Champions League winners tend to possess a sure touch when it matters most and Thomas Tuchel’s wonderful 2021 has been marked by brilliant decision-making under pressure. The scorers suggest that Thiago Silva, N’Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger gave Chelsea victory at Tottenham but, sizeable as their contributions were, Tuchel was the real difference maker.
A big-game specialist was the catalyst, the man who altered a derby with a half-time change. On came Kante to score, but it was more than just a substitution. Tuchel had abandoned his trademark 3-4-3 for 3-5-2. It brought a shift in emphasis. Chelsea had spent much of the opening period on the back foot as, for the first time under Tuchel, they failed to register a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes of a league game.
They had two goals in the first 12 minutes of the resumption, with a fine save and a goal-line clearance denying them others. Perhaps, with Timo Werner and Mateo Kovacic missing chances, they could have added a third before Rudiger struck in injury-time but he rubber-stamped the second-half superiority.
It underlined what a difference his manager has made. Tuchel’s first win against elite opposition came at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in February. A second victory there was evidence of his alchemy. It also meant that Nuno Espirito Santo’s Spurs have suffered back-to-back defeats. Early-season pacesetters have been overtaken and if they can regret the way their bright start produced too few chances, that is also a compliment to Tuchel’s well-drilled defence.
Silva was at the heart of it, impressing at the day job before marking his final game as a 36-year-old with a goal, rising above Dele Alli to head in Marcos Alonso’s corner.
Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta had been liberated by the half-time reshuffle, with Kante introduced as a third defensive midfielder. They became auxiliary attackers. Alonso registered Chelsea’s belated first effort on target, stretching to volley and drawing a fine save from Hugo Lloris. Tuchel has a habit of being proved right and if there is some surprise Ben Chilwell has figured so rarely this season, Alonso has justified his inclusion.
It was his corner that brought the breakthrough and the Spaniard almost doubled the lead, meeting a cut-back from Azpilicueta with a shot that Eric Dier cleared off the line. Instead Kante, who had replaced Mason Mount, got a rare goal, albeit in fortunate fashion with a drive from distance that took a huge deflection off Dier and went in off the post. Chelsea were devastating when they were rampant and able to stay in the game when they were not.
And yet it had begun promisingly for Spurs. If Tuchel was taken aback by Tottenham’s selection and tactics, he was probably not alone. Nuno trusted the flair players he has seemed reluctant to start, picking Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso and dropping Oliver Skipp and Harry Winks.
Tottenham showed more early attacking intent than they had in their four previous league games, using a high-energy approach and high-pressing tactics. Yet Spurs’ pressure did not produce clear-cut chances, partly because of Chelsea’s defiance. Silva and Rudiger made brilliant interventions and, when Lo Celso released Heung-Min Son, his touch was poor and Kepa Arrizabalaga came out to smother. The Spaniard was deputising for the injured Edouard Mendy but his defence ensured he had little to do.
He saved a second-half shot from Kane, but it was from long range. In contrast, Lloris had to excel to deny Thiago a second and then to claw away Azpilicueta’s header. Defenders proved the best form of attack, as Rudiger showed with the injury-time third.