One of the main motivating factors behind Chelsea’s £220 million summer spending spree was the lack of a killer instinct during Frank Lampard’s maiden season in charge. Yet Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Tottenham now stands alongside a goalless draw at Manchester United and a 2-0 home defeat against Liverpool in a failure to score against the traditional ‘Big Six’ in the Premier League this term.
None of those results is a disaster in isolation. The Liverpool defeat came in the second game of the season, too early for Lampard to fine-tune his starting line-up. Although Manchester United fluctuates between the sublime and the ridiculous each week, a point at Old Trafford is a credible result.
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And the limit of Spurs’ aspirations here is probably best summed up by the fact the visitors failed to have a shot of any description in the second half, the first time that has happened since December 2018 against Wolves.
But increased expectations come with such a huge financial investment and for all the attacking talent on display, Chelsea mustered just three shots on target and only one that really tested Hugo Lloris, a long-range effort from Mason Mount as Chelsea increasingly struggled to play through Tottenham’s rigid defence. After all, Chelsea had two days extra to prepare for this game and were able to use all six summer signings at one stage or another here, in addition to Christian Pulisic making his first appearance since Oct. 28 following persistent hamstring problems.
Pulisic came on 16 minutes from time, Kai Havertz followed nine minutes later and Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy Abraham in between. All the while, Lampard persisted with a 4-3-3 shape that was gradually nullified by Spurs, who palpably diminished in ambition as the match wore on.
Mourinho could be seen telling his players to slow the game down during the second half as his substitutions added further conservatism to their approach. Case and point, Gareth Bale, who many thought was acquired on loan from Real Madrid to win matches of this magnitude, remained an unused substitute.
His borderline farcical post-match assertion that “we came here to win” was merely a continuation of the obstructive mischief that had gone before, as was the claim Spurs are not in the title race. Asked to recall a previous metaphor he used in 2014 when in charge of Chelsea involving what type of horse his team was in comparison to the thoroughbreds challenging for the Premier League, Mourinho said: “We’re not even in the Chelsea need more from summer signings Werner, Havertz and Ziyech to be genuine contenders race, so we’re not a horse. We’re a pony.”
At least Chelsea had their designated match-winners on the pitch. Spurs deserve credit for implementing Mourinho’s tactical plan so emphatically, displaying a resolve not usually associated with Tottenham in securing a draw which takes them back to the top of the table. But although Spurs bought shrewdly this summer with Mourinho also extracting obvious improvement in several individuals —perhaps most pertinently Tanguy Ndombele, who was excellent in the first half here — there is no reasonable expectation just yet on Tottenham to win the title.
Timo Werner, four goals, is one of the high-priced Chelsea attackers who has yet to hit top gear since arriving at Stamford Bridge this summer. Photo by Justin Tallis/PA Images via Getty Images
Liverpool and Manchester City rightly remain favourites, but Chelsea’s expenditure combined with their positional proximity last season puts Lampard under more immediate pressure to deliver. They certainly must produce more of a goal threat in these bigger games. Hakim Ziyech tried his luck from long range in the second minute with a shot straight at Lloris but the Spurs goalkeeper was not tested again until Mount forced him into an excellent save nine minutes from time.
Chelsea could still have won it. Joe Rodon, making his full Premier League debut with Toby Alderweireld absent through injury, started and ended with a shaky moment, aiming a weak header back to Lloris in stoppage time that fell kindly for Giroud. The 34-year-old, could not take advantage, only lifting a tame shot straight at his fellow Frenchman.
Havertz and Pulisic did not really have enough time to affect the game with both struggling for match fitness, the former recently ending his period of self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. But Werner and Ziyech did.
The former RB Leipzig man thought he’d opened the scoring on 11 minutes, collecting Mount’s pass in space on the left, cutting in on his right foot and curling a superb shot in off the post only to be correctly flagged offside. He struggled to make inroads after that, registering the lowest pass completion rate of any Chelsea starter aside from Abraham.
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Perhaps Lampard was mindful of Mourinho’s default setting, ensuring his players did not over-commit for fear of being caught on the counter-attack, something which looked possible early on when Spurs threatened with Steven Bergwijn and Serge Aurier going close.
Mourinho certainly thought so. “The opponent defensively was very good,” said the Spurs boss.
“They didn’t take risks. They were solid, they didn’t project many players in attack like they normally do and also because we have to do a little bit better.”
But even so, in those tight moments, individual brilliance is required. That’s why Chelsea paid the money.
“It is difficult to create against Tottenham when they defend in the low-medium block,” Lampard said.
“The whole team is central, you have to go around them, you have to try and make crosses or take on shots and it is not easy while making sure you don’t allow counter-attacking in transition. So, I thought that part of our game was great, I thought we did enough to win the game without getting that last little bit that would win it for us.
“Sometimes you rely on a bit of magic, something to drop for you when you have that much dominance and it didn’t quite come.”
These remain formative days in a frenetic season with many big tests to come. But more is surely required from Chelsea’s expensively assembled forward line if they are to bridge the gap to the top.