Tottenham Hotspur vs Chelsea represents the headline act in the Premier League this weekend.
Over the last few seasons, this fixture has become the most significant and most bad-tempered London derby in the top flight, a consequence of last season’s title race and the infamous Battle of Stamford Bridge the campaign prior.
Following a shock 3-2 defeat to Burnley in west London last weekend, Tottenham undoubtedly enter this fixture with the upper hand.
In order to secure victory over the reigning Premier League champions, however, Mauricio Pochettino must find answers to these four key questions…
Kyle Walker-Peters’ dominant debut display, stepping into the shoes of his £50million namesake, was the biggest success story of Tottenham’s trip to Newcastle last Sunday.
In fact, the 20-year-old claimed the Man of the Match award for an imperious performance that saw him contribute both defensively and offensively, finishing up with the most tackles of any Spurs player.
But whether such a young and inexperienced player can be expected to continue that form against a side as talented as Chelsea is a separate debate altogether. Taking nothing away from KWP, a newly-promoted side down to ten men is a completely different challenge from reigning Premier League champions.
The Blues will still be without Eden Hazard, but Pedro looks set to return and Willian is one of the top attacking midfielders in the Premier League.
That inside forward setup proved problematic for even the best defenders in the top flight last season, so Walker-Peters at the very least needs more protection around him.
Of course, there is the option of fielding Eric Dier at right-back, a more natural defender and experienced player, but Pochettino will no doubt be wishing Kieran Trippier makes an early recovery.
Was Chelsea’s shock defeat to Burnley on the opening day of the season a one-off or a precursor for another title defence imploding in west London? Only time will tell but there are clearly lessons to be learned from the way Sean Dyche’s side caused such a spectacular upset at Stamford Bridge, even if it did hinge on Chelsea seeing two red cards and a sublime goal from the unlikely source of Stephen Ward.
One overriding theme was quite simply, Burnley’s dominance in the air. Sam Vokes won a whopping nine aerial duels and headed home what proved to be the winner from Steven Defour’s excellent delivery into the box. We also saw evidence of Chelsea’s weakness in the air last season – when the Blues travelled to White Hart Lane, Dele Alli popped up twice between Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta to head home almost identical goals.
Another recurring trend in Burnley’s goals was going short at set pieces. Perhaps because they were a man down, Chelsea didn’t put enough pressure on the ball, allowing Ward to career down the left for his stunning finish and Matthew Lowton to play it short to Defour, who whipped in the ball for the Clarets’ third. It may be worth attempting the short ball at set pieces this weekend.
Make no mistake about it, Chelsea are one horrendous result away from a full-blown crisis. Antonio Conte clearly isn’t too happy with the club’s business in the transfer market this summer, the players have started the campaign poorly and memories of two years ago when the Blues spectacularly imploded under Jose Mourinho will be in the minds of the fans.
Eerily, after a 2-2 draw to Swansea on the opening day on 2015/16, Chelsea’s second fixture was also against the runners up from the season previous – suffering a 3-0 battering at the hands of Manchester City.
Of course, Tottenham can’t go gung-ho just for the sake of it, especially if they’re relying on Walker-Peters on the right of defence. But Chelsea look there for the taking – especially with so many key players injured and suspended, not least including Eden Hazard – and claiming a huge win over them now could essentially knock them out of the title race before its even started, should Chelsea unravel as incredibly as last time.
At this stage, that’s just wishful thinking but Tottenham can use the sheer possibility of such a scenario to their advantage. If they start stronger and get an early goal, even further pressure will build on the Blues. From there, Spurs can begin to push for a capitulation.
Pochettino’s had the whole summer to think about it, if not longer, and now it’s time to see the strategy in action. Tottenham’s record at Wembley is notoriously poor and if it were applied to their 19 home games this season, the Lilywhites would spend it fending off relegation. Something has to give and Spurs need a plan to counter-act the negative effects of their temporary dwelling.
The pitch is a different size, the supporters are further away from it and the home of English football simply won’t have the familiarity of White Hart Lane, something that not only affects the players and their routines but perhaps more importantly the fans cheering them on, less comfortable in their new surroundings.
Of course, much of that is outside of Pochettino’s control. But the Argentine must adapt his tactics accordingly as well; Tottenham will struggle to maintain their high pressing game on a pitch of Wembley’s size, especially over the course of a full season. Add in how a different pitch can affect the ball and how Wembley may make the crowd seem far more distant, and there’s a lot for Pochettino to think about.