In pure geographic terms, Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspur shouldn’t be a particularly fervent rivalry; they’re about 10 miles apart, a fair distance in a city boasting more than a dozen professional clubs. Indeed, if you were to walk from Stamford Bridge to White Hart Lane, you’d pass the Emirates about 6 miles into the journey.
But explaining London’s football rivalries to the uninitiated is a complex task: It’s not just about geography, but about history, status and a myriad of other factors. Tottenham hate Arsenal most, certainly, but Chelsea have rarely had particularly strong rivalries with West London neighbours like Queens Park Rangers, Fulham or Brentford, and so have directed their hatred northeast to Spurs.
Jimmy Greaves’ decision to join Tottenham having previously been considered a Chelsea great (albeit after a short spell with Milan) was a major factor, as was Chelsea’s 1967 FA Cup final defeat. And, in turn, Tottenham supporters have understandably been angered by anti-Semitic changing from some Chelsea fans, and more recently, been frustrated by Chelsea’s rise into a more successful club.
But, like all good rivalries, this one keeps on giving: And the latest episode occurred toward the end of last season, when Tottenham needed to win at Stamford Bridge to keep their title dreams alive. They fell to a 2-2 draw. It might appear too recent to consider in these terms, but in a decade’s time, that match might be considered one of the key moments in the Tottenham versus Chelsea rivalry.
For a Chelsea side who had played dreadful football for most of the season, their surprisingly strong performance seemed almost entirely built around the club’s dislike for Tottenham. “We don’t want Tottenham to win the Premier League — the fans, the club and the players,” said Eden Hazard, who was brilliant in the second half and scored the crucial equaliser that confirmed Leicester’s title win, said beforehand.
“We don’t want Spurs to win the League,” Willian had added. It was a familiar message. “I don’t want Spurs to win it,” agreed Cesc Fabregas. Spurs raced into a 2-0 lead, before Chelsea suddenly woke up after the break, producing perhaps their finest football of the season to snatch a point. The scenes around Stamford Bridge were wild.
“They were celebrating like they won the league at the end,” complained Harry Kane. Indeed, it might have even been more jubilant than that; Stamford Bridge was considerably more raucous than when they confirmed the previous season’s title with a dreary 1-0 victory at home to Crystal Palace.
In that game at Stamford Bridge, Tottenham lost their heads. Twelve players were booked by Mark Clattenburg — who seemingly tried desperately not to dismiss anyone — with no fewer than nine of those cards shown to Spurs players, the most for one side in Premier League history. Eric Dier, in particular, charged around the pitch making crunching tackles and was fortunate not to be sent off.
It’s arguable that Tottenham haven’t really recovered. They lost their next two games, at home to Southampton and then, incredibly, 5-1 to 10-man Newcastle on the final day, which meant they slipped behind Arsenal, somehow finishing third in seemingly a two-horse race for the title.
This season, they remain unbeaten in the Premier League but half of those matches have been draws, while their Champions League performance has been awful, and they now need a result against CSKA Moscow simply to ensure their place back in the Europa League. The mood around Tottenham feels miserable.
This weekend, though, is a great chance for revenge. Both supporters and players will be up for the battle — although the team must not replicate Dier’s performance from last season — and this might feel like something of an old-school London derby, a real fast-paced, scrappy game with genuine hatred between the two sides. The midfield should be physical, with a clash between Spurs’ midfield, perhaps the most physical and combative in the Premier League, against N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. On Saturday night, under the floodlights, this should be a real blood-and-thunder battle.
Of course, triumphing this weekend is a tall order for Tottenham against this Chelsea side, who have won their past six Premier League games by a combined score of 17-0 since Antonio Conte’s decision to switch to a 3-4-3 system. No one has worked out precisely how to play against Chelsea yet: how to cope with their overlapping wing-backs yet also exploit the space on the outside of their three-man defence. Tottenham are generally an extremely tough side to play against, with their heavy pressing and their excellent defensive positioning, but even they might find themselves dragged out of shape by Conte’s Chelsea.
Pochettino might spring a tactical surprise. In the recent 1-1 draw with Arsenal he named a 3-4-1-2 side, which coped reasonably well at the back and provided Arsenal’s centre-backs with an unexpected test, depriving them of a spare man at the back.
A similar shape here is unlikely, and Pochettino will have observed the way Ronald Koeman matched Chelsea’s 3-4-3 and found his side torn to shreds. There is some merit in that approach, even if playing three vs. three is highly risky — it’s the most natural way to contain the opposition wing-backs. A 3-4-3 with a central midfielder, perhaps Dier, dropping back into defence when required could be an interesting experiment, and Pochettino will have spent all week thinking about precisely how to stop Chelsea.
A draw against Chelsea last season killed Spurs’ title charge, but this time around they’d probably take a point. Anything more, and it might prove the turning point in their campaign — and would also, of course, halt Chelsea’s incredible winning run. In this fixture, harming the opposition often appears the main motivation.