Was Chelsea’s first ‘statement win’ under Pochettino a step backward?

The labours of Mauricio Pochettino's Chelsea side on his Spurs homecoming raises fresh questions over the Blues' direction of travel (Credit: IMAGO/PA Images)

Was Chelsea’s first ‘statement win’ under Pochettino a step backward?

Seye Omidiora 05:47 - 07.11.2023

Mauricio Pochettino’s men could have been 2-0 down after 15 minutes, struggled to capitalise when it was 11v10 and 11v9, and could have been pegged back when they led 2-1. The unconvincing 4-1 victory for Chelsea raises doubts about this team’s direction of travel.

It was still 1-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium after less than 10 minutes played, and many Chelsea players looked around, seemingly unsure what to do or how to cope with a relentless Tottenham Hotspur that had overwhelmed them in the game’s opening exchanges.

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Pochettino’s dreadful start to Spurs homecoming

Much of the pre-match talk focused on Mauricio Pochettino’s return to his old stomping ground. A return to the side he almost led to a Premier League title in 2016 and guided to a Champions League final three years later. 

However, the fans possibly regarded the Argentine as an irrelevance after Ange Postecoglou’s team went 1-0 up through Dejan Kulusevski and nearly made it 2-0 after a flowing move that was converted by Heung-min Son.

The South Korean was flagged offside, and Pochettino heaved a sigh of relief. The Blues could have been out of the game before it began, but they were spared by the assistant referee’s flag and the subsequent VAR check.

Tottenham vs Chelsea
Mauricio Pochettino's Chelsea were outplayed in the game's opening minutes at Tottenham (IMAGO/PA Images)

The West Londoners could have been blown away in the opening 20 minutes but soon found themselves level, benefitting from an overly forceful challenge from Cristian Romero. Penalty. Red card. Advantage Chelsea…or so we thought.

Being shorthanded is intermittently a bother for the team with the advantage, evidenced by Spurs’ struggle to break down Liverpool — who had not one but two players dismissed — at the backend of September.

Chelsea were about to experience the same, even if it was down to their failure to take advantage of the home side’s high defensive line rather than struggling to break down a low block, a bugbear all season and the Lilywhites’ challenge against nine-man Liverpool.

Chelsea’s struggles against shorthanded Spurs

It was remarkable that Pochettino’s men got distracted by the chaotic second half of the opening 45 minutes. Statistics provided by Sky Sports showed the Blues had settled and were starting to make inroads into the Tottenham attacking third after the home side’s early goal, outdoing their hosts for shots — 7-0 — and matching them for touches in the penalty area (six).

Tottenham vs Chelsea
Chelsea outshot Tottenham after the home side opened the scoring (Credit: Sky Sports)

After Romero’s dismissal, the Blues’ awful timing of their runs in behind and suboptimal passing meant they could not capitalise on Spurs’ brave approach. 

For a team that were without their first-choice centre-backs — Micky van de Ven (injury) and Romero (red card) and lost their creative hub in James Maddison, they kept Chelsea at bay while posing sporadic challenges on the counter-attack. After Destiny Udogie received a second yellow card, 10 men became nine, but Chelsea’s crude approach and rushed moves for a chunk of the second bordered on comical.

Tottenham vs Chelsea
Tottenham lost Micky van de Ven to a hamstring injury in the first half against Che;sea (Credit: IMAGE/PRIME Media Images)

When they timed it right, Marc Cucurella strangely ignored Raheem Sterling for an easy tap-in, choosing to shoot at goal on his weaker right foot, while Nicolas Jackson’s meek header from point-blank range was thwarted off the goal-mouth by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

Even though Jackson’s 75th-minute goal gave Chelsea the breakthrough, Pochettino’s men struggled to control the game against a side that had nine men. Instead, a rollercoaster affair ensued, and Spurs had chances to peg the West London side back.

Eric Dier levelled four minutes after Jackson’s 75th-minute goal, but he was offside. Rodrigo Bentancur could have made it 2-2 from a set-piece in minute 86, and Son nearly capitalised on another naïve ball loss in the middle of the pitch in the 94th minute, but the Spurs captain was foiled by Robert Sanchez. 

Chelsea immediately went to the other end to make it 3-1, and a fourth was scored shortly after.

Chelsea’s statement win at Spurs was long overdue

The 4-1 win represents the Blues' first success of the season against a big-six club at the third time of asking after failure to edge Liverpool and inability to hold onto a 2-0 lead against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

However, the manner of performance in North London highlighted the weaknesses and broader tactical incoherence of Pochettino’s men. They showed their potential after recovering from an early setback on the opening day draw with Jurgen Klopp’s men and were the better side for over an hour before the late collapse at home to Arsenal.

The nature of both showings offered confidence and a glimpse into the West Londoners’ ability to compete with the so-called top teams, while the immediate reaction to Monday’s showing was disheartening because it felt like a backward step despite outnumbering their opponents by one for the final 12 minutes of the first half and two for the game’s concluding half-hour — excluding additional time.

Admittedly, glass-half-full supporters will focus on finally defeating another member of the top six after losing six of 10 fixtures against that cadre of teams in 2022-23. 

Tottenham vs Chelsea
Chelsea had not defeated a top-six side in over a year until Nicolas Jackson's treble aided a 4-1 win at Spurs (Credit: IMAGO/PPAUK)

The last time they picked up maximum points was a 2-0 triumph against Monday’s opponents at Stamford Bridge in January 2022, while their last away win against one of their rivals came against Arsenal in August 2021 — over two years back.

In that sense, a result of this magnitude was long overdue, and they head into Sunday’s game with Manchester City still unbeaten against their rivals.

But were there any visible building blocks in the Chelsea performance to point to this group’s upward trajectory? Monday’s evidence suggests otherwise.