To declare Tottenham would have beaten Chelsea on Sunday if Kyle Walker were still bombing down Spurs’ right flank would be superficial in its simplicity, such was the diversity of the wealth of factors at play in the 2-1 result at Wembley.
Yet, there is an obvious point of comparison to make; Tottenham’s last victory over Chelsea in January 2017, the Blues’ first non-win in 13 top flight games, owed much to Walker’s dominance over Marcos Alonso and Rose’s over Victor Moses on the opposite side as Mauricio Pochettino’s ploy of matching up with Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 prevailed. Both were absent on Sunday due to Manchester City’s £50million swoop and injury respectively.
In their place, Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier struggled to have the same dynamic effect. In fact, their repeated failure to truly test Chelsea’s wing-backs defensively, either by attacking the space behind them or taking them on directly with the ball at feet, was one of the instrumental reasons Tottenham had just an own goal to show for 68% possession in a match they largely dominated, barring the more equal opening and closing stages.
Combined, the duo produced three created chances, four accurate crosses and one successful dribble. Decent going for full-backs in a tight game; but glaringly unexceptional for wing-backs in a match that saw Tottenham so convincingly dictate the ball, flow and tempo.
In the absence of that recurring attacking threat from wide, Spurs attempted to play through Chelsea’s two banks of three in the middle of the park, rarely penetrating the midfield and playing right into Conte’s pragmatic game-plan of suffocating the kind of space Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen crave.
It wasn’t just offensively where that cost Spurs either, something epitomised by Alonso’s intrinsic influence on the scoreline. Of course, there’s not much Trippier or Walker could have done about the Spaniard’s first goal, a superb free-kick that would have required a truly world-class save to stop, but the second highlighted how little Alonso feared galloping forward, even in the closing minutes of a hugely important game between two bitter London rivals.
If Trippier had presented more of a threat in attack, Alonso may have been more cautious than cavalier as David Luiz won the ball in midfield to launch a counter-attack. In any case, we certainly didn’t see Trippier taking those types of gamble against his opposite number in the opposite direction.
Perhaps the England international can be excused; he was, after all, brought back into the starting XI sooner than expected after suffering an injury at the end of pre-season – compared to the standards he laid down at the end of last term, it was clearly an off day for him. But it’s difficult not to draw on the obvious differences between Trippier and his £50million predecessor.
While Trippier has the quality of output to punish lesser teams when Spurs are in full control, Walker has the power, pace and energy that seems so vital to the wing-back role in big games – the kind of power, pace and energy that kept Alonso perpetually pinned back the last time these two sides met in the Premier League, playing a huge hand in the victory at White Hart Lane.
It’s unlikely Spurs fans will be missing Walker after the Chelsea defeat alone. In fact, some declared the £50million obtained for him to be better business on Daniel Levy’s part than the world-record sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid four years ago. Trippier is seen as the ideal replacement, already acquainted with Pochettino’s philosophy and the unique demands placed on the defensive flankers in his game-plan, that won’t cost the club an extra penny.
But regardless of the money involved, the simple truth of the matter is that selling to a divisional rival rarely works out in terms of results. In fact, from the last eight players to move between the big six clubs for transfer fees before this current transfer window, the buying club finished higher on seven occasions – the only exception being Emmanuel Adebayor’s permanent transfer, fittingly, from City to Spurs.
There’s no divine right for history to repeat itself in the Premier League and many Tottenham fans will argue that, even in the context of this frankly ridiculous summer, Walker quite simply isn’t a £50million footballer. But just two games into the new season and it’s already become evident what Man City’s swoop has taken away from Tottenham in big games.
Considering how frequently we could see 3-4-3 being used in top six encounters this season, how vital wing-backs can be in separating the teams using those systems and how tight the top end of the table will be this term, lacking that power, size and dynamism Walker gave Spurs could cost them dearly.
Trippier needs to find that extra physical edge to his game before Tottenham host Liverpool at the end of October.