Three lessons learnt in Chelsea at Tottenham: Men amongst boys

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Chelsea’s German head coach Thomas Tuchel (L) speaks with members of his team during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge in London on November 6, 2021. (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Chelsea is going to Wembley! The Blues are through to the Carabao Cup final after an emphatic two-legged semifinal victory over rivals Tottenham. Thomas Tuchel’s men did enough in the first leg to head into the away tie with a comfortable lead, one in which they would never surrender. The boss retains his perfect career record in semifinals as he leads his side into yet another cup final. This is the German’s third in all competitions since taking over in west London a year ago.

The visitors outclassed Spurs at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the second leg, despite only winning 1-0 on the day. Antonio Rudiger’s headed goal from Mason Mount’s corner was the difference in the end. Surprisingly, three overturned VAR decisions—two suspected penalties to Tottenham and an offside goal for the hosts—went Chelsea’s way. All three were clear-cut according to the rules though, so there was really not much in the claims. There was little statistical dominance when things were said and done, but there didn’t need to be. The 3-0 aggregate scoreline was the only thing that mattered to the Blues as they look ahead to an important Premier League trip to Manchester City at the weekend.

Here are three lessons we learnt in Chelsea’s trip to Tottenham:

1. Formational flexibility

It’s not unusual for supporters to take to Twitter to debate the formation each time the official Chelsea account sends out the starting line-up prior to contests. This is a tradition as old as time itself and it dates back to the days of Frank Lampard’s managerial stint. Lampard did well to build a team that was incredibly versatile and while that may not have mattered so much at the time, it’s been a huge help to Tuchel throughout the last year. That may sound like an odd statement considering the manager changed formations just once during his first six months in charge. Tactical rotation has become more commonplace in SW6 nowadays though.

The Blues played four-at-the-back for the first time all season in the first leg against Spurs at Stamford Bridge. They controlled the game from start to finish and that was no coincidence. It goes without saying there is a huge talent gap between the two sides (more on that later), the tactical smokescreen cannot be discounted though. Antonio Conte likely prepared his side for any variation of three-at-the-back. Regardless of whether it was the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 is not important. Tuchel lined his side up in a back four largely due to the lack of healthy wingbacks in his side. On a much more grand scale though, he knew exactly what he was doing when he changed shape. This created uncertainty heading into the second leg—this much was true.

When the teamsheet was released prior to kickoff at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the debates once again occurred on social media. The same sort of discussions were likely also taking place in the home dressing room. Tuchel lined his side up in a flexible 4-2-2-2 to begin the match. As the Blues grew into the game, it slowly became a 3-5-2 both in and out of possession. This allowed Chelsea to overload certain areas of the pitch and draw Tottenham out. The Blues continued in this shape until the middle of the second half when it became increasingly obvious that Spurs were finally going to try and take matters into their own hands. Tuchel brought on Marcos Alonso, Thiago Silva and Hakim Ziyech to steady the ship and the 3-4-3 was reintroduced.

All of this goes to show that Chelsea can be flexible in its formation. This applies to both the long and short-term. The Blues have already played a number of formations throughout the year and now they have shown they have the ability to play numerous shapes in a single match. Supporters haven’t yet been treated to the brilliantly-adaptable, tactical mind of Tuchel that he displayed at Paris Saint-Germain, Dortmund and Mainz. There’s a growing sense that won’t be the case for much longer given the recent showing at Spurs.

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