Chelsea inflicted a 2-1 defeat on Tottenham in the first ever Premier League game at Wembley thanks to two goals from Marcos Alonso. It was a massive result for the reigning champions after an alarming start to their title defence, writes Adam Bate.
“I don’t think Mauricio Pochettino would have expected Chelsea to line up like this,” said Gary Neville during the game. “It has worked. Well done to Antonio Conte. While all around him this week have been questioning what’s going on at Chelsea, he’s been working on the training pitch, thinking about his tactics for this game and drilling it into his players.”
Simple things, easily forgotten after a strained summer. For all the talk of Tottenham’s troubles in transitioning to Wembley, make no mistake about it, Chelsea were the team going into the game with question marks over their capabilities. An opening weekend home defeat to Burnley in which Conte’s men were three down at half time will do that.
Add to that the frustrations of the transfer window, suspensions to Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, and the injury of Eden Hazard – the problems were mounting. Throw in the comments of the exiled Diego Costa that Conte is “not a coach who is very close with his players” and “does not possess charisma” and the word ‘crisis’ was even being mooted.
What followed was a response every bit as emphatic in its own way as anything that Manchester United have treated us to in thrashing West Ham and Swansea so far. Chelsea battled their way to victory, seeing off wave after wave of Tottenham attacks. Under pressure, they stuck together and took the acclaim of the fans at the final whistle.
Pochettino and his players will feel unfortunate that Chelsea scored from their only two shots on target, a fabulous free-kick and a late drive under Hugo Lloris, both by Marcos Alonso. But there were other opportunities. Alvaro Morata somehow contrived to divert his fifth-minute header wide of the post and Willian struck a second-half shot against it.
Even so, this was undeniably a win that Chelsea had to grind out. Playing almost exclusively on the counter-attack, the performance required concentration and for the team to remain compact. Top-class players were asked to chase and harry rather than show off their skills, sacrificing themselves for the team. Conte will be all the more pleased because of that fact.
The statistics tell much of the tale. Tottenham had 18 shots, more than Chelsea faced in any game last season. Conte’s men also saw only 32.5 per cent of the ball. By comparison, their lowest possession stats in their title win was the 37.6 per cent that they had in drawing against Liverpool at Anfield. But it was all part of the coach’s plan.
Speaking afterwards, David Luiz interrupted team-mate Alonso to hammer home the point. “It was a clever game,” he said. “You need to understand when you play against a very good team, sometimes you can keep more of the ball and have possession but sometimes you need to try to surprise on the counter-attack. I think we did great in a clever way.”
Chelsea switched to a midfield diamond – what amounted to a 3-6-1 formation – in an attempt to crowd out the creative players in Tottenham’s much-vaunted midfield. A new-look back-three of Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta was cobbled together at Cobham. David Luiz was pressed into action in the centre of midfield.
The player himself described his role as being “to cover the space of the fantastic players like [Christian] Eriksen and Dele Alli” and while there were times when they eluded him, he stuck to the task. The Brazilian added: “They always play very well between the lines so I was trying to close this gap and not leave space for them to create. I tried to do my best.”
Conte is renowned for his training ground work, focusing on pattern of play and repeated drills – especially important when using a new system. It was a change of formation that proved decisive in last season’s title success. While there is little suggestion that this performance was a stylistic template for the coming campaign, it is still significant.
“There was a lot of talking in the week from everybody,” the two-goal hero Alonso told Sky Sports afterwards. “I think that we showed we are together. We worked so hard this week and we 100 per cent deserved this win.” As Neville put it, the players “showed they are with their manager” and that is what will delight Conte in the aftermath of victory.
It was his first thought in his post-match interview. “First of all I want to thank my players because I think their commitment, their heart, their desire that they put onto the pitch was incredible today in a moment that was very difficult for us,” said the Chelsea boss. “They showed me that the desire of last season stays in our hearts. That’s very important.”
After the malaise that followed their previous title win under Jose Mourinho, everyone at Chelsea will share that sentiment. This result and the manner of it will do much to dispel any fears of a repeat. Conte’s successful tactical changes have reinforced the idea that he still has the plan. The execution of them has also shown that he still has the players too.