It may not have been as humiliating as the 4-0 drubbing last time these sides clashed, but Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge was still a fourth defeat in five matches in the league for the Blues.
Tottenham, on the other hand, were on a roll with Jose Mourinho at the helm, with a run of four league wins out of the last five matches and coming within a victory of snaffling fourth place barely a month after taking over from Mauricio Pochettino.
However, it was not to be, as Frank Lampard’s crisis-ridden Chelsea conjured their best performance of the season thus far, eclipsing even the victory at the Amsterdam Arena against Ajax. This was a considered, disciplined and tactical performance from the visitors in which Lampard has once again entrusted a back three to give him the solid foundations for a performance of greater substance and conviction.
No matter how much Jose Mourinho wanted to pigeonhole Lampard’s three-man defence as a copycat of Antonio Conte’s winning formula as if it were some cheat code in a video game, it was a futile attempt at playing down the tactical ingenuity on show in a London derby.
This was not Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3, nor was it his 3-5-2 when Eden Hazard had to play up front with a partner. This was Frank Lampard’s own rendition, a 3-4-2-1 system that has brought joy before this season, most notably at Wolves, and should not be underestimated as a mere stroke of luck. This was not a smash-and-grab attempt at nicking a result, with 13 attempts to five and 56 per cent of the ball; Chelsea dominated the first half and asserted their tactical and numerical advantage in the second half as Tottenham were insipid for most of the night.
Mourinho too was uninspiring in his team selection, with Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko’s pairing in midfield profoundly illustrating his cautious approach to the game. Not starting with Christian Eriksen was a costly mistake as Chelsea bossed the ball and comfortably played around the Spurs press with purpose and menace, especially when either of Willian or Mason Mount could be released as inside forwards in support of Tammy Abraham.
Recent defeats had indicated sterility and toothlessness in Chelsea’s dominance in possession, but here there was no doubting the game plan and execution.
Lampard would have known about the threat of Dele Alli not only due to his recent upturn in form but also for his historical threat in past fixtures as well as the fact his positioning and runs as an auxiliary striker would be easily combated with a spare man in a back three when containing both Alli and Harry Kane.
Both were virtually non-existent in the game as the no-nonsense approach of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Fikayo Tomori proved too robust and regimented.
Marcos Alonso’s inclusion back into the side at his most natural left wingback position worked a treat, as it did for Cesar Azpilicueta on the right as they both enjoyed ample space to operate in possession as well as nullifying the threat of Son Heung Min and Lucas Moura. Jose Mourinho had no response to the shrewdness of Lampard’s tactical approach, as there was no change in shape, just personnel.
Granted, after Son’s dismissal it became almost impossible to influence the game at 2-0 down, but the general feeling was that Tottenham were either off the pace due to the lack of mobility in central midfield or Chelsea were just too good.
As tempting as it is to label this performance from Lampard as Lampard doing a ‘Mourinho on Mourinho’, it would do a disservice in describing Chelsea’s overall command of the game. There was no desire to absorb pressure and concede needless chances relying on counterattacks, as Mourinho has been so effective at doing throughout his career in big games. Conversely, this was a controlled and assertive performance from Chelsea in which they took the fight to Tottenham and imposed their gameplan on Spurs and refused to give an inch.
This in turn prevented Spurs from settling into any kind of rhythm. This was arguably their worst performance this season, right up there with their shellacking to Bayern Munich and humbling against Brighton. Lampard outwitted Mourinho tactically, and it’s time people start to respect Lampard’s tactical capability, as it’s not just his immaculate man-management that has got Chelsea to where they are this season.
However, this milestone of capturing a top-six scalp should not represent only short-term progress. It’s also a chance to look at this result and realise the vast potential that exists and consider supporting its development with January reinforcements.
Chelsea have conceded 25 goals in the league so far, which is the tenth best or tenth worst defence in the league depending on how you want to see it. They are on course to concede more than 50 goals for the first time since the 2015-16 season, when they finished tenth in easily the most harrowing season under Roman Abramovich’s ownership. Having traditionally boasted one of the league’s best defences, a very straightforward solution to have Chelsea challenging for the title again would be to address the defence, as it has been shambolic at times this season.
The recent defeat to Everton illustrated the reality that perhaps the likes of Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen may just not be good enough for the level of central defender that Chelsea needs to compete with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City. Similar to how Virgil van Dijk transformed Liverpool into contenders almost overnight, Chelsea need to find a centre half of similar pedigree to truly take the next step.
There is no shame in producing players such as Andreas Christensen from the academy and not having them have a long-term senior career. He is a solid Premier League player and established Danish international who will go on to have a decent career as a professional, and Chelsea can still profit handsomely to remain competitive economically. Therefore there needs to be an acceptance that not every academy graduate is going to be of world-class calibre, but the pursuit of world-class talent is a necessity to compete in the upper echelons.
As impressive as Marcos Alonso was against Tottenham, it was largely facilitated by a conducive system playing to the Spaniard’s strengths. Alonso and Emerson have largely been disappointing this season, and unless Lampard makes a permanent switch to a back three, fullbacks are not a commodity you can just keep hold of and rotate like midfielders and attackers. A decision needs to be made on their futures.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s occasional moves to the left to bring in the impressive Reece James on the right as Lampard has done throughout games, most notably in the 4-4 draw with Ajax at home, is papering over cracks at left back and nullifies the potential attacking threat on one side, as Azpilicueta is even less of an attacking threat on the left. You only have to look at the quality of Liverpool and Manchester City’s fullbacks to see how critical the modern full back is to the overall success a team.
With the kind of war chest Chelsea would have accumulated with the sale of Eden Hazard and the budget allocated to surely reward Lampard’s excellent start to the season Chelsea should have the required funds to chase their No. 1 prospects. They may not have the buying power they once had pre-Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, but it is imperative that they take a no-nonsense approach upon their return to the transfer window.
The continuation of a what seems like a scattergun transfer strategy – which has lead to some peculiar signings in recent years such as Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley and Davide Zappacosta as well club legends such as John Terry, Gary Cahill and Eden Hazard depart – needs to change if Chelsea are to kick on in an ever-evolving Premier League landscape.
For starters, the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and David Alaba look like players who are tailor-made for the Premier League and would transform Chelsea instantly into a more experienced and rounded team that complements the emerging talent.
It’s time for the Stamford Bridge hierarchy to be bold and attack the January window with strong conviction and strategy now they have someone in the dugout who may just have what it takes to deliver long-term stability.