The Capital One Cup Final finishes Chelsea 2-0 Spurs leaving us with plenty of positives despite defeat to these classic Jose Mourinho tactics.
“They came to destroy the beautiful game” was the opening line from a 1990s Nike commercial. “Finals are not to play, they are to win” beamed the Chelsea manager afterwards, as if he knew that this kind of criticism would be levelled at his team. The match wasn’t a pretty, nor was it easy on the eye, but it was a classic Mourinho display.
Spurs looked the better side for much of it, had more of the ball, but fell victim to the big moments. Mourinho coaches his side to take advantage of these and exploit them to the maximum. It all started from his choice of formation.
The defensive 4-3-3 has been Mourinho’s go to setup in the big matches over the years and was a staple of his first spell in the Premier League. Without Nemanja Matic and having been so heavily overrun in the midfield in Spurs 5-3 Chelsea on New Year’s Day, he went back to his fabled formation here.
Instead, Jose Mourinho went with Kurt Zouma and Ramires in his central trio, along with Cesc Fabregas. The three of them operated in an offset triangle to shield and keep anything away from the central defensive partnership behind them.
Zouma was often tracking Eriksen, picking him up as he crossed halfway and would also drift out in to the wider areas, which the Dane was forced to do to find space. The job he was doing reminded me of the one Leicester City did on David Ginola in the 1999 Final.
Ramires was shuttling between covering Nacer Chadli as he drifted in field and moving forward to try and close down Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason.
Cesc Fabregas was the third member. He picked up anyone unmarked moving in to the central zone, often Andros Townsend, and then looked to play the out balls once possession was regained.
Eden Hazard and Willian aided the trio. The two deep-lying wide forwards would often track our full backs, allowing Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta to tuck in closer to their centre backs. This provided them with more of a shield, as Gary Cahill was tracking Harry Kane, covering him if he came short, leaving John Terry free to play as a sweeper behind him should anything get through.
The formation, the central trio especially, was set up to keep us off of their centre back pairing, something we’d overrun in the mauling at the Lane. The attention that Harry Kane drew in the opening minutes, as he was fouled by Ramires and Zouma, with Fabregas coming in to finish the job, only served to highlight this.
Christian Eriksen would fire the free kick against the bar in what would turn out to be our closest effort of the afternoon.
The central trio, on the whole, did its job. However, we managed to get in-behind it on a couple of occasions from quick vertical forward passing.
Harry Kane received the ball beyond the Zouma, Fabregas and Ramires triangle. Gary Cahill was pulled out being Kane’s tracker, but was too slow. The striker turned and rumbled downfield before firing a tame shot that was easily saved by Petr Cech.
In the 37th minute, Nacer Chadli also burst forward with the ball and got behind the central trio. Kane was again matched up on Gary Cahill, but for some reason made a late ill-advised run across the path of Chadli and ended up condensing the playing space and the attack was thwarted. Kane had to realise that Cahill would be tracking him. He needed to run across earlier, but with his delayed reaction, he should’ve stayed to the left and opened the space up for Chadli to go 1v1 at Terry.
With these moments so few and far between, Spurs needed to be more clinical and think quicker in them.
I talked about dictating the tempo in the keys to Chelsea vs Spurs and whoever controlled this would drive the game. Jose Mourinho wanted a slower, more attritional contest. Mauricio Pochettino needed the game to be frantic and frenzied to make it an athletic one.
Chelsea’s set-up and tactics made it the former, but our approach also played in to their hands. Without a pressing number ten in Mousa Dembele, we made an effort to close down, but weren’t as energised as we could be without the ball. We were content to engage Chelsea as play entered the middle third, but this wasn’t high enough to try and disrupt their central trio.
On the other hand, Chelsea did sit deep and then sunk back to congest the game after going in front. They were content to drop off and play on the counter attack, as they conceded possession, with just 37% of the ball.
They swarmed the middle to keep us out of here and the only time they offered any type of pressing game was when our full backs got the ball. Mourinho talked afterwards at how they “pressed at the right times” and our full back with the ball was undoubtedly a trigger to squeeze in if the initial man went to close down.
Here we can see how Hazard closes Walker, as Fabregas pinches in on Mason, Ramires on Bentaleb, Willian towards Vertonghen and Costa covers Dier.
It was done to force us in to playing long balls that would be eaten up by effectively three centre backs, with Cahill, Terry and Zouma all waiting.
Everything Chelsea did was aimed at keeping the game at a controlled tempo and forcing us to play hurried passes in key areas that if they weren’t precise were turned over.
