Football news - Can Nuno Espírito Santo repeat Manchester City trick? Or will more pain come against Chelsea?
Ahead of the London derby at the weekend Pete Sharland takes a look at whether Tottenham Hotspur manager Nuno Espirito Santo is in for more trouble at the hands of Spurs' rivals. Or can they do enough to frustrate the Champions League winners and make them pay on the counter like they did with defending Premier League champions Manchester City in the first game of the season.
It may surprise you to learn that Tottenham Hotspur haven’t beaten Chelsea in the Premier League since November 2018.
That day Mauricio Pochettino’s side blew away Chelsea 3-1 under new manager Maurizio Sarri. There have been a couple of League Cup wins but since that day Chelsea have won four and drawn one against their rivals from north London in the league.
Some Chelsea fans might like to think that they hold an edge in the rivalry generally speaking but since Harry Redknapp’s arrival at Spurs all the way back in 2008 they have only done the double once (Frank Lampard’s first season) and won consecutive league games against Spurs just one other time (the calendar year of 2014). In the same time Spurs never did the double and once got back to back wins (2018) in the league.
Frank Lampard (Chelsea) après la victoire contre Tottenham
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What that shows is that it is not common for one team to dominate over a period of time and might give Spurs fans room for optimism going into Sunday’s clash. Surely the run has to end? But then they might remember that they battled to a draw against Rennes (currently 11th in Ligue 1) on Thursday and last time out in the Premier League they were battered by Crystal Palace to the tune of a humbling 3-0 loss.
The mood around the club is certainly a lot different to when they beat the defending champions 1-0 in the opening game of the season and then managed to prevent club captain Harry Kane from swapping Lilywhite for Sky Blue.
Zaha celebrates giving Palace the lead
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So far this season the worries that plagued Nuno Espirito Santo’s last campaign with Wolves have continued into this year. In 2020-21 Wolves were bottom of the Premier League in terms of big chances created having finished seventh in each of the two seasons prior. This season they are joint-bottom with one which, as I’m sure you’ve seen, is the same number that Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez has managed by himself.
It’s not exactly great reading as they prepare to welcome Thomas Tuchel’s mean machine, with Chelsea having taken ten points out of a possible twelve in their first four matches of the league season. In the process they’ve scored nine and let in just one. Tottenham, while just a point behind, have scored and conceded three.
So on the face of it you would automatically assume that Tottenham are in for more pain on Sunday, particularly with their opponents having two days extra rest. Chelsea played at home on Tuesday night, unlike Spurs who were in France on Thursday.
Chelsea are the European champions and one of the favourites for the league title. Despite a three-game winning streak to open the season up it’s really hard to say what Tottenham are. Spurs could be without as many as nine players for the match, although there is hope that the South American group who have been in quarantine will be able to return after missing the trip to Palace. On the other hand Chelsea will be able to welcome back Reece James from suspension and possibly N’Golo Kante from injury. If that’s the case their only absentee will be Christian Pulisic.
Not exactly ideal circumstances.
But there is hope for Nuno and Spurs, and to turn that hope into something more tangible they have to lean into their “negative” side. Nuno would probably prefer the term “counter-attacking” but if your striker has zero touches in the box in a game that’s negative, nothing else. Other terms we could have used but chose not to were blunt, stodgy and thoroughly unexciting. But that may not matter against Chelsea.
Despite keeping back to back clean sheets anyone who watched Chelsea against Aston Villa and Zenit St Petersburg would tell you there was a relative sense of fortune. In both matches Chelsea were carved open with alarming regularity and they often failed to break their opponents down on a consistent basis.
Of course the hallmark of a good team is managing to win the games where you don’t play well but it does show that there are potential weak spots there. The likes of Ollie Watkins, Danny Ings, Bertrand Traore, Claudinho, Sardar Azmoun and Malcom all found space at various times and in reality Chelsea were either very grateful to the excellent Edouard Mendy or their opponent’s profligacy.
It depends on who is available but Spurs should have some pace in their line-up to hurt Chelsea on the break. Tuchel’s team are normally pretty solid but this season has shown that there are spaces in behind the wing-backs in the gap between them and the centre-backs. That is where a lot of the Spurs forwards love to operate. Not quite hugging the touchline but also not quite through the middle.
Chelsea Manager Thomas Tuchel
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Plus in this match Harry Kane’s wont for dropping deeper may actually work for the best. He can make life difficult for Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic by overloading them as well as making it less clear for the central defenders about who they need to pick up. If someone like Son Heung-min or Lucas Moura can make the runs in behind to push them back Kane might find himself with some space to operate. For years Chelsea have struggled more against the quicker players and that hasn’t changed under Tuchel. They will back themselves to shut Kane out and isolate him so being able to find space will be the key for the England captain.
Of course the worry at the other end is how Spurs cope with Romelu Lukaku who, unlike Kane for club at least, is in the form of his life. Lukaku has four goals in his first four Chelsea games and the defence that came close to containing him is the Liverpool one containing Virgil van Dijk, possibly the best defender in the world. Even though he failed to score in that game, Lukaku played a huge role in getting the ten men of Chelsea out of their box under pressure. Yes Spurs kept City out but they did not face a striker like the Belgian, whose movement is at an elite level unlike Ferran Torres or Gabriel Jesus (who admittedly could get there one day).
Switching to a back three might be an option to try and stifle the Belgian but in reality the key won’t be stopping Lukaku, but more cutting off his supply. That’s where Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg or Oliver Skipp come in. Yes Mason Mount and Kai Havertz are threats but the first goal against Villa is also indicative of how dangerous Kovacic, and by definition, Jorginho can be. Even the wing-backs, once they get a better understanding with Lukaku, will be threats.
Nuno has to get more happening in the final third, that much is evident. But against Chelsea the key will be the balance. Even with being at home it is better not to get beat then to try and do the beating and subsequently have it done to you. Yes it may not be what Spurs fans want to see but the team has to come out of the game with something to build on, not another setback.