Friday, October 19, 2012

Preview: Chelsea vs. Tottenham

Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo will lead their respective clubs out to a lunchtime kickoff at White Hart Lane tomorrow. There are plenty of sub plots in this one. Villas-Boas was of course sacked by Chelsea in March, paving the way for Di Matteo to lead the club to a historic FA Cup-Champions League double. That Champions League title sent Spurs crashing out of a qualification spot for this season's installment of the tournament despite finishing fourth in the league- two places above Chelsea. In April, Chelsea handily beat Spurs 5-1 in an FA Cup semifinal. However, Spurs contend a wrongfully allowed Juan Mata goal that made the score 3-1 was the turning point in that contest. Perhaps most importantly, this game showcases the Premier League's two most sartorially inclined managers in a battle over the better wearer of impeccably tailored suits.

Both sides are playing decent soccer at the moment. After a rocky opening three games to the season, Spurs have won four straight including the club's first away win at Old Trafford since 1989. A 0-0 draw at QPR is the only blemish on Chelsea's record as they sit four points clear at the top of the Premier League table.

Same Formation, Different Styles
Both sides are likely to line up in 4-2-3-1 formations though the different attributes of the two teams' sets of players mean they'll play it with very different styles. Chelsea's three attacking midfielders, Oscar, Hazard and Mata, are clever and technically gifted players who look to get in pockets of space between the seams and play intricate passing combinations with one another. Mata and Hazard will frequently switch sides and both will drift in field and occupy more central areas. Chelsea will likely look to attack patiently and use their tight control and quick passing to create gaps to get the ball in behind the Tottenham defense. Expect Ramires to play over Lampard to give Chelsea more athleticism in the middle of the park to match the athleticism of Sandro and Dembele.

Spurs attacking midfield three doesn't have the same technical quality as that of their counterparts but they have incredible pace and athleticism. Lennon and Bale will look to get the ball wide into the channels and get behind Chelsea's outside backs. Dempsey isn't a typical center attacking midfielder that links defense to offense- he doesn't have that type of passing vision- however Spurs will mainly transition from defense to offense through either Lennon and Bale or through Dembele's powerful runs forward from a deeper position. Dempsey's ability to make well timed runs and finish off chances will make him a threat for balls into the box from Lennon and Bale.

Tottenham wingers vs. Chelsea outside backs
Two of the most important individual battles will be fought in wide areas between Chelsea's outside backs and Tottenham's wingers. The contest between Ivanovic and Bale will pose a particularly difficult tactical question for Di Matteo, specifically how brave he wants Ivanovic to be with his positioning going forward. With Mata and Hazard frequently tucking inside higher up the pitch, Chelsea like to get width from their outside backs in the attacking end of the field. However, when Ivanovic pushes forward it will be open space for Spurs to counter into with Bale. The last thing Chelsea want is Bale running at full pace at their center backs. His goal against Manchester United (at 0:25 in the video below) shows just how dangerous he is when he's able to get the ball behind the opposition right back (Rafael on that day) and run with a head of steam at center backs. Lennon's pace could also be dangerous on the right, though Ashley Cole is quicker and a better defender than Ivanovic so should be more equipped to deal with Lennon's bursts forward.

If Lennon and Bale are able to get in behind the Chelsea outside backs, Chelsea's ball side center back will have to rotate wide to step to ball, leaving Defoe in a 1 v. 1 situation with the other center back. Dempsey's runs into the box from midfield will provide more of an aerial threat on crosses while Dembele's late runs to the edge of the area can create dangerous shooting chances, as was seen in his goal against Norwich. 

Chelsea's Tempo
Chelsea will likely hope to control the tempo of this game and keep it played at a relatively slow pace. Spurs are far more athletic and powerful than they are creative and therefore a more open game will suit them better than it will Chelsea. Expect Chelsea to keep things compact at the back, defending fairly deep with two banks of four. With the likes of Dembele, Lennon, Bale, Dempsey and Defoe, Tottenham are far more dangerous when they have the space to turn and run at defenders than when they have to circulate the ball quickly with passes to unlock crowded defenses. Against a tight defense, Tottenham don't have the type of players that are as clever with their movement and creative with their passes as Chelsea. Given this is an away game for Chelsea, they'll be particularly keen not to allow this one to open up and rile up Spurs fans.

This game will largely come down to which team can impose its style on the game early. If Spurs can turn this into an open game, their pacey attackers and athleticism will give them the advantage. If Chelsea can control the tempo and allow their four most advanced players to use their clever movement and superior technique going forward, they'll have the advantage.

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