Outlandish officiating overshadows the outcome
There were all sorts of unfortunate distractions…squirrel!…surrounding the 2 all draw against Tottenham at the Bridge, but there was actually some football played between those distractions. Happily, we can acknowledge that the free-flowing and wonderful football was largely played by Chelsea. Although we came out a bit slow in the opening phases of the game, we very much grew into a dominant role and had almost 70% of the possession and a 1-nil lead at halftime. Somehow,
contrivingly through the will of the PGMOL through inadequate use of VAR, we ended up dropping two attainable points.
Essentially both sides lined up in a variation of a 3-4-3, which was hardly surprising. Tuchel, however, seemingly did not provide the same instructions as he typically does for his assignments in that system. The fluidity in movement across our front ‘three’ was restricted to Kai Havertz and Raheem Sterling — their heat maps compared to Mason Mount’s are significantly more encompassing of the pitch, while Mount’s is confined to a concentric area. This is surely why almost all media outlets have slid Mount into the left channel of a midfield three, with Marc Cucurella getting his first start beside him at left wing-back.
Additionally, with Reece James slotting into our back three but adventuring forward as he is wont to do, there were quite a few times where Thiago Silva and Kalidou Koulibaly were essentially playing as a back two with a midfield six in front of them. In fact James had a quite specific role of man-marking Son Heung-min incessantly while we were out of possession all while given much more liberty in venturing forward than Koulibaly on the opposite side, and our defense would shift right to cover the vacant space on the numerous occasions James got up the pitch.
Once again N’Golo Kanté was instrumental, and indeed less so defensively than he has been in previous seasons — he’s now carrying that offensive burden that has been challenged to him by many previous managers. Tuchel seems to be finally extracting that facet of his game out a bit more successfully than his predecessors, as in just our first two games, many of our offensive movements have been either started or facilitated by his progressive carries and passes.
The overemphasis on midfield’s play, coordination, and their forward contribution seems to be the main agendum in Tuchel’s 3-4-3. As it has become increasingly obvious, the entire system is predicated on both advancing through the wings but also garnering goals and assists from not just those wing-backs but from all players on the pitch — midfield and defense included. This is a role that I am sure many of us would like to see a certain Conor Gallagher fulfilling.
That expectation of play also means the signing of Cucurella makes perfect sense — as a La Masia product and a punctual and progressive passer of the ball, he will fit gloriously into either a wingback role or as a part of a our back three while happily pushing forward up the pitch. Ironically, that left side also happens to be one of our highest areas of concern defensively, as the opposition touches in the left side of our own middle third and middle third half space are generally areas where our opposition has more touches than we do.
And while his passing was fantastic and even nearly twice the total of his counterpart on our right in Ruben Loftus-Cheek, we ought to note that Loftus-Cheek also had nearly twice as many progressive passes than Cucurella and did so with an astonishing 100% accuracy, including those considered as “long” progressive passes (30 yards+).
But the graphic above also shows the glaring issue we all know by now, and that is that our presence in the opposition box has been downright pitiful. Our attacking contributions from forward players is unacceptable. While even being cognisant of the fact that wingers and wingbacks are clearly the focus of our offensive thrust (notice the grey areas above), there needs to be more output from our forwards. In fact, despite having three attackers (Sterling, Havertz, and Pulisic) in the top 60 attacking contributors in the Premier League so far this season, there are exactly zero goals and only one assist shared between them.
And so we continue to progress well down the flanks, and yet delivery and runners into the box (you know, where the goal is) are not only lacking, but essentially absent. Our style of play seems too strikingly…pun intended…similar to chess — we are assembling our pieces deliberately into threatening positions to secure a victory, but those movements must be both highly coordinated and anticipated. Without a direct threat to our opposition’s goal and the simple conundrum that advancing into attack leaves potential defensive gaps, the balance between our our dominant midfield and impotent striking three needs to be symbiotic.
As the signing of Cucurella made perfect sense, so did that of Raheem Sterling. He is decisive and operates with the one main objective — to get into the opponent’s box and threaten a goal or draw a penalty. Whether or not he himself is scoring them matters not, his functionality in performing to that expectation is resolute. His drive has led him to 76 carries into the opponents’ half so far this season and 13 progressive carries (either into their penalty area or a distance of more than five yards in their half), which is a fantastic contribution to a team that has a dearth of presence in the opposition box combined with a disjointed attack. Here is one scenario from Sunday that demonstrates that perfectly.
In the 17th minute, after a poor giveaway, Koulibaly reads the play exceptionally well and converges on Pierre-Emile Højbjerg to win the ball back. The ball finds its way unsurprisingly to Kanté through Mount and Havertz, and the midfielder progresses near the halfway line to find Loftus-Cheek advancing in space on his flank. So far, all seems to be positive and direct.
Loftus-Cheek stops and carries the ball inside, despite adequate numbers getting forward. Spurs retreat to their goal, Loftus-Cheek fails to see the acres of space which Cucurella has occupied on the opposite flank, and so he turns back up that same wing and passes to Havertz, all while allowing their defence to set itself up again. The cycle of rote passing ensued thereafter.
It must be said that there were periods where the urgency with which we moved the ball increased and the play looked great. However the regularity of those sequences was simply too few. This lack of intent to take the ball forward and into threatening areas being deferred to as a second option after prioritising slower and deliberate patterned play is something that has become a bit tiresome. The value in it can be clear, taking a look below at Manchester City’s ability to do it exceedingly well all while already sitting on six goals (and conceding zero), and only one of those goals did not come from open play.
However one thing that our excessive possession in Tottenham’s final third did yield were set pieces — specifically, corners. While the set pieces against Everton left us all wondering what in the world Anthony Barry was doing, the outswinging corners against a team essentially packed into their own six yard box was a fantastic move. The frequency with which we earned corners and the horrendous marking system by Spurs meant that we would soon find our breakthrough. Enter, Kalidou Koulibaly, who had more shots in the first half (three) than the entire Spurs squad (two), with a beautiful volleyed goal.
And hey, another assist from Cucurella, too!
Thereafter, Chelsea’s dominance on the ball thoroughly frustrated Tottenham. Without any real time in possession, frustration and tactical fouling set in, albeit without any real punishment, as Chelsea laughingly ended with the only three players with cards on the day. Tuchel lamented as such in the post-game presser, but it matters not ex ipso facto.
The most excellent David Pasztor already did a comprehensive article about the hugely influential (in)decisions that the officiating crew had on the day. However, one thing that I’d be remiss to neglect is Tottenham’s first equalising goal, ending a period of 711 minutes since any Tottenham player had scored against Chelsea. In a nearly identical situation last season, Azpilicueta was adjudged to have fouled Kyle Walker-Peters a full minute prior to our goal against Southampton. VAR went back, reviewed the play, and disallowed our goal, despite it being in a completely different sequence of play. The inconsistencies within league officiating are infuriating.
Mike Dean may have slaughtered chickens in his past, but he was letting these cockerels get away with whatever they’d like on the day.
It was nice to see Reece James back on the scoreboard, and Armando Broja and Conor Gallagher get some cameo appearances again, but the way the game ended will always leave a sour taste in the mouth. It isn’t often that the first two red cards of the season are given to two managers on the touchline.
A former Chelsea manager has never won a Premier League game against the Blues at Stamford Bridge.
But what we can say happily as we look forward to the remainder of the season, is that our record versus Tottenham is still impeccable with only four league losses in the last 12 years.
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