This week brings a full slate of games in the Premier League on Tuesday and Wednesday, a fitting way to start a busy – and pivotal – month of the season.
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur (Wednesday, December 3 – 2:45 PM ET, NBCSN)
Chelsea has enjoyed such an incredible start to the campaign that not scoring in their last league match (yet not losing said match) is probably the most adversity they’ve faced so far this season. The blank came after trashing German side Schalke 5-0 in Germany last Tuesday in the Champions League, so it’s not like the Blues had been struggling to score recently. What is noteworthy is that the team that kept Costa, Hazard and company at bay was none other than Sunderland. Yeah, the same team that lost 0-8 to Southampton less than a month-and-a-half ago.
Of course, it was Gus Poyet’s men that drove a stake into Chelsea’s hearts at the end of last season, when a surprise win at Stamford Bridge effectively ended the Blues’ challenge for the title, as well as handed José Mourinho the first home Premier League loss of his career. So maybe there was a bit of PTSD involved on Saturday in the north of England.
Regardless, a natural consequence of the stalemate at Sunderland is that Chelsea’s lead atop the league table is now reduced to six points. Given how good the Blues have been, and how frequently Manchester City has underwhelmed, you’d think the lead would be larger. Alas.
Mourinho’s men are likely frustrated with the points dropped at Sunderland, so a visit from their fellow Londoners, Spurs, seems like a perfect opportunity to get back on track. After all, Chelsea have only lost one of their last 10 matches against Spurs, and it was at White Hart Lane.
However, there is some good news for Spurs. First, they’re the fourth-best away team in the entire Premier League. Second, their expensive striker, Roberto Soldado, actually scored a goal yesterday (he hadn’t netted since March). It was as dramatic and unexpected as both Burnley and Aston Villa scoring on Saturday. Unlike those clubs, however, Soldado’s strike actually translated into 3 points. Third, Chelsea will be without Diego Costa, out for the match after picking up his fifth yellow against Sunderland.
Still, the doubts remain. Are Spurs playing well? Not really. Are they getting better at playing in the style Mauricio Pochettino wants them to? I’m not sure. That being said, Spurs did show some resiliency in their come-from-behind win against Everton yesterday, even though you could argue that they were bereft of the ball for most of the match (the Toffees enjoyed 61 percent of the possession) and were merely opportunistic when presented with two golden chances due to Everton gaffes.
Regardless, winning tends to paper over some cracks and adapting to a new manager’s style is rarely a smooth and quick process. If Spurs can be as methodical and focused as they were during September’s North London derby, they might increase Chelsea’s frustration. Back then, Pochettino opted for a more pragmatic approach to his high-press ideas, and instead had his team sit back deeper and hit Arsenal on the counter. A similar approach was not used at City; while Soldado had a penalty kick to level the match at 2-all, the Spaniard missed it, and Spurs ended up getting throttled 1-4.
Throwing caution to the wind at Stamford Bridge seems like an obvious recipe for disaster. But should Spurs manage to keep Chelsea at bay for the first 60 minutes or so, they should be able to find enough space to hit the Blues with pace in the same way they hurt Everton. Of course, that’s easier said than done: in six home matches this season, Chelsea has yet to drop points, they’ve conceded only 3 goals and have found the back of the net a whopping 15 times.
So, good luck with that, Spurs.
Manchester United v. Stoke City (Tuesday December 2 – 2:45 PM ET, NBCSN)
3-5-2. 4-1-2-1-2. 4-2-3-1. 4-1-4-1. 4-2-2-2. Those are the formations Louis van Gaal has used so far this season, and they go a long way towards confirming something he said at the beginning of the campaign: “I don’t think that [the system/formation] is the most important thing. The important thing is philosophy and that’s always the same.” We’re slowly seeing that idea come into effect as United are more and more able to execute van Gaal’s philosophy of dominating through advanced possession of the ball while slipping out of different formations like they’re yesterday’s pajamas. The commitment of the players towards the Dutch tactician’s ideas is palpable, and Stoke boss Mark Hughes will be losing plenty of sleep trying to figure out just what shape he’s supposed to deal with on Tuesday. That is if the former United striker has been able to move on from a heartbreaking loss at Liverpool last Saturday.
Arsenal v. Southampton (Wednesday December 3 – 2:45 PM ET, NBC Live Extra)
Did the clock strike midnight for the Premier League Cinderellas? It sure seemed like it after the whistle