfielder allowed him to move around the pitch to create opportunities.
After some decent chances by Nabil Bentaleb and company, Spurs headed to the locker room in good spirits. Using a carefully devised game plan, they had stagnated a tremendous Chelsea side. Mourinho anticipated a rigid formation and a team that still did not communicate well enough to strategize against other teams. Instead, he found a team whose size and movement frustrated his players, and so Chelsea “lost” the first half.
Whatever Mourinho said in the locker room, however, stemmed the tide of battle enormously in Chelsea’s favor. Oscar came on for Lampard in the 45-minute and Chelsea started to bring numbers forward earlier in their attack. Sherwood chose not to counter this development, and this would likely be the start of Spurs’ undoing.
Their higher press forced Spurs to be more aggressive on defense. When they started chasing, they fell into card trouble. Kyle Naughton and Sandro were shown back-to-back yellows by the referee.
But the tipping point was not the card trouble. In the 55th minute Jan Vertonghen had a catastrophic error that led directly to a Samuel Eto’o goal. Vertonghen slipped while playing the ball, like in a divot that had formed on a pitch that produced many an irregularity. The ball fell straight to Chelsea’s foot and Et’o used his “old man strength” to slot one home under the arm of Lloris as Lloris and Dawson attempted to converge on the Eto’o.
But the 15 minutes from hell did not end there.
In the 59th minute, Kaboul was shown red in the penalty area and Hazard beat Lloris easily, undoing all the hard work from Spurs. Despite being the better team for 50 minutes, there was no way Spurs could get back in the game.
At this point, things were over and the players started to sit back. Michael Dawson picked up an injury, a mistake by Sandro led to a goal by Ba in the 87th minute, and Ba scored again in the 89th minute to pour an entire can of Morton’s brand kosher salt into the wound.
The game turned out to be a total nightmare for Spurs. While all is not lost because of a single game against the league leaders, this game exposed Spurs as not being such a happy family of winners since Tim Sherwood took the reigns.
There is still work to be done and it will be telling to see how Spurs react to such a defeat.