It’s Tottenham v Chelsea. It’s a Big Six game. Will it end 0-0? That’s just one of the questions…
1) Is there any hope of avoiding another 0-0?
There have been five 0-0s across 17 ‘Big Six’ matches so far this season. Ten of them have ended with just one team on the scoresheet. Take out Tottenham’s anomalous 6-1 win at Manchester United in October and there have been 1.44 goals per game. In such a compressed league table, and with the players exhausted, managers are deciding to take a draw and stay in the conversation rather than risk losing a six-pointer.
There’s a good chance this will be another 0-0. Thomas Tuchel’s first significant impact at Chelsea has been to implement greater structure when in possession, with players moving far less erratically out of their designated zone. He has achieved this by increasing the number of low tempo short passes Chelsea play; less urgency means they can shuffle rigidly back and forth. Along with ensuring Chelsea always have five plays sat behind the ball, this has patched up the defensive transition issues under Frank Lampard.
Burnley and Wolves are hardly the sternest tests, of course, but then neither are Tottenham Hotspur. We all know how Jose Mourinho approaches games like these, which points to a similar pattern to Tuchel’s debut against Wolves. Chelsea hogging the ball, Spurs diligently defending, and nothing really happening.
2) Will Mourinho ditch the 3-4-3?
Our best hope of action is if Mourinho gets rid of the 3-4-3 formation used in each of Tottenham’s last three Premier League games. The system does not work. Since Harry Kane’s injury they have lost both games in a formation that looks far too defensive and too light on numbers in central midfield to progress the ball with any fluency.
Given Tottenham naturally look sluggish, overly-reliant on Kane and Heung-Min Son, and prone to passivity off the ball, a five-man defence and two-man midfield inevitably exacerbates existing problems.
Unfortunately, it will probably stay for one more game. It is often wise, and certainly fashionable, to mirror the opponent’s formation if they regularly play with five at the back – hence Spurs’ initial switch to a 3-4-3 for the game at Sheffield United. Mourinho will want wing-backs to get tight to Chelsea’s wing-backs, and three centre-backs to control Chelsea’s narrow forwards.
Assuming Tottenham’s inside forwards diligently drop back to help their central midfielders, this will cause further constipation.
3) How can Tuchel build on a positive start?
The challenge for Tuchel, then, is to find a way to spring a surprise. He has enjoyed a decent start to life at Chelsea and fans will be pleased with performances so far: the wing-backs are settling well (see below), Matteo Kovacic and Jorginho are neatly controlling midfield, and Thiago Silva is shepherding the back three with aplomb. However, so far the forwards haven’t quite clicked into gear.
Olivier Giroud is likely to return to the starting line-up, partly to deal with the physicality of Mourinho’s defence and partly because his excellent one-touch link-up play makes him the ideal forward to be flanked by two playmakers. Behind him, Hakim Ziyech and Mason Mount should get the nod as Ziyech is the best natural creator in the squad while Mount is willing to make runs in behind.
Tuchel needs to overcome the issue of everything being played in front of the opposition defence, and while with time that is what Kai Havertz and Timo Werner ought to be doing, neither player can do so against a deep-lying defence like Tottenham’s. The intricate combinations and more subtle movements of Ziyech and Mount are better suited to this game.
4) Can Hudson-Odoi and Alonso take advantage of Spurs’ weakness on the flanks?
Then again, the configuration of Tuchel’s front line is unlikely to be the source of goals anyway. If we are to avoid a 0-0 then Callum Hudson-Odoi and Marcus Alonso, the two standout players from Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Burnley, will probably be the ones making headlines.
The basic idea of Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 is to suck the opposition inwards, creating a congested midfield as the inside forwards combine with the central midfielders in a narrow square. From here, space opens up on the flanks for the wing-backs – unseen or unmarked – to maraud forward and cause trouble. Hudson-Odoi was repeatedly the man in space against Wolves and Burnley, while Alonso’s goal speaks for itself.
Even if Tottenham line up in a 3-4-3 they are vulnerable here. Ben Davies was at fault for Brighton’s winner, scored with simple football down the right flank, while Liverpool’s first two goals came down the left wing as Serge Aurier and Joe Rodon failed to cope with Sadio Mane’s runs.
5) Can Mourinho find a way for Ndombele to replace Kane?
Tottenham look hopeless without Harry Kane fulfilling all the duties of a number 9 and a number 10. Clearly, the biggest challenge facing Mourinho over the next fortnight is finding a way to replace Kane, and in the process reconnect the counter-attacking lines between the Spurs defence and Heung-Min Son.
Tanguy Ndombele is the answer, and yet in a 3-4-3 formation he is essentially played out of position, with too many defensive duties. Worse still, Mourinho’s risk-averse and direct style of football means Ndombele is rarely given the ball under pressure, which is when he most thrives, wriggling clear of the opposition press to suddenly open up the pitch and launch a counter-attack.
Getting the best out of Ndombele would require a pretty major tactical change from Mourinho. We won’t get it. It’s just another reason to assume that a tedious 0-0 is on the cards.