Jose Mourinho was right: It is easy to manage Chelsea, especially if their opponents play like his Tottenham Hotspur team did in a 1-0 loss to the Blues.
The Tottenham manager had a wry smile on his face when suggesting in the prematch new conference that “I don’t think it’s very difficult to coach” the Blues, citing his success there as a manager in addition to league titles for Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte.
This was Thomas Tuchel’s first big test since succeeding Frank Lampard, but he cannot have imagined it would ever be this comfortable, even if Thursday’s scoreline suggests a degree of jeopardy right until the end.
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The outcome was only in doubt because of Chelsea’s profligacy in front of goal, a hangover from the Lampard era that Tuchel will need longer than 10 days to fix. It reflects well on him that there are clear signs of change already, however, with the Blues adapting quickly to a 3-4-3 system and a demand for short, sustained passing paired with a high defensive line and regular interchanging of positions.
If there were any early nerves, Spurs’ passive approach allowed the visitors to settle, just as was the case a week earlier when a fragile Liverpool team were allowed to find their rhythm to emerge with a comfortable away win over Mourinho’s team.
Tottenham ceded the initiative from the outset, relying on the contain-and-counter style that briefly threatened to see them enter the Premier League title race, particularly after beating Manchester City 2-0 in November.
That day, they had four shots in 90 minutes, scoring with their only two on target. They had seven on Thursday night, the principal difference being that Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min were then in the midst of a devastatingly efficient run — far outperforming their expected goal return for those who place importance on such statistics — and at the back, Eric Dier was marshalling an extremely well-organised defence to force their opponents into over-committing players.
Spurs have lost their way defensively since and, without Kane, there is nobody able to link the play to maximise Son’s counter-attacking threat.
It is curious, then, that Mourinho chose to set up in a similar fashion despite previously admitting this does not play to Carlos Vinicius’ strengths.
And Mourinho’s approach is predicated seemingly more than any other on scoring the first goal. Vinicius had a moment inside the first 10 minutes when he could have released Son, free in space to his left, as Spurs broke. Yet Vinicius, on his first Premier League start, struggled to control the ball for a moment and the chance was gone.
It was a microcosm of what Spurs were missing. Given Mourinho’s style, fine margins would be required to go in his team’s favour — and they didn’t — particularly as Chelsea monopolised possession, registering 77% of the ball in the opening 20 minutes.
That Chelsea hadn’t registered a shot on target in that time — and required a penalty to take the lead — was evidence of Tuchel’s forwards still searching for their best form.
Timo Werner’s wait for a League goal extends into 13 games, but he was better here restored to a centre-forward role — on a ground where he excelled for RB Leipzig last season, scoring the winner from the penalty spot. He won the penalty this time, being fouled by Dier in the box as the England defender flailed his legs carelessly in the box.
Jorginho netted the spot kick, and although Spurs showed a little more invention thereafter, they did not register a shot of any description until the 79th minute. Vinicius could have snatched a point at the death but headed Serge Aurier’s cross wide from 6 yards out.
Once again, none of Chelsea’s attacking players found the net. They needed goals from Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso to beat Burnley, but Tuchel once again found a framework in which his off-form players could still be threatening.
Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a menace in a more advanced position, while Mason Mount proved he is far more than a Lampard pet project, excelling again and the unluckiest not to score.
Spurs never got themselves in a position to capitalise, and the lack of attacking intent calls Mourinho’s methodology into question. He remains capable of securing one-off results — and there is an EFL Cup Final to come in April — but the suspicion remains it is extremely tough to triumph over a 38-game season with such conservatism. This post-Manchester United Mourinho was supposed to be more adaptable.
Mourinho can point to the absence of Kane, Sergio Reguilon and Giovani Lo Celso, but ostracising Dele Alli — injured for this game — and limiting Gareth Bale’s involvement (he was an unused substitute here) appear increasingly counterintuitive.
And in any case, this looks like being a season defined at the top end even more than usual by the teams that cope with their absentees the best.
Manchester City lead the table despite being bereft of a recognised striker until Gabriel Jesus returned to action last week.
Jurgen Klinsmann gives his thoughts on Thomas Tuchel’s first few matches in charge.
Liverpool’s centre-back crisis has led Jurgen Klopp to name 12 different partnerships there this season. Injuries in this COVID-19-affected campaign are inevitable, and Mourinho cannot hail chairman Daniel Levy’s work in assembling this squad one minute and then act as though securing results in difficult circumstance is beyond him the next.
After Spurs suffered their third consecutive League defeat for the first time since February 2012 and Mourinho was beaten in back-to-back home games for the first time ever, the Portuguese threw in a swipe at referee Andre Marriner.
Mourinho: “I told him something that he knows already, which is I consider him one of the best referees in the Premier League. He is a referee I have a big admiration [for] and that gives me a good position to tell him that I didn’t like he performance.
“Reguilon means something for our attacking football; Harry Kane means something for our attacking football; Lo Celso means something again for our attacking football; a good Dele Alli that we didn’t have yet but we hope we can have in the future, means something for us.
“And not just what they mean, but they mean we don’t have many options to rotate and in the end we finish with people with some signs of fatigue because of the accumulation of matches.
“The second thing is confidence. They are very important to play football. When a team has a period when the results are not good, you need that click back to go back to normality.”
Postmatch comments aside, Mourinho was sodden on the touchline by the end, despite periodically wiping himself down with a white towel throughout the match. Spurs played like he’d thrown it in before kickoff.