Pochettino copies Conte, Tottenham thwart Costa to deny Chelsea
Managers often talk about how results hinge on small details, and Antonio Conte might have thought something similar after Chelsea's 13-game Premier League winning streak came to an end with a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham on Wednesday night.
In an intense battle between two dynamic sides, it quickly became apparently why we were watching the two best defences in the division. Spurs had the edge overall, but relied on converting the two big chances they produced, and will have been relieved to see Eden Hazard miss a sitter with the score at 1-0.
That underlined how narrow the contest was. Making it even closer was Mauricio Pochettino's decision to use a 3-4-3 system to mirror Conte, which created a series of individual battles across the pitch as neither team were able to bypass the opposition pressure with any regularity.
But when chances did arrive, thanks to Christian Eriksen exploiting a zone in front of Gary Cahill, Dele Alli was clinical. Chelsea, who had been largely limited to balls over the top for Diego Costa, took more control towards the end, but Spurs stayed solid to secure a crucial win.
Pochettino copies Conte
Rival managers have scratched their heads trying to devise a solution to Conte's 3-4-3. The one who came closest before last night was probably Pep Guardiola, who played a similar system when Manchester City harshly lost 3-1 to Chelsea at home, and Pochettino went for a comparable approach, having used the 3-4-3 with increasing frequency recently.
That saw Spurs line up with Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at the back, who were meant to stop Hazard, Costa and Pedro, while Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele faced N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in central midfield. There were further individual battles between the wing-backs, and Alli, Eriksen and Harry Kane also had defined markers. In other words, whenever someone had the ball, there was usually a direct opponent nearby.
This made it hard to play out of defence; hardly anyone were given time or space when the two pressing machines clicked into gear. Instead the defenders tried to bypass the pressure with lofted passes, with Spurs mainly going down the left through Alli and Kane. They won some free kicks down that side, but little happened in open play; not that Pochettino seemed to mind a few incomplete deliveries.
"Sometimes you need to give the ball to them because they push you," he said.
The good news for Spurs was that their own pressure stifled Chelsea. Holding a high line, the back three closed down aggressively and intercepted quickly, with the visitors failing to hit the target in the first half. Exemplifying their strategy, particularly until the second goal, was Vertonghen, who kept venturing past the halfway line to stop Pedro.
High line negates Costa
Chelsea have probably not been nullified with such efficiency since Conte switched to 3-4-3. The Spurs pressure was overwhelming at times and particularly Kante committed errors in possession, one setting up an Eriksen shot flying just wide. Crucially, Spurs managed to negate Costa, who is usually effective both when running in behind and coming short: the back three had the pace to track his runs, plus the power to dispossess him when he had his back towards goal.
In the first 65 minutes, before Conte made his first substitution, Costa received nine passes within 40 yards of goal. The high line nearly backfired when Hazard ran through to fire wide within five minutes, but otherwise it helped reducing space for Costa, who came into argument with Pedro in the first half over a squandered counter-attack. His fury was understandable: the way Spurs defended, few chances of such promise were likely to come Chelsea's way.
Left with few options, the visitors tended to try long balls over the top instead. Yet the timing and understanding was never sufficient to fool the back three, and for the majority of the game, David Luiz's more ambitious forward passes were sent without address.
Chelsea fail to close down Eriksen
If the pressing game was intense on both sides, another similarity was their shape in deeper areas. Both retreated into a 5-4-1, in which the midfield four marked zonally and kept the sides compact. Yet not everything went according to plan, and the man exploiting this was Eriksen.
The Dane, positioned on the right, played deeper than Alli throughout, and kept dropping deep before trying tricky forward passes. The two goals, which were almost identical, emerged when he found space just outside the box and crossed for Alli, who snuck in behind Cesar Azpilicueta to head home. It was poor organisation from Chelsea, though Pochettino might also have identified Alli's height advantage over Azpilicueta as a strong point to target.
Disappointingly for Conte, Chelsea had players close to Eriksen on each occasion, but did not put enough pressure on him. Cahill, Eriksen's supposed direct rival, could have done more on each occasion, while Kante could have been more aggressive for the first goal. Cahill was perhaps held back a bit by a booking picked up on 38 minutes -- precisely for fouling Eriksen.
Shrewd Spurs protect result
By the time of the second goal, Chelsea had squandered a big chance of their own when Hazard nodded wide unmarked from yards out. At 2-0 down, things had to change: Conte introduced Willian for Alonso, and later Cesc Fabregas and Michy Batshuayi for Kante and Victor Moses. The system, though, changed only towards the end.
Chelsea soon took more control, and Spurs were happy to relinquish some of the initiative. But while the visitors often arrived near the box, they struggled to find the final pass against a well-drilled side defending in numbers.
The Spurs defensive interventions took place almost exclusively in their own half in the last 25 minutes, highlighting shrewd game management from Pochettino, and when the whistle blew, the victory could only be described as deserved.
FourFourTwo Stats Zone provides live in-game data, scores, alerts and animated chalkboards. The award-winning app is free on iOS and Android.