After yesterday’s fracas (it was certainly more than a game,) the temptation is to call Chelsea-Spurs the best rivalry going in the Premier League. Liverpool-City might have more quality, and the best quality in Europe arguably, but everything is pretty civil and they’re too respectful of each other. Arsenal-Spurs is the traditional rivalry, but Arsenal’s years-long malaise means those games haven’t meant quite as much as the ones with Chelsea have. Chelsea’s local adversaries in West London are Fulham or Brentford, recent additions from the Championship or regular relegation fodder.
Except Chelsea-Spurs isn’t much of a rivalry. Even when Spurs’s results in the league have been comparable or even better than Chelsea’s, they’ve won once at Stamford Bridge in 32 years. And in the best days Spurs have had, Chelsea still racked up a Champions League and Europa League title, while Spurs’s trophy case still is full of tumbling tumbleweeds. So even if Spurs are pumped as being ready to supersede Chelsea as City’s and Liverpool’s closest challenge as Chelsea move into a post-Abramovich era, there’s still a major inferiority complex.
And that complex only feeds these games delightfully. The fact that Spurs’ new strut under Antonio Conte still involved losing to Chelsea four times last year (three of them under Conte) without scoring a goal only amplifies it. Throw that in the stew with these being London’s two best clubs (pipe down, Gooners, you know I’m right), and the fact that past games have become memorable bar brawls, and there is a menace or bile to these games that you can’t take your eyes off of. The desperation of Spurs and the grinning gloating of Chelsea makes it awfully spicy.
Yesterday’s 2-2 draw wasn’t just the perfect example of why Chelsea-Tottenham is the best combat theater, but why the Premier League is the most watched league in the world. Even in oppressive heat (by English standards), the match was played at a suicidal pace, with the fans in the crowd never dropping their volume level below “desperate howl.” If you knew nothing about soccer and just turned this game on and just heard the crowd not just singing but spewing their songs as if it were a weapon projected from their vocal chords out of their maws, you knew that something important was happening here. To boot, this game had everything that makes for a great match: great goals, controversy, a hilarious miss that could have swung the ultimate result, fights, late drama.
All of that said, the game will be remembered for the two managers having to be separated twice on the touchline. Despite his yoga instructor physique and warm speaking style, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has always been a little tetchy. Meanwhile Conte, who once threatened to murder his own players with blood dripping from his nose, could start a fight on a deserted planet and fosters that attitude throughout his team. The first kerfuffle was over Spurs’ first goal, which came after a completely blown call by referee Anthony Taylor, as apparently his vision blinked out while Cristian Romero was hacking down Kai Havertz. The goal came some 30 seconds after that, so it’s debatable whether you could ever call a goal back for that; there was more than enough time for Chelsea to extinguish the threat. And the missed foul certainly didn’t cause Jorginho’s controller to disconnect in his own box which led to Pierre Højbjerg’s goal. What was more debatable is whether Richarlison was offside for the goal.
So Tuchel was already on tilt, and the last thing he wanted to see was Conte celebrating some five feet from him.
Let’s be honest, this is a matchup problem for Tuchel. Conte is unhinged, you know he’s not above using weapons or kicking anyone in the pills and certainly will keep fighting no matter how much he’s taken. Tuchel is in deep water here, which didn’t stop him from milking his celebration of Chelsea’s second and apparent winner, a sprint which took him right past Conte:
Thanks to Spurs’ late equalizer, which came after Romero probably should have been sent off (which only would have made Tuchel look something like Anger from Inside Out) there was Round 3 when Tuchel didn’t appreciate Conte not looking him in the eye at the post match handshake. The ensuing brewhaha got them both sent off.
Final word? Conte:
The heated arguments will overshadow what was a fascinating tactical battle between two of the best managers in the world. With both teams starting the match in a 3-4-3, Conte opted to try and man-mark Chelsea all over the field. Tuchel countered that by having Reece James, who started the match as the right-sided central defender, pushing into midfield as almost a #8, and with Callum Hudon-Odoi sometimes tucking in from his right wing-back spot, Chelsea simply flooded Tottenham’s two-man midfield. This allowed Chelsea to smother Spurs’ counter-attacking ways, as they couldn’t even launch the initial pass to Kane or Son as is their way. When they did rarely get the ball in the direction of their strikers, Chelsea’s centerbacks consistently stepped up and intercepted and prevented Kane or Son from turning upfield. It’s why Chelsea bossed the first half.
But Chelsea don’t have that striker to convert enough chances to bury a team like Tottenham, which allowed Conte to pivot in the second half. Richarlison was brought on, Spurs flipped to a 4-3-3, and Richarlison’s greater activity along with a third midfielder playing behind the strikers confused Chelsea for just long enough to tie the game. Tuchel countered that by shifting James out to wing-back, having the run of the right side with Spurs only having Ben Davies out there instead of the support of a wing-back and a back three as they started the match. It was no surprise that James scored the second goal. Conte just had to throw everything on with Ivan Perisic and Lucas Moura brought onto the field, and they were able to scramble an equalizer.
Even if you aren’t a supporter of either team, once the match was over everyone who watched it was exhausted and yet exhilarated and needing a smoke. The Premier League has a massive advantage on the other leagues of the world thanks to its international TV deals, and the common language it has with the US certainly helps. It was also the first to really get on the international TV boat. But it can do all that because its product is by far the most watchable, and almost always leaves you wanting more. Chelsea-Spurs was a workout in a way no other league can match.