London rivals Tottenham and Chelsea took part in their first game of 2017 as the Blues looked to extend their Premier League winning streak to 14 matches.
Standing in their way were a Tottenham side who had scored eight in their previous two games thanks to 4-1 victories at both Southampton and Watford.
In the corresponding fixture, Antonio Conte’s men came out on top in a 2-1 win despite Pochettino’s players taking the lead and putting in a particularly dominant first-half performance at Stamford Bridge.
With Liverpool dropping points at Sunderland two-days earlier, Chelsea had the chance to extend their lead at the top to eight points. But Spurs’ win saw them climb to third and ensure that only 10-points separate first from sixth.
Compared to the reverse tie in late November, Chelsea – like they have been for the vast majority of this impressive run – were unchanged, while Tottenham had two changes which made a big difference to their formation at White Hart Lane.
Opting to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea’s 3-4-3, Pochettino went with a 3-4-2-1. This essentially stifled their opponents in an attacking sense with only Eden Hazard profiting from one of Conte’s well-rehearsed counter-attacks. Unfortunately for the travelling fans, the Belgian playmaker was unable to direct his left-foot shot on goal having broken the offside trap early on.
Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose were always going to be missed by Tottenham at the Bridge and their presence this time around allowed the formation adjustment. With Rose and Kyle Walker offering great pace and width from the wing-back positions, Alderweireld was able to marshal the defence with Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen either side. This wasn’t an option for Pochettino last year as even back-up left-back, Ben Davies, was absent.
While Conte and Chelsea have revived the 3-4-3/ 3-4-2-1 formation, Pochettino and Tottenham are arguably the league’s best equipped team to carry it out.
The back three they had during this match has a better and more natural balance than Chelsea’s, which includes Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Spaniard Azpilicueta is a fine defender but naturally a full-back, while Cahill isn’t left-footed.
For Spurs, the two defenders either side of the central player have experience playing full-back but are predominantly central players. This leads to a more compact shape when out of possession but comfortable to widen the field of play when having the ball. This then encourages the wing-backs (Rose and Walker) to push higher up the pitch in support of the front three.
With wing-backs, it is often a case of who can pin the other back. Too defensive leads to the team lacking width and instead forming a flat five.
Wanyama v Kante
In the middle of the pitch, it became a two v two as Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele battled it out against N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
Wanyama, the summer signing from Southampton, was a powerful force against the highly-rated Kante. The Kenyan recovered more than twice as many balls as his French counterpart (nine to four), had a higher passing percentage (84.6% to 76.7%), made more tackles (5/6 to 4/7) and suffered more fouls (two to zero), while managing more interceptions (two to one), blocks (one to zero) and clearances (three to one).
Both of Tottenham’s goals were scored by the same player (Dele Alli), provided by the same crosser (Christian Eriksen) who received the pass from the same player (Walker) from the same side (right).
For the first goal, Eriksen dropped off as Walker sucked in three Chelsea players (Alonso, Matic and Cahill) before cutting the ball back to the Dane. The latter two plus Kante couldn’t get out to Eriksen quick enough as Alli ghosted in between Moses and Azpilicueta to head home.
The space exploited by Alli was a result of Cahill pushing out on the left which led to Luiz and Azpilicueta moving across. But with Moses slightly too far forwards, there was a gap which allowed Alli to head home unchallenged on the break of half-time.
For Tottenham’s and Alli’s second, Alonso over commits on Walker who again cuts the ball back to Eriksen. Cahill then committed himself to a block as the England international tried to make up ground on Eriksen and avoid a repeat of the opener. But this time, Tottenham’s playmaker – whose return to form was triggered by a goal scoring appearance in the reverse fixture – dummied the cross before producing an even better ball than his first to leave Alli with a close-range header. Courtois should have made himself bigger but that probably wouldn’t have prevented Alli from getting his third brace on the bounce.
Comparison of Stats
The two graphics reveal that in both fixtures between these sides this season, the away team has had more possession and shots. The home side, meanwhile, had fewer passes and corners yet more tackles.
Both matches also featured goals in the final minute of the first-half.
Most notable, however, is the lack of shots on target during the most recent encounter with Tottenham showing a particularly ruthless streak while limiting Chelsea to few clear opportunities.
Pochettino matched Conte with his formation as his players outshone their opponents. Aside from bringing the top six closer together, this match could conceivably provide the blueprint not for how to beat the Blues but for how Spurs can set-up in future matches, particularly against the sides around them.
Chelsea will be disappointed with the nature of the goals and the inevitable end of their run. But Conte will be further encouraged to find players either in this transfer window or the next that suit this system slightly better, particularly with a lack of wing-back options beyond Alonso and Moses.
The combination of balance, application and conversion saw Tottenham claim a victory that might propel them to serious title contenders for a second consecutive season.
EPL Results (Gameweek 20):
Middlesbrough 0-0 Leicester
Everton 3-0 Southampton
Man City 2-1 Burnley
Sunderland 2-2 Liverpool
West Brom 3-1 Hull
West Ham 0-2 Man Utd
Bournemouth 3-3 Arsenal
Crystal Palace 1-2 Swansea
Stoke 2-0 Watford
Tottenham 2-0 Chelsea