LOVE. BETRAYAL. HATE. REVENGE. These four main ingredients of a spicy drama seem to be coming together when Chelsea visits Andre Villas-Boas’ Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday. Love (a generous amount) has already been sautéed in high heat; betrayal (coarsely chopped) thrown into the mix; hate (2 cups – of domestic and European standard) brought to a boil and then lowered to a simmer. Now it is time to add revenge (slightly chilled) to finish off this tasty stew of a Premier League fixture.
You may be ready for the off-the-field drama of this fixture (or something to clam your grumbling stomach – sorry!) but just in case you are wondering what might actually take place on the field, here’s my scout notes from Spurs’ historic victory at Old Trafford.
Both Manchester United and Tottenham lined up in 4-2-3-1 formation. United had van Persie up front, Giggs and Nani on the flanks, Kagawa in the hole, and Scholes and Carrick at the center of midfield; and they kept the 4-2-3-1 shape for the majority of the game.
Spurs, on the other hand, had more variation within the system. In Defoe, they had a mobile forward who likes to drift wide or drop deep. Both Bale and Lennon hugged the touchline to provide width, but they were not shy about coming into the center when given the opportunity. In attacking mode, Dempsey pushed forward like a second striker, but he dropped back into midfield when defending. Of the two central midfielders, Sandro did the defensive work of marking United’s “No. 10” (Kagawa in the first half and Rooney after the break) while Dembele often pushed forward. Depending on the movement of Dempsey and Dembele, Tottenham’s shape shifts between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.
Spurs came out very strong in the first half and were excellent going forward. They pressed aggressively and were direct – taking on defenders with no fear – when they had the ball. Mainly due to a lackluster United attack, Spurs didn’t have to do much defending. This changed after the break. United made attacking changes and Spurs defended deep with a 4-5-1 for the majority of the second half.
|Picture 1. Spurs' attack and Defoe's movement|
At their best attacking moments, Tottenham stretched the field horizontally with their wingers staying wide. Dempsey would push high up against one of the central defender while Defoe moved around to take the other center-half out of position. This was exactly how they scored their first goal (frame 1 of Picture 1). As Bale and Vertonghen played a little one-two to beat Nani on the left wing, Defoe dragged Rio Ferdinand to the left, opening a huge gap in United’s defense for Vertonghen to run into.
In this kind of scenario, Chelsea could either tightly mark Defoe, as Ferdinand did, or let him roam around while the center-half holds his position – man-marking vs zonal. If the first approach is employed, the responsibility will be on the individual players: the wide players (Hazard/Mata/Oscar), for example, can’t get beaten as easily as Nani did. With zonal defending, the defensive shape will be intact, but Defoe can then overload and be the extra man in the areas where he decides to move. Both approaches come with their advantages and risks.
Defoe’s movement was also the key to their second goal (frame 2 of Picture 1), but this time it was quick counter-attack rather than a buildup play. Dembele picked up the loose ball from a Sandro tackle in Spurs half and dribbled forward before releasing Bale who had made a diagonal run to the center. Defoe’s movement across to the left pulled Johnny Evans along with him while leaving Ferdinand 1v1 against Gareth “Roadrunner” Bale. Spurs’ main outlets in counter-attacks are their speedy wingers and Chelsea must come up with an answer.
In defensive mode, Chelsea’s wide attackers will have to drop back alongside their central midfielders, but even that will not be enough against the threat of lightening fast counter-attacks. There will be times when Chelsea fullbacks are exposed to the direct and quick Spurs wingers. One preventative measure will be to keep possession as long as possible and not give away the ball cheaply. A curative measure, on the other hand, will be to have a pacey and energetic central midfielder like Ramires to cover the fullbacks and the attacking wingers (the Brazilian will also be useful in the midfield battle, which we will discuss later). A combination of these two methods can lessen the potential damages Spurs can cause with their wide players.
|Chart 1. The difference between United's attack in the 1st and the 2nd half|
United couldn’t break down Spurs’ defense in the first half because their attack was too predictable. Giggs and Nani stayed wide and were easily defended by Spurs’ fullbacks. While van Persie was sandwiched between Gallas and Caulker, Kagawa was closely tracked by Sandro. Tottenham simply sat back with a compact 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 and soaked in United’s attack. There was little disruption to Spurs’ defensive shape.
After the break, Rooney came on for Giggs and the nature of United’s attack changed drastically. Rooney took the “No. 10” role behind van Persie, pushing Kagawa out to the left side. The England striker was again marked by Sandro, but his willingness to move across the attacking third made him a difficult target to mark. Van Persie started to drop a bit deeper to get involved in the buildup play while Kagawa constantly cut in from the left and ran into the box. These elements came together in the two goals they scored in the second half.
For the first goal, van Persie dropped deep to collect the ball while Rooney, who was originally marked by Sandro in the center, rushed across to the right wing. Nani ran into the box to finish Rooney's cross from the right. Basically, Nani and Rooney switched positions in this attack and it bent Spurs' defense out of shape. For the second goal, van Persie again created from a deeper position while Kagawa drifted into the box before turning neatly and finding the net.
This suggests that Chelsea can attack effectively with all three of their play-makers -- Hazard, Oscar and Mata -- weaving in and out behind Torres. It has worked better against weaker opposition, but this proactive approach can pin Tottenham back and cause serious problems to their defense. On the flip side, it will also require Chelsea fullbacks to push on and provide width, leaving them more vulnerable for Spurs' counter down the flanks. Risk and reward hang in the balance.
|Chart 2. Dembele's dribbles and Sandro's tackles|
Two very different players occupy Tottenham's central midfield. In this game, Dembele was the top dribbler of the two teams and Sandro was the top tackler. These statistics paint a pretty neat picture what they offer to the team. Sandro sat deeper and marked the opposition's play-maker. He broke up the play, won the ball and started counter-attacks (e.g. Bale's goal came after Sandro won a tackle near the Tottenham box). You can expect Sandro to give a tough time to any Chelsea play-maker that ventures into his zone, but as mentioned above, he will have a more difficult time against a fluid attacking trio behind the main striker.
While traditional central midfield pairings are made up of a ball winner (which Sandro is) and a passer, Dembele is more of a dribbler. He is strong and dynamic and loves to make driving run forward from midfield (a la Yaya Toure). Going back to the Bale goal, after picking up the loose ball from Sandro's tackle, Dembele, instead of finding Defoe with a long pass like a Modric would have, dribbled past Scholes before slipping the pass to Bale. The perfect antidote for a case of Dembele dribble, in my opinion, is a strong dose of Ramires tackle. The Brazilian's pace, stamina and energy in midfield might be able to dampen Dembele's spark.
DRAMA OFF THE PITCH aside, this is going to be a tasty treat for footballing reasons. Both teams are likely to be proactive and take the game to the other. The trick/task for di Matteo and Chelsea is to find a right balance of attacking flair and defensive solidarity in order to come out of this game as the victor.