We’ve been privy to a heavyweight match-up almost every weekend in the Premier League this season and the coming one is no different. Leicester City unexpectedly find themselves in a table-topping clash with Manchester United at 5.30pm on Saturday, whilst Tottenham Hotspur play hosts to a recovering Chelsea side at noon on Sunday.
The Blues’ historical dominance of the Lilywhites is well-known yet we are amid anything but usual times in west London, as the reigning Premier League champions find themselves in 15th place following seven defeats in their first 13 games.
Tottenham, meanwhile, are currently fourth in the Premier League’s form guide and haven’t actually lost a league fixture since the opening day of the season.
So if Chelsea are to propel themselves back towards the division’s upper echelons by claiming a third consecutive victory – following wins over Norwich City and Maccabi Tel Aviv – there are many questions, regarding tactics, strategy, personnel and the opposition, manager Jose Mourinho must answer first.
Here are FIVE we at Football Fancast view as the most important.
Branislav Ivanovic was back to his solid best when returning to Chelsea’s starting line-up against Norwich City last weekend, following a lengthy injury lay-off.
But the Serbian international showed his frailties earlier in the season, as one of the biggest culprits behind the Blues’ woeful defensive displays. And whilst the Canaries aren’t exactly famed for their potent attack, Tottenham Hotspur are a different animal entirely.
Cesar Azpilicueta started at No.2 against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, which is actually his natural role, and offered fantastic balance between defence and attack. Whilst the defensive side to his game was consistent as ever, making two tackles and eight interceptions, he contributed significantly going forward as well, creating three chances alongside one accurate cross.
But of course, that creates a bit of a dilemma on the other side of defence. Brazilian hotshot Kenedy performed better than expected at left-back last weekend, considering he arrived at Stamford Bridge as a No.10, and Abdul Rahman Baba found an assist during Tuesday’s Champions League action. Although both offer great athleticism, neither are particularly experienced defenders.
Christian Eriksen is one of Tottenham Hotspur’s biggest danger men, finding two goals and five assists in ten Premier League outings this season, and will most likely continue his berth on the left wing. Likewise, summer signing Heung-Min Son hasn’t quite shown his best form in the Premier League just yet but comes with a preceding reputation from the Bundesliga and will probably start on the right against Chelsea.
With that in mind, Jose Mourinho needs to get his full-back selections right. Both Spurs stars can cause huge damage if given the opportunity to do so.
John Terry’s expected absence through injury, after being stretchered off against Maccabi Tel Aviv, is a huge blow for Chelsea and not just because he’s their captain supreme.
The Blues’ centre-backs will be up against Harry Kane on Sunday, who absolutely ran riot against the west Londoners last season in a 5-3 win on New Year’s day with goals either side of half-time.
After a somewhat slow start to the season, the England international is unquestionably back to his best, notching up seven goals in his four Premier League outings – including a hat-trick against Bournemouth and a strike in the north London derby.
Chelsea can’t afford a repeat performance of last year, so special attention must be paid to the Lilywhites’ star striker. That could require simply a more defensive approach, with the full-backs tucked in and the midfield sitting deep, perhaps a specific marking assignment for engine-room enforcer Nemanja Matic or a less obvious selection of personnel – someone like Ruben Loftus-Cheek coming into the side.
Either way, Kane is one of the most potent threats in the league right now and Chelsea must take his recent form seriously.
Playing away from home against a side who are fourth in the Premier League’s form chart and haven’t actually lost a league match since the opening day of the season, the natural assumption would be a call-up for sturdy defensive midfielder John Obi Mikel if Ramires’ midweek injury keeps him out for the White Hart Lane affair.
But countryman Oscar performed well against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, providing a goal and an assist, and could be more acclimatised to Chelsea’s needs when facing Spurs.
Indeed, Tottenham’s midfield is overloaded with youthful energy and that has already proved too much to handle for West Ham and Manchester City this season, who both suffered 4-1 defeats at the hands of the Lilywhites. The engine room was very much where the battle was lost and won, the Hammers’ and the Citizens’ somewhat slow midfields failing to match the mobility, guile and intensity of their opponents.
Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel don’t offer much pace between them, but Oscar is a tireless worker with natural speed and agility; although he’s a more offensive option than the dependable Nigerian international, he could prove far more useful in counteracting Spurs’ midfield energy.
That being said, playing a No.10 away from home is risky and Oscar’s performance against Maccabi Tel Aviv was his best of the season so far. Overall, he’s been relatively underwhelming and not even made it onto the bench for select fixtures – so Mourinho will understandably have his doubts about issuing the 24-year-old a second consecutive start.
Following on from my last point about Spurs’ energy in midfield, if there’s one word that can adequately describe the Tottenham ethos under Mauricio Pochettino, it’s quite simply ‘intensity’.
The Lilywhites have ran teams into the ground this season, with the likes of Erik Lamela, Eric Dier, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Dele Alli being integral components, and nobody they’ve faced so far has been able to match their level of industrious enthusiasm.
Whilst sitting back and hoping Spurs tire themselves out – especially considering they’ll have two fewer days rest than Chelsea after facing Qarabag FC in the Europa League on Thursday evening – remains an option, but one that could backfire with enormous consequences.
Alternatively, it could well come down to personnel – choosing the right players with the mobility, speed and work-rate to equalise the north Londoners’.
Some selections are obvious, such as the Duracell-charged Willian. But accordingly, this might not be the best match for the increasingly slowing Branislav Ivanovic, whilst even Diego Costa could endure a difficult afternoon.
Chelsea might find better luck with Loic Remy, despite the Frenchman’s limited participation this season. Andy Carroll’s inability to stretch the Tottenham backline last weekend congested the match into midfield, which only played to Spurs’ aforementioned industriousnes, and Costa isn’t the quickest either.
That would be a huge call from Mourinho. But in such a high-octane match, the Chelsea boss must ensure every player can keep up with the tempo.
A few wins can change everything for the better, which is exactly what Jose Mourinho will be hoping after Chelsea’s back-to-back victories against Norwich and Maccabi Tel Aviv. Yet the Blues still find themselves riddled with paradoxes ahead of their visit to White Hart Lane.
On the one hand, they’re reigning Premier League champions and need to get some points on the board. Even amid their horrendous start to the season, the quality of the Chelsea squad has never been in doubt, so with the confidence of a few decent results on their side, the Blues will want to put in another convincing performance. They have a habit of winning at White Hart Lane and will want to get back to that tradition following last season’s blip on New Year’s day.
But Chelsea aren’t quite out of troubled waters just yet – although they do have two hands firmly on the shore – and as previously mentioned, Spurs are currently fourth in the Premier League’s form table. They’re still faced with defensive frailties which could unearth very quickly if Spurs take an early lead.
That suggests the 1-0-type away performance Chelsea and Mourinho have become famed for throughout the years. But once again, the Blues are faced with a paradox. That cautious style only exacerbated their problems during the first twelve Premier League fixtures, the unwillingness to dominate combined with recent form and the weight of expectation seemingly goading on their opponents.
Spurs are flying high at the moment and any sign of fear from Chelsea – such as sitting deep and hoping for a goal on the counter-attack – will fill them with even more confidence.
Consequentially, this is the toughest question Mourinho faces. He needs to get the balance exactly right and an integral part of that will be setting the tone amongst his players – whether to sit deep and frustrate Spurs or try to get an early upper hand.