At the beginning of the season, Tottenham vs Chelsea was a fixture being earmarked as one to look forward to, even more so than usual, given the personal back story of the two coaches. Aside from the obvious (master v apprentice) cliché employed by BT Sport in their preview of the game, there’s a much more intricate narrative behind the relationship of Mourinho and Villas-Boas. And it’s quite a sad one really. That two such talented and captivating coaches, and former good friends, should be on such inimical terms is a real shame in my opinion. They’ve both got the wit, the fortitude and (most importantly) the squads to enjoy a fantastic rivalry, potentially over the next few seasons. It’d be disappointing for that to be ruined by this undercurrent of bitterness there seems to be at the moment.
Anyway, the story of Chelsea’s season so far meant that little time could be afforded to considering the AVB/Jose, history – a result was needed in a tough away game. And then the match itself provided plenty of other talking points also.
Once again, overall I was disappointed when the Chelsea team sheet was released. Firstly, against arguably the most physical, direct and high-pressing midfield in the Premier League, why were we fielding our most immobile defensive midfield pairing? And why was Ramires starting on the wide right? It’s a defensive selection (one which Jose criticised Rafa of making last week) but with whom was it made in mind? Against the likes of Leighton Baines or Patrice Evra then I’d say fair enough, but why are we playing only two of our six special attacking players to accommodate for Kyle Naughton? Spurs lined up as expected. Andros Townsend has played brilliantly so far this season, but regardless, I was pleased to see him starting over the £30m Erik Lamela.
The game itself was defined into three clear segments. 1 – Where Chelsea weren’t dealing with Spurs’ pressing. 2 – Where Chelsea did deal with Spurs’ pressing and 3 – after Torres’ red card.
The game started evenly but as the first half went on, we began to play more and more narrow and as result became easier to defend against; and they were looking twice as likely to score on the break. Their goal was a wonderfully set up. Eriksen’s first touch to find space away from Lampard was exceptional, before Gylfi Sigurdsson scored against us for the second time in two matches. Tottenham could’ve won the game in the first 45 minutes and we were fortunate they didn’t.
Then the response at half time was perfect. The change might have seemed an obvious one, but still, credit to the manager for making it as early as he did.
The shifting of Ramires back into the middle of pitch made all the difference. Mikel had a dreadful game and was doing very little in terms of winning the ball back – Ramires did that and managed to hold back Dembele and Paulinho almost by himself. Mata was also superb. He passed the ball and spread the play with all the confidence and panache we’re used to seeing, and whilst his defensive movement off the ball perhaps still wasn’t at a level you’d expect Mourinho to be content with, the sight of him getting back and cutting out Spurs counter attacks was extremely promising. Jose says he’ll start on Tuesday against Steaua Bucharest and deservedly so.
One other thought on the game itself, in the second half, I thought we did a good job of exposing how Spurs’ strength (their ability to press back their opponents so well) can also be their weakness when on the back foot. So many times when Chelsea broke we’d end up winning free kicks, which Spurs would make out of fear of Torres or Hazard or Schurrle running into the space in behind. I think it’s more than probable that none of those fouls would’ve been conceded had they been playing just 10 yards deeper; certainly not the one which led to John Terry’s goal.
The major talking at the end of the game was Torres’ red card. I think it’d be harsh for anybody to say that the referee didn’t have a good game overall – I thought he dealt with Fernando and Jan Vertonghen’s petulant scraps quite reasonably, keeping collected when he could’ve justifiably sent off the Spaniard for that stupid scratch on the defender’s face. No one likes to see their own player’s behave like that but it’s worth noticing that if you look back at Torres’ career, he only ever acts so impetuously when he’s in good form/playing well – which he certainly was yesterday. I remember in his peak for Liverpool he used to get away with some awful behaviour on the pitch often without much criticism. Childish conduct aside however, if he’s going to play like this then he has to be first choice centre forward over Samuel Eto’o. Every time.
Then, as if like clockwork after the game, just when everyone was on the verge of discussing and criticising Torres, out came Mourinho to lay into Vertonghen and this culture of deceit and dishonesty that purges the English game he loves so much. Vertonghen certainly was guilty of diving yesterday and arguably should’ve been sent off for his ridiculous denuding foul on Nicklaus Helenius on Tuesday night. I’m a big fan of the Belgian though, I’ve never thought of him as a serial cheater. I thought Jose’s comments were quite harsh in all honesty, but predictably, it was Vertonghen and Mourinho in the morning papers and not Fernando Torres. So job done, I suppose.
There’s still plenty to be concerned about but I believe we can be satisfied about yesterday’s game. A draw at one of the five toughest away grounds is never a bad result. The second half performances of Mata and Torres in particular were also extremely encouraging. Ashley Cole’s been coming in for stick recently as well which I don’t agree with – I thought he played well too.
The thing that should give us most cause for optimism about this season’s prospects is that whilst we’re struggling at the moment, both Manchester clubs are struggling just as badly if not worse – and more importantly they’re struggling with established and experienced squads and systems. Whilst Chelsea’s problems can easily be attributed to the new ideas being implemented and having young players in key positions, there are no obvious reasons why the Manc Clubs should be losing to Cardiff City and West Brom. And while Arsenal look impressive so far, they have some real issues regarding squad depth which could hurt them over the busy November/December period. If Chelsea can just keep on steadily improving whilst maintaining their position near the top, then I have a feeling we could find ourselves in a favourites position come the turn of the new year quite easily.