It is amazing how quickly the narrative in football can shift. At the beginning of the season some news outlets announced that the odds had been drastically shortened on the Italian coach Antonio Conte becoming the next Premier League coach to lose his job at Chelsea. This was on the back of a run of terrible form at the beginning of the season.
Fast forward to the end of 2016 and the media narrative around Chelsea is now concentrating on the brilliance of the Italian coach who has led his Chelsea side to the top of the Premier League by six points with a goal difference of +29. Since switching back to the 3-4-3 system that Conte used so successfully at Juventus, we have seen a different Chelsea side as they look to be defensively solid and devastating going forward.
There is a similar feeling around Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs. The Argentinian coach has now been in place at White Hart Lane since 2014 and the squad is very much formed in his image with players that fit his precise tactical system perfectly. This Spurs team work hard to support one another in various phases of the match and have the capacity to play some wonderful football when the opportunity arises.
The match between the two sides poses an interesting tactical comparison. Chelsea will stick to their now tried and tested 3-4-3 with the most important facet of their game plan being how they support Diego Costa in the final third of the pitch. The movement of Eden Hazard in particular is important as he moves in and out of the spaces around the Spanish international forward.
Spurs, on the other hand, have to find a way to overcome the lack of genuine pace in their attacking players to quickly access the spaces at the side of the three man defensive line to create scoring opportunities.
There was a definite sense from Diego Costa under Jose Mourinho that he had fallen out of love with football and was looking to secure a move away from the club. The difference between then and now is startling he has rediscovered the form that he showed at Athletico Madrid.
There have been times this season that Costa has simply been unplayable with defenders unable to account not only for his strength on the ball but also for his underrated positioning and movement which see him take up positions that cause maximum damage to the opposition defensive structure.
Chelsea, though, still need to make sure that they have players able to support Costa to ensure that they are able to take advantage of his ability to shield the ball and bring others in to play. Eden Hazard will play from a narrow left position with either Willian or Pedro filling the same role on the right of the pitch. Having these players able to move in and out of central positions creates the opportunities for overloads against individual opposition players.
There are further supporting roles for Marcos Alonso on the left and Victor Moses on the right as they stretch the width of the field to open spaces for Costa to drift in to and exploit.
Costa is a great player on his own but to create chances against a talented Spurs defence, he will need the support of his teammates.
The strength in the Chelsea tactical system is without a doubt in the centre. Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante are an excellent shield for Cahill, Luiz and Azpilicueta, making it increasingly difficult for teams to access the central areas of the final third.
Instead, Spurs are going to have to try to stretch the defensive line horizontally in order to create spaces in the centre of the defence. Typically we see Spurs line up with Christian Eriksen on the left hand side and either Moussa Sissoko or Eric Lamela on the right. Whilst all three of these wide players are technically strong, none of the three have pace to speak of.
So instead of simply relying on pace to stretch the defence, Spurs will have to find a way to mechanise their movements to get their wide players in to space.
The most likely tactical concept that they will use is overload and isolation. As Spurs build up they tend to prefer the right hand side in the initial movement. With Kyle Walker and Moussa Dembele connecting with the winger on that side, they can draw the opposition’s defensive structure towards that side of the field before looking to quickly switch the play out to the left hand side where they will find Eriksen in space isolated against a defender on that side.
These movements are designed to open up space but also force the opposition defensive unit off balance and make it harder for them to effectively defend against threats across the field.
It is difficult to be anything other than impressed with the job that Antonio Conte has done so far with Chelsea. In a short period of time he has firmly imposed his tactical concepts on the squad and senior players are all speaking out regarding the quality of his tactical and technical coaching.
A match against an inform Spurs side will be a true test for Conte as he will be forced to find answers to the questions posed by Pochettino and his Spurs outfit.
Spurs will be hard pressed to find comfortable possession in the final third of the field and they will need to be aware of the specific spaces created when an opposition is playing in a 3-4-3 system.