Whilst we hit the bar with one, we conceded far too many free-kicks around our penalty area to Chelsea in the first half. This allowed them to deliver balls in to our box for their big men.
It started with just 34 seconds on the clock as Andros Townsend fouled Eden Hazard, allowing the first free kick to be curled in to our penalty area. It finished with Willian putting the sixth one in and John Terry scoring from a scrappy prod home.
The questions about why we were marking zonally, when we had included man-to-man markers at corners, were extremely valid. What we didn’t have answers for were why we were committing so many silly ticky-tack fouls around our box. Nacer Chadli’s pull on Branislav Ivanovic was the prime and most costly example. However, other’s like Danny Rose’s lunge on Eden Hazard and Kyle Walker’s petulant foul on Diego Costa were also unnecessary.
All of these invited pressure and eventually, on the sixth occasion, it told.
In the keys to Chelsea vs Spurs we looked at how teams had exposed Branislav Ivanovic’s positioning to score and beat Chelsea, us included.
In this match, probably under Mourinho’s orders, he was a lot more restrained in his bursts forward to join the attack. He was a threat at the free kicks around our box and also corners. Chelsea seemed to be looking for him to peel off at the far post and head the ball back across goal.
When Ivanovic did get forward, we weren’t quick enough in to his vacant right back zone. Opportunities were few and far between, but Danny Rose did have chances to expose this. The problem for Rose was that he was either well tracked by Willian or he didn’t have support up quickly enough in the box to cross to.
Getting into this zone and the occasions when we got beyond the central trio were our best chances to create something, but we failed to take advantage.
Chelsea 2-0 Spurs
With us largely in control of the ball in the first half, Chelsea had been in control of the key moments.
They would add a second 11 minutes in to the second half, as they once more rode their luck with a deflection. The crux of the goal was getting players loose between the lines, something we looked at in the keys to Chelsea vs Spurs.
Chelsea uses their trio of playmakers, Willian, Hazard and Fabregas, in order to get in space and play through balls. These allow either a direct shot or the opportunity for a one-two to be created.
Fabregas had drifted away from our midfield and was free in oceans of space as he received the ball.
This gave him time to play a through ball to Diego Costa, allowing the Spanish international to run off Kyle Walker.
Walker was sat deeper than his defensive counterparts, which allowed Costa to receive the ball closer to our goal than we would’ve liked. The deflection on Costa’s shot/cross was just purely unfortunate, but the game went with it.
With us down two goals and severely behind the eight ball, Mauricio Pochettino tried his best to change the game with his substitutions.
All of his changes moved players around his base formation, as he chopped and changed his number ten in a search for the optimum combination.
Mousa Dembele came on for Andros Townsend, gaining that pressing presence we’d lacked from the number ten position. This moved Eriksen out to the right, away from some of the congestion, a decent move.
Nine minutes later and on came Erik Lamela for Ryan Mason. Lamela went to the right, Eriksen back to the number ten role and Chadli left, with Dembele dropping in to Mason’s position. This then removed the pressing presence from the number ten role, with only nine minutes for Dembele to affect the game in this position.
A final throw of the dice and the number ten role was switched again. On came Roberto Soldado for Nacer Chadli as Pochettino went 4-2-3-1 with a second striker in Harry Kane as the number ten. Soldado went up top with Eriksen left and Lamela right.
None of the changes had a big effect. We controlled possession and territory, but Chelsea had sunk so deep that we were forced in to shots from range.
Width was required to stretch a narrow Chelsea out and Kane’s glancing header from a cross that just evaded Erik Lamela was about as close as we came in this period.
Chelsea 2-0 Spurs overall
This was a classic Jose Mourinho big game set-up and performance. He controls the tempo by restricting the opposition and slowly asphyxiating them to take advantage of key moments and mistakes.
Chelsea could not become involved in an athletic match up like they had been at the Lane and needed to make this a contest of attrition. They did it through conceding possession and often territory, being content to play on the counter.
Despite losing, there were plenty of positives here.
The average age of our side was just 24 years old and they weren’t overawed by the occasion or in the game. Their inexperience did show in some key moments in both attack and defence, but this will be an excellent learning exercise that will only serve them well in the future.
Harry Kane said it was the “worst feeling in the world,” but that “it gives you that fire in your belly.” After the disappointment has disappeared, our youngsters can be proud of themselves and it will ignite them with a desire to learn and improve.
Mauricio Pochettino will also have learnt a lot about not only his players, but also his coaching style in these games. Few go up against Mourinho and win in the big matches, but he will be wiser for the experience.
Final score: Chelsea 2-0 Spurs.