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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham | Chelsea’s 4-4-1-1 & Tottenham’s counterpress

James Sutherland writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League game which finished Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham.

Much was riding on this game. Tottenham had to win to stay in the title race and prevent Leicester from clinching the league, and Chelsea, without anything to play for in the season, were looking for pride. On top of that, the game was a London derby, always an intense fixture.

The match didn’t disappoint, with much drama. Most of it came from the physicality of both teams, with 9 Tottenham players cautioned. But the game was interesting tactically, as Tottenham dominated much of the first hour, before Chelsea were able to pressure Spurs into crucial mistakes to make their comeback.


Spurs Chelsea

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry, Ivanovic; Matic, Mikel; Pedro, Fabregas, Willian; Costa

Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dembele, Dier; Son, Eriksen, Lamela; Kane

Both teams lined up in the 4-2-3-1’s they have been using all season, although both varied from this.

Chelsea defended in a 4-4-1-1, with Willian and Pedro dropping alongside Matic and Mikel to create the midfield bank. This was a somewhat smart move by Guus Hiddink, although it ended up being very flawed.

Tottenham used their regular variations. Both fullbacks would push higher up and Eric Dier would drop between the centerbacks, creating a back three. As always, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min stayed narrow, playing in the halfspaces more than the wings, creating a narrow attacking three behind Harry Kane.

Chelsea’s 4-4-1-1

Guus Hiddink chose to set Chelsea up defensively in a 4-4-1-1 formation.  He moved Cesc Fabregas out of the pivot and into the 10 spot, a move Hiddink has increasingly gone to this season, where he was just behind Diego Costa.

This defensive system has numerous flaws, which Tottenham exploited to great success in the first half.

The first problem was the front two defenders. Fabregas and Costa were reluctant to apply any pressure to Alderweireld and Vertonghen in build-up play, and when they did, Spurs easily played around it.

Both Chelsea players would often stand passively, shadowing the ball’s movement, and maybe jogging towards the ball to force movement. Since they weren’t even, but staggered, Fabregas behind Costa, even if they had been trying to pressure they wouldn’t have been in a good shape to do so.

Whenever Costa or Fabregas did make the effort, Mauricio Pochettino made a simple change to round the pressure. The two center backs would split wide, and Eric Dier would drop between them, creating a 3 v. 2 and overloading Chelsea’s front line. It’s textbook positional play, but Chelsea had no counter for it.

The midfield was also structurally flawed. The horizontal compactness was very weak, even between Matic and Mikel in the middle. Hiddink seemingly used two defensive midfielders to counter Tottenham’s strong central play, but neither was very effective.

Both wingers, Willian, Pedro and later Hazard, defended mainly on the wings. Hiddink clearly wanted to cover Ivanovic and Azpilicueta, Chelsea’s fullbacks, from overloads and situations of qualitative superiority, so he had the wide midfielders help the fullbacks out. But this often left the halfspaces open, an unwise decision.

The above clip demonstrates these problems well. Costa and Fabregas are overly passive, allowing Tottenham’s centerbacks and Dier to work the ball up the field. Vertonghen is allowed to dribble in the halfspace into midfield, before Willian finally steps out to pressure him. It’s an easy pass, however, to exploit the space wide open behind him, and with the fullbacks, centerbacks and central midfielders asleep, Erik Lamela makes a simple run and gets the ball in a very dangerous position.

The backline was culpable as well. The lack of coordination, particularly between Ivanovic and Cahill, caused numerous problems. If they had been able to move more as a unit, and less as individuals, then some of the problems ahead of them could have been fixed. Instead, they were at the mercy of the midfielders defending, never a good position to be in with this team.

Tottenham’s Counterpress

One of the most important reasons for Tottenham’s success this season has been the counterpress Pochettino has installed. Tottenham expertly win the ball back high up the field, deep in the opponents half, after losing it. Lamela, Eriksen, Alli and Kane are all fantastic counterpressers, and Pochettino has them in a great shape to execute.

Even when teams make it past that first line of pressure, Dier is waiting, ready to win the ball back, or shepherd it to the sideline. Alderweireld and Vertonghen’s athleticism enables Spurs to play a high line, meaning they can also step up and counterpress. Teams struggles to get sustained possession, much less counterattacks, going against Spurs.

Chelsea was no different. For much of the first half they couldn’t muster time on the ball. As the first half wore on, Tottenham had more and more of the ball, pushing Chelsea deeper into their half. Then, when Chelsea managed to gain possession, Spurs immediately pressured, often forcing a turnover.

Spurs second goal came from this. They pressure Ivanovic (a definite weak link) who gives the ball away awfully. They quickly recover the ball, and are on the attack in seconds. Pochettino’s good defensive shape enables these quick counters, to devastating effect (conversely, Chelsea’s poor offensive structure leaves the backline helpless).

Chelsea Crank up the Pressure

Hiddink made a wise change at half time, bringing Hazard on for Pedro. Oscar later came on for Matic, providing the same effect that Hazard had. Both came out and worked their socks off. That sounds clichéd, but only because there wasn’t much of a deeper philosophy than that.

As soon as Hazard was on, Chelsea was transformed. Down two goals, they finally pushed out of their half, pressuring Tottenham’s build up. They tried to counterpress, with mild success, and were able to gain more possession. Most importantly, Hazard was able to beat Tottenham’s defense with pure skill, dribbling on numerous occasions past scores of Spurs defenders.

Tottenham usually fouls tactically, especially while counterpressing. However, they let the pressure of the occasion and the derby get to them, and nine Spurs players were booked. The game grew increasingly out of hand, and soon Chelsea had equalized with a lucky goal off a corner and a brilliant piece of skill from Hazard.

The game was somewhat reminiscent of the second leg of Chelsea’s Champions League tie with PSG this year. Chelsea, needing a win, began to press PSG, and unsettled the Parisians, as they did Tottenham. In both games Chelsea scored a goal on the break, although the Blues couldn’t pull out the miracle against PSG.


This was an electric game. Both teams brought the intensity, and much was riding on the result.

In the end, Tottenham choked in their attempt to stay with Leicester. Up two goals, in complete control of the match, they shouldn’t have lost control like they did. They allowed Chelsea to get into their heads, and let their physicality to get away from them. In the end, their title hopes were undone by an amazing Hazard goal, but they must look at themselves for blame.

Chelsea, while exuberant at the fact that they ended the title hopes of a London rival, still looked very flawed. Tottenham dominated the game, and exploited Hiddink’s setup. It’s clear that Antonio Conte won’t need to just overhaul the tactics when he comes in the summer; fresh players are needed to.

This will be a big summer for both teams, as Spurs look to build on the success of this season, and Chelsea look to recapture the success of last.

Written by James Sutherland

James Sutherland

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