What a difference a week makes. Early predictions before the start of the Premier League season saw Chelsea as one of the favoUrites to retain the title they won in impressive manner last season, while Spurs had not strengthened their squad in a pre-season where transfer fees were spiralling out of control.
Now consider the opening weekend of the season. Chelsea were at home to Burnley and found themselves three goals down in the first half against a team that traditionally struggles away from home. More than that, though, was they were a man down early on with captain Gary Cahill dismissed for what was deemed to be a dangerous challenge.
In the second half Spanish international Cesc Fabergas also saw red for two bookable offences. The game finished 3-2 to the away side but the manner of the defeat combined with the lack of depth on the Chelsea bench will be of real concern to Chelsea supporters.
Contrast that to the performance of Spurs away at newly promoted Newcastle United. The first half was difficult for the North London side as Newcastle defended diligently and made it difficult for Spurs to break them down. The game turned on the dismissal of midfielder Jonjo Shelvey in the second half for a stamp on the ankle of Dele Alli. From then on the dominance of Spurs was too much for Newcastle to withstand and the final score of 2-0 to the away side flattered Newcastle.
So, going in to this early season clash both sides are surrounded by different narratives. The future of Antonio Conte at Chelsea is being questioned by the media and Mauricio Pochettino is showing the benefits of continuity in a squad.
Where, though, will the match be won and lost tactically?
The term half spaces is one that is beginning to invade the main stream of football writing, if you split a pitch in to five vertical corridors then the half spaces are the two lanes between the wide area and the central zone.
Positioning players in the half space can be extremely effective because it forces the opposition out of their comfort zone in terms of defensive positioning.
Against Chelsea and the 3-4-3 system that Antonio Conte prefers, the weak point in the defensive structure tends to be in the half spaces to the sides of the two central midfielders; for all of N’Golo Kante’s abilities in covering spaces and closing down the ball, quick shifts of the ball from side to side can catch them out of position relatively easily.
Interestingly, this also plays to the strengths of Spurs. In the match against Newcastle, the three men behind Harry Kane were extremely fluid with their positioning and movement. Christian Eriksen, Moussa Sissoko and Dele Alli will be the keys to this match for Spurs as they look to occupy the spaces beside and in behind the Chelsea midfield two, to give Spurs an advanced platform from which to build.
By having these three players able to occupy the half spaces on either side of the field and with advanced full-backs like Kyle Walker-Peters and Ben Davies occupying the wide lanes it will be extremely difficult for Chelsea to negate the attacking threat posed by Spurs.
The match against Burnley almost turned on the introduction of Spanish international striker Alvaro Morata. With the striker making his first league appearance for Chelsea, they carried far more threat with a genuine focal point in the final third.
Whilst Morata started on the bench against Burnley you can’t help but feel that he has to be given the opportunity to start in this match against a well organised Spurs defence. The sending off of Cahill on Saturday did not help Chelsea, as Conte chose to sacrifice his young attacking midfielder Jeremie Boga to bring Andreas Christensen to the defensive unit.
Against Spurs, if Chelsea start with Mortata and give him adequate support from the attacking midfielders and wing backs, then the Spanish international striker has the quality to breach the Spurs defence. It is likely that we will see the champions start with a midfield double pivot of N’golo Kante and new signing from Monaco Tiemoue Bakayoko, with the defensive stability of these two players allowing the wing-backs and attacking midfielders to advance forward and support Morata.
It will be interesting to see how Conte plans to use Morata as although his profile is similar to that of last season’s first choice striker Diego Costa, Morata is more capable of making runs in behind the defensive line as well as holding up the ball with his back to goal. This increased flexibility in the final third of the field could be key for Chelsea as the season goes on in breaking down their oppositions defensive structures.
Truth be told, this match offers a very different challenge to both sides when compared to their opening fixtures. It is very difficult to get a true idea of a side’s strengths and weaknesses without seeing them play at least five or six times in competitive action.
The continuity and cohesion of the Spurs side could well prove to be the difference in this match, with the knowledge of one another’s movement and passing tendencies allowing the Spurs side to play far more fluidly than we are likely to see from Chelsea.
It remains to be seen how much the media narrative of crisis at Chelsea is actually based in truth and whether Antonio Conte is as committed to the side as he was last season.
The match on Sunday will be a fascinating game and a true test for both sides this early in the season.