Paid the price for a poor first half. But the tie isn’t over yet. Great noise from the away end.— Harry Kane (@HKane) January 5, 2022
Chelsea seized control of their EFL Cup semifinal, beating a woeful Tottenham 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg on Wednesday. Kai Havertz scored an early opener for the Blues, who from the outset profited from a string of defensive errors by their visitors, culminating in a disastrous own goal by Ben Davies
Spurs set the tone for what is surely their worst performance against a domestic opponent under Antonio Conte, who looked like he would rather be anywhere else than back at Stamford Bridge. His players seemed utterly incapable of dealing with the Chelsea press, Japhet Tanganga's undercooked pass stolen by Marcos Alonso as early as the fifth minute.
The Spaniard's through ball was judged just right for Havertz darting in behind, from where he rolled the ball toward the far post. Davinson Sanchez might have kept the underhit shot out but could only lift the ball up to the roof of the net. It rather set the tone for a dreadful first half from the visitors, who failed to register a shot at Chelsea's end.
They did, however, find the net at the other. Once more Tanganga was at the heart of the error, attempting to head a Hakim Ziyech free kick to safety. Instead he directed it straight at Davies, the ball deflecting off the Welshman and beyond Hugo Lloris.
It might have been more, Romelu Lukaku full of intensity as he tried to make amends to his Chelsea teammates but without the goal he must have craved. Meanwhile Spurs failed to craft a shot on target from open play until the 88th minute, substitute Bryan Gil flying past Christian Pulisic but seeing Kepa Arrizabalaga save well when his cutback came to Harry Kane.
Conte's side must now overcome a two-goal deficit in the second leg, on home territory, in a week's time or watch their trophy drought extend beyond the 14-year mark.
Chelsea excel in new system
After almost a year under Tuchel you could have forgiven Chelsea players if they had forgotten how to play in a back four. No matter when his line up seemed to suggest otherwise or when the players just did not seem to be available, the Blues would deploy the back three that has brought them such success.
Not today. Certainly there were (infrequent) occasions when Tottenham had dangerous possession and Ziyech would drop back to form a back five, matching up with Spurs' system. Yet for the most part when Chelsea had the ball they had a back four. After that things got a bit more fluid and a lot more fun.
On Tuesday, Tuchel had spoken about how easy it was to position Lukaku. "He's a striker, it's pretty easy. Just put him on the number nine". It was as though the Chelsea boss had done that, defined his back five with Jorginho in shielding the defenders and left the rest to work it out. For the most part it worked extremely effectively.
Certainly it helps when you have a player as positionally shrewd as Mason Mount, always watching for where his teammates and opponents dart and adjusting his position accordingly. Even when the ball did not come his way he seemed instrumental to the moves.
He was not the only one to excel in this new setup. This might have been Saul's best game in a Chelsea shirt, a classic of the box-to-box genre filled with energetic tackles and late runs into the box. Wherever the ball came to Ziyech, and it could be any spot on the pitch, he was looking for the pass to cut through the defense. In a second-half cameo Timo Werner fizzed with danger even if his teammates were frustrated that he could not lob a Ziyech pass over Lloris.
Spurs the architects of their downfall
It is going to take something special indeed if Tottenham are to end their trophy drought as early as February. On the basis of the first leg, Spurs have a long way to go to become the sort of team that could beat the Blues by two clear goals, not least because they looked so capable of conceding more than they did.
Tanganga's errors were the ones to grab the headlines but he was far from alone in his defensive ineptitude. There were passages of play where Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg seemed to be chasing the ball with no discipline whatsoever, no idea where his opponent might be. Sanchez could have done far more to block Havertz's shot for the opener.
No passage of play better summed up an underwhelming defensive display than one just after the second goal. A moment when Spurs' intensity should have ratcheted up, instead they scarcely seemed to be up for the fight. Matt Doherty allowed Ziyech to advance up the pitch, cut onto his stronger left foot and clip a cross into the box without any pressure whatsoever. Sanchez put up the tamest of fights to stop Lukaku winning a header he flashed wide.
Further forward the front three offered next to nothing defensively though they were getting precious little service from a midfield of Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp. The former often looks like a progressive force in a Denmark shirt but he could scarcely get out of his half against Chelsea.
Ultimately it got so bad that Conte's only route to defensive stability was to sacrifice one of his back five, Doherty, and bring on Tanguy Ndombele just so his former side had something to worry about from a midfielder who could actually get Spurs into dangerous parts of the pitch. It at least stemmed the bleeding with the Frenchman involved in almost all of the shots the visitors got in the second period.
Still it was hardly as if Spurs were the game's superior side in the second half. They will emerge from the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium dressing rooms in seven days' time, lucky to still be in this tie, thoroughly chastened after one of the worst nights of Conte's reign so far.