LONDON — So has Mauricio Pochettino devised the plan to beat Chelsea or will this 2-0 defeat at Tottenham prove to be nothing more than a bump in the road for Antonio Conte’s Premier League leader?
Whatever the answer, Chelsea and Conte might well be kicking themselves for failing to spot the trap that Pochettino was laying for his team at White Hart Lane.
Three days prior to this game, Pochettino sent his team to Watford and laid them out in the same 3-5-2 formation that would go on to negate the game plan that has served Conte and Chelsea so well since they crashed to a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal back in September.
After that game, Conte chose to rip it up and start again at Stamford Bridge. His move to the three-at-the-back system that brought so much success to his Juventus team resulted in Chelsea going on a 13-match winning run that ensured that they remain five points clear at the top of the table after this defeat against Spurs.
Pochettino’s team matched Chelsea and then bettered them, in every department, so they have now shown the formula for beating the leaders. Whether others can do the same remains to be seen, because Pochettino has some pretty useful players at his disposal, but the blueprint has been laid, all the same.
“Whatever system you play, you have weaknesses,” insisted Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the former Chelsea forward, in his role as a match summariser. “And Tottenham found them tonight.”
Those weaknesses were all over the pitch, so perhaps it was just an off night for Chelsea.
Conte’s back three was not as convincing as usual, but much of the credit for that goes to the high-energy approach of Spurs, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli chasing down the Chelsea defenders and Christian Eriksen running at them from deep.
In midfield, Mousa Dembele’s energy, tenacity and forward running overcome Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante, with Victor Wanyama providing a resolute shield in front of the Spurs back three, which kept a prowling Diego Costa quiet.
When Costa engaged in a heated argument with Pedro late in the first half following his teammate’s failure to make the right run, it summed up the frustration within the Chelsea team, which was caused by Tottenham’s readiness to push them all the way and their refusal to be intimidated by the in-form visitors.
But Tottenham are an excellent team, especially at White Hart Lane, where they destroyed Manchester City earlier this season, so Chelsea might not come up against a similar test for a while.
Jermaine Jenas, the former England and Tottenham midfielder, told the BBC after the game, “If this is what it is going to take to stop this Chelsea side, I don’t see it happening too often.
“I don’t see many teams being able to put together that mixture of skill and strength that Spurs put in tonight on a consistent basis.”
Chelsea must still come up against their top-six rivals, with 10 points separating themselves at the summit and Manchester United in sixth, but how many will play the same way against them as Tottenham?
City, perhaps, because Pep Guardiola has shown his readiness this season to tinker with formations when it suits his team. Sometimes it has worked, and at other times, it has failed spectacularly.
Liverpool? Jurgen Klopp’s team are too heavily weighted toward attacking to change their game, but it was enough to beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, so they will not feel as though they have to change.
Arsenal, who travel to Chelsea on Feb. 4, are unlikely to play like Spurs, as they do not have the personnel; while United have seen how badly 3-5-2 can go wrong during Louis van Gaal’s reign in charge, so do not expect Jose Mourinho to put his players through that experiment again.
The mood within the Chelsea camp was one of defiance after this game, though. Yes, it is a setback, but not a damaging one.
“We were not as sharp and quick as we have been and Spurs were tidier in their passes,” said Chelsea captain Gary Cahill. “We were short and, in this league, you have to be on your game all the time.
“But this is one loss in 14 games and it isn’t going to affect us one bit. We have strong characters in the dressing room. We have the FA Cup at the weekend, and then we go again.”
Chelsea manager Conte also insisted that his team were strong enough to bounce back after their second defeat in North London this season.
“This is a different defeat to the one in September against Arsenal, because today, we lost the game,” Conte said. “But showed that we were a team. Against Arsenal, we weren’t a team; today we were.
“We must work hard and be pleased with our position in the table, but know this league is tough until the end for the Champions League, for the title.”
For Pochettino, though, the victory was not about formations and tactics; it was about the character of his players. Make no mistake, however, Tottenham are real contenders for the title.
“I think after that victory, we can talk a lot, but the most important thing was we were competitive against a team in very good form,” he said. “To cope with that type of game — not only to play well, but to be competitive — is a thing only you can learn with time and experience.
“Maybe we missed a little bit to fight for big things last season. The most pleasing thing was we showed big character against a team fighting for big things.
“We are in a good position, third in the table, but it is a long way to finish the season.”
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_