Daylight opens again between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, thanks largely to a chasm between their ideas on the pitch.
Frank Lampard’s side were rewarded for actually trying to play football, and some brave decisions, to beat Spurs 2-1 and go four points clear in fourth.
Jose Mourinho’s negative approach actually ended up being ideal for Chelsea, and the perfect antidote in order to finally get their second league win in 2020.
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That was how off-form Lampard’s team had been. That is why there should be bigger questions about Mourinho’s attitude, and how he’s been speaking all week.
From all the build-up and battened-down set-up, you would have thought Chelsea were one of the great attacking forces of the 21st century… rather than a relatively young and off-form side under a young manager who had four wingers out injured, their top scorer unfit on the bench, few goals from midfield and many of their own defensive issues.
Spurs didn’t exploit any of this. As against RB Leipzig, they just weren’t set up to. The manager was far too fixated on their own weaknesses, their own absences. He thereby didn’t so much set up to play football, but some kind of military cosplay: drilled defensive organisation and only really attempting to attack from the siege weapons of set-pieces.
We’ve seen it all before, and it’s getting easier to work out. Chelsea did so with impressive enthusiasm, as did Liverpool and Leipzig. And that’s where the big question is.
Mourinho may bleat on about how this is all he can do, and paint an attempt at any other kind of football as some kind of suicidal madness, but this is the fourth time he’s attempted this set-up in the last month.
He’s lost three of those games, and convincingly so, only winning one through the luck of Manchester City’s profligacy.
As such, even allowing for injuries, it doesn’t seem to really be working. Maybe try something else? Something a bit more inventive, or different? Lampard did.
The Chelsea manager went against his own recent stridency and picked Olivier Giroud. Just as with Chelsea’s braver football, he was rewarded.
Giroud – aside from scoring and along with other returning players like Ross Barkley, Mason Mount and fellow scorer Marcos Alonso – was one of the best players on the pitch.
One of Spurs’ genuine attacking thoroughbreds in Giovani Lo Celso, meanwhile, was reduced to dreadful tackles. That was the mentality. It wasn’t to create.
Lo Celso was twice lucky not to get sent off. Stockley Park later admitted as much. Spurs were lucky the scoreline wasn’t much worse.
Chelsea, as has generally been the case of late, weren’t even that brilliant. They were often nervous, patchy, and only occasionally in any kind of flow.
That nervousness was particularly visible in the last few minutes after Antonio Rudiger’s own goal, raising questions as to why Spurs didn’t actually try to attack more earlier.
That contrasting flow was most exciting in the 18th minute, with what can only be denied as a relentless siege. They eventually just forced the ball over the line by sheer force of will.
But within that will lies a deeper question about what everyone is actually trying to do. It is also where there has become an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about approaches like Mourinho’s.
Were Chelsea so intensely driving forward because of their inherent idea… or because it was an inevitable consequence of Spurs inviting them on? That is what tends to happen when you’re so withdrawn.
And in the modern game, far removed from the more controlled and less frenetic football of 2004-10, you also tend to concede much more.
So it was here, as Hugo Lloris and the post kept Chelsea out within a matter of seconds, before Giroud fired in.
That was also Mourinho’s entire gameplan exploded. And that’s the entire problem with that approach. If you’re solely set up to contain and not concede, you don’t have anything when you go behind.
And Spurs really did offer nothing. There was the occasional hopeful punt, the odd set-piece, but these didn’t exactly amount to any kind of constructive play. Spurs just couldn’t put that together.
The greater problem with this is that it’s not just an issue of tactics. It’s an issue of mentality.
If you’ve spent the entire week in training concentrating on defence, and the entire week in the media literally your team are incapable of doing much else – “we did all we could do” – it should be no surprise that a wider negativity starts to afflict the play. This is the atmosphere Mourinho creates.
It is as if he just decides that he can’t put out his best possible team so has to give in to full negativity. It stood out all the more against the positivity of Chelsea, the vibrancy. This is ultimately why there’s a different vibe around Lampard than many other managers.
Mourinho doesn’t seem to be quite creating the same defensive rigour, either. Despite having five defenders on the pitch, Alonso still had the space of the entire left-hand side to run into to fire in a brilliant clincher.
It was a goal of glorious fluidity, that just cut right through the trudge of Spurs. It cut right through Mourinho’s moribund approach. It has cut open a crucial gap in the table.
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