Harry Kane deserved all the plaudits he received after Tottenham’s stunning 5-3 win over Chelsea, but in this post we need to talk about Christian Eriksen and Nemanja Matic, two players who may have been just as key in Tottenham’s win but haven’t received nearly as much attention.
Matic’s Role in Chelsea’s Defensive System
Matic may be Chelsea’s most important player as he’s the one who holds that defense together. Terry and Cahill are both exceptional center backs, but neither of them are terribly quick. But what Jose Mourinho knows is that you don’t need your center backs to be quick if they can anticipate play and don’t have to worry about anyone running at them directly. If they have a good shield, then intelligence with good tackling ability and strength in the air is all you really need. So Mourinho sets Matic right in front of them as a screen. When teams run at the heart of the Chelsea defense, Matic is there to break it up or redirect the attack. And once the ball is forced wide, Chelsea’s two fullbacks Ivanovic and Azpilicueta, perhaps the two best in England, are more than capable of breaking up the play. And even if they fail, a cross is almost never going to give Cahill or Terry any trouble. So this is how Chelsea has built the best defense in the league. Direct runners are dealt with by Matic. Wide players are covered by their fullbacks, balls played into the box are handled by their center backs.
Unfortunately for the Blues, the movement of Christian Eriksen broke that entire system. Though he didn’t have much direct influence on the game, save making the pass that led to Spurs second goal, Eriksen’s movement was vital for Tottenham’s attack. (Incidentally, this also brings up a potential difficulty for more stats-centric coverage of the game because it’s difficult to measure contributions like the one Eriksen makes on this play. He never touches the ball, but the goal never happens unless Eriksen is involved.)
Let’s start with Chelsea’s normal set up. The screen capture below is from a few minutes before Kane’s opener.
So Ivanovic (2) and Azpilicueta (28) are in position, ready to drop off to cut off the wide attack. Fabregas (4) is pressing the ball. Matic (21) is shielding the back line, ready to go wherever he needs to cut off the attack. That leaves Cahill (24) and Terry (26) responsible to deal with crosses or passes into the box. But note that bit of space I’ve circled. If Matic could be drug out of position, that pocket suddenly becomes incredibly valuable to Tottenham because neither Terry or Cahill are very good at stepping forward to challenge someone running at them directly.
Now let’s look at how things are set up when Kane (18) receives the ball from Danny Rose (3) on the wing.
I’ve marked what is going to happen with arrows. Eriksen (23) is going to make a run toward the corner flag. Matic (21) follows him and Ivanovic (2) also drops off to cover it. Kane (18) loves a good reverse ball so this is a live danger for Chelsea because he could easily cut in, play a little reverse through ball to Eriksen and then continue his run into the box. At that point, Eriksen has the ball on the edge of the box and could cross to Kane or Chadli (22), both of whom can score with their heads and have decent size.
But that, of course, isn’t what happens. With Matic following Eriksen and Ivanovic dropped off, Kane is now free to run toward that space we circled in the first screen capture. So now Oscar and Fabregas, neither of whom are remotely strong enough to deal with Kane close in on the young Spurs striker.
At this point Chelsea is in real trouble even if they don’t know it yet. Matic (21) and Ivanovic (2) are out of the play. The center backs are having to stay deep because they aren’t good at stopping a run like Kane’s (18) anyway plus Nacer Chadli (22) is running at them. So that leaves Cesc Fabregas (4) and Oscar (8) to try and deal with Kane. Both players, particularly Oscar, are better defensively than most creative passing midfielders. But one of Kane’s greatest qualities is his strength on the ball, so neither player has a chance of knocking him off it once he has started his run. The image below shows where things stand a second later, as Eriksen has pulled Matic and Ivanovic completely out of position and Kane has barreled through Fabregas and Oscar. By this point, John Terry (26) is the only player left to challenge Kane, and that’s never going to work as Terry is incredibly slow when trying to step forward to challenge the ball.
Finally, here we are as Kane is about ready to shoot at the Chelsea goal:
- First, Chadli (22) and Eriksen (23) are now completely out of the screen. They made their runs and pulled Cahill (24), Ivanovic (2), and (most importantly) Matic (21) out of the play. That was their contribution here and it was vital, but now they’re done.
- Terry (26) is still not out to close down Kane (18).
- Willian (22) and Azpilicueta (28) are too far from the play to do anything at this point.
The net result is that as soon as Kane has enough space from Oscar to shoot, he can let fly on the Chelsea goal. And if you’ve watched Kane this year, you know that he gets his shots off quickly and that he is very good at finding the corners. His goal against Besiktas earlier this season was actually very similar to this opener in terms of the placement and distance, although he put it in the other corner on that occasion.
If Chelsea doesn’t win the Premier League this year, it’s entirely possible that this will be the game we remember as a turning point in the campaign. Matic has been immense for the Blues this year, but Tottenham’s game plan completely marginalized him defensively by drawing him out of position through clever dummy runs from Eriksen. If I’m Manchester City watching this game, I’m going to have every intention of using David Silva in a similar way when the two teams face off at Stamford Bridge on January 31. If Silva can pull Matic with him across the attacking third, that could open up plenty of space in that advanced central area of the pitch–an area that a certain Ivorian loves to move into. So while it’s possible that this game is a one-off and is largely the result of Chelsea’s fatigue, it’s also possible that Mauricio Pochettino has figured out how to get to this Chelsea defense: Pull Matic out of position and then run at their aging center backs with power and speed. Now we’ll get to see how Jose Mourinho handles the next month of fixtures. It should be fun.