LONDON — Three thoughts from White Hart Lane as Tottenham downed Chelsea 2-0 in comprehensive fashion.
1. Alli the hero as Spurs snap Chelsea’s streak
Tottenham were pretty quick to slap the “Not for Sale” signs on Dele Alli this week following reported interest from Real Madrid in the England midfielder and after his two-goal match-winning display against Chelsea, it’s easy to see why there is no mood whatsoever to cash in on the 20-year-old.
Spurs may have lost the battle to keep Gareth Bale out of Real’s clutches in 2013 but with their new stadium being built around White Hart Lane, this feels like a new, more confident Tottenham both on and off the pitch. On it, Mauricio Pochettino’s team took charge against Antonio Conte’s runaway leaders and claimed the victory that ensured bitter rivals Arsenal didn’t completely lose the record for most consecutive Premier League wins, with Chelsea stalling at 13: the same number achieved by Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles.
And Alli was the difference between the two teams in a game that was largely fought out in the middle third.
But while Chelsea — namely Diego Costa, Pedro and Eden Hazard — failed to deliver in front of goal, Alli’s pair of headers either side of half-time were the stamp of a top-class player delivering when it matters most. Alli has played further forward in recent weeks, occupying an attacking role alongside Harry Kane in Pochettino’s 3-5-2 formation, and his ability to ghost into the penalty area was on display as he scored both goals. They were actually carbon copies of each other, too, with Chelsea failing to deal with crosses from the right on both occasions as Alli jumped highest to convert.
Alli, signed for just £5 million from MK Dons in 2015, has now scored seven goals in his last four Premier League games and is developing into one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe. He has his flaws, with a brittle temperament the biggest issue, but at 20 he will only learn, develop and get better.
No wonder Spurs are determined to keep him.
2. Big test now for Chelsea
There is no need for Antonio Conte to press the panic button just yet at Chelsea. After all, his team still sit five points clear of the pack at the top of the Premier League despite falling short of a 14th successive league victory at White Hart Lane. There is no doubt, though, that despite having a favourable run of three games in 10 days, they failed to show their recently imperious self against a much hungrier and determined Tottenham.
It will be interesting to see whether Chelsea still hold a five-point lead in a month’s time following a difficult run of fixtures that sees them visit defending champions Leicester and closest challengers Liverpool before facing Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Feb. 4.
Conte can at least look forward to a home game against bottom club Hull City on Jan. 22 just in case the trip to Leicester fails to result in three points. Facing Hull at home is about as straightforward as it gets, and that game could be a crucial pit-stop ahead of the potentially seismic clashes against Liverpool and Arsenal.
Both Liverpool and Arsenal have faltered over the festive period, with the two clubs dropping points against Sunderland and Bournemouth respectively. Manchester City also slipped up at Anfield, so Chelsea’s defeat against Spurs has been cushioned by all of their rivals slipping up. But this result bring them all closer together, with a resurgent Manchester United now beginning to gather momentum ahead of their own crucial encounter with Liverpool on Jan. 15.
With 10 points separating the top six, the title race is well and truly alive. But if Chelsea emerge unbeaten over the next month, they can shut it down and leave the rest chasing second.
3. Dier wasted in defence
Pochettino’s decision to play with three at the back against Chelsea meant another stint in defence for Eric Dier, but the Tottenham midfielder is now beginning to suffer because of his versatility. The 22-year-old is certainly good enough to play in the back line although his lack of pace means he is unlikely to develop into a top-class centre-half. He is a good option but the reality is that he is a better player in midfield and Tottenham; as a result, they’re a more convincing team with the England international playing as a defensive shield in front of defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
In Dier’s place, Pochettino went for Kenya international Victor Wanyama in midfield, yet the former Southampton and Celtic player doesn’t offer the same qualities that Dier possesses. Dier is more mobile and more prepared to go forward; when Spurs break forward, he is more likely to break into the penalty area with a late run than Wanyama. But by being able to play at both centre-half and in midfield, Dier makes it easy for Pochettino to drop him into the back four or back three when the need arises.
Wanyama cannot play at centre-half, so it is a simple issue for Pochettino to resolve: he just turns to Dier.
With the top six clubs now fighting an intense battle for the title and Champions League qualification, small margins will make all the difference. If Spurs are 5 percent better with Dier in midfield, he has to play there.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_