Tottenham’s hosting of Chelsea this Thursday feels defining for both clubs, even in a year that delights in upending narratives on a weekly basis.
For Jose Mourinho’s men it is an opportunity to right a season in grave danger of going awry after winning just two of their last nine league games and if that has inevitably resulted in a slide down the table, of even more concern is the whispers of crisis that grow in volume with every poor performance. Historically, Mourinho deals terribly with hardship: he doubles down on caution; begins to make strange team selections; throws a player or two to the wolves; and unravels in front of the media and already we have seen the first two of these traits in evidence in recent games.
Defeat against Chelsea might well see a player unfairly blamed and do not be surprised either if the brittle positivity Mourinho has tried to retain throughout this tough period turns to alarming surliness. From there, even in a year that delights in upending narratives, we all know how the story ends.
Chelsea too have encountered strife in 2020/21 only for their part they dealt with it ruthlessly by sacking Frank Lampard and installing Thomas Tuchel who took PSG to a Champions League final back in August. By doing so, five league defeats in eight prior to his appointment no longer constitute baggage but instead can be considered the ‘past’ because his arrival signifies a new dawn at the Bridge. Victory over their London rivals in his third game in charge will be a real statement of intent.
On paper this is a game featuring two teams languishing beyond the top four who have disappointed as much as they have impressed this term. In really, however there is far more to it than that.
It has the distinct feel of two sides at opposing ends of a cycle.
A side transformed
Let’s start with the visitors who are already looking like a team transformed if not sensationally so.
Granted, 180 minutes against Wolves and Burnley is not an awful lot to go off but in a reconfigured 3-4-3, Callum Hudson-Odoi has so far thrived as a progressive wing-back while bringing the experienced duo of Azpilicueta and Alonso back into the fold has paid off handsomely. Overall, the pressing has been sharper. Possession has been more purposeful.
It is likely the German will want to take a good, long look at every facet of his squad over the course of this season but perhaps not here against a side of Tottenham’s calibre. Instead, we can expect a relatively unchanged eleven from last weekend with the possible exception of a fit-again N’Golo Kante dropping into midfield alongside the revived Kovacic.
The Blues are enjoying an overdue adrenaline shot of confidence and are individually desperate to impress their new manager. That doesn’t bode well for Spurs.
Compare and contrast with the situation north of the capital. As mentioned Mourinho tends to make bizarre choices when under intense pressure and his decision to play three at the back away to Brighton on Sunday confounded. With a long-held habit too of mirroring the opposition for the bigger games it is probable he will go with a three again, despite it being a system that clearly doesn’t get the best from his personnel and then there’s his other characteristic when form deserts his side, that of doubling down on caution.
It is too simplistic to state that only one team will be looking to win this contest. It is though in the vicinity of the truth.
Chelsea are a tempting 11/10 to grab all three points
Forwards AWOL and aimless
Both teams have hit peaks and suffered troughs in recent months but if that similarity may now be lessening what continues to unite them are striking issues that need to be resolved quickly.
Tottenham go into this pivotal clash minus their talisman Harry Kane and having won only three times in the 11 games he has previously missed since the start of last season it again brings into focus the charge that Spurs are overly reliant on their incredible hit-man.
In Son Heung-min of course they possess a forward equally as prolific but the Korean will surely miss his partner up front in the games ahead: the pair have combined to score 13 goals this season, equaling a long-standing PL record.
Elsewhere the lack of supplementary goals in the team is notable. Only seven other players have got onto the scoresheet, with ten between them.
Sharing out the goal-scoring duties has certainly not been a problem for Chelsea – Alonso’s fine strike on Sunday lunchtime made him their 15th different scorer this term in the league – and that’s a good job too because for them the concern largely lies with misfiring forwards.
Only Liverpool and Manchester City have taken more shots this season yet the Blues’ leading scorer Tammy Abraham is on a meagre six while in Timo Werner they have a potentially lethal front-man enduring a barren spell of Torres proportions. The £45m poacher has failed to convert a chance now for 790 minutes in the league and it’s damning too that none of Chelsea’s three principal strikers have found the net so far in 2021.
11 of Chelsea’s goals this season have been scored by defenders so the 9/1 for Thiago Silva to score anytime stands out
Chelsea grow stronger, Spurs regress
Chelsea have scored 3+ goals on eight occasions this season. That is one more than Manchester United or Liverpool have managed. That’s two more than Manchester City or Spurs.
At the back meanwhile the addition of Thiago Silva to a stable of centre-backs all capable of brilliance on their day has resulted in nine clean sheets, a tally that doesn’t compute with their league standing. 39.1% of the goals the Blues have conceded have come inside the opening half an hour but if they hold firm past that point they tend to be fine results-wise. Remarkably, they have been breached only twice in the last 25 minutes all season.
The tendency of Tuchel’s new side to concede early in games is made all-the-more significant by their opponents’ habit of starting brightly even if that welcome quality has hopelessly left of them of late. Across the campaign Spurs have scored an astonishing 44.1% of their league haul inside the first thirty minutes.
If we see a reaction from Mourinho’s side to their current woes then Chelsea may wobble from the off. From there though expect the visitors to exert some control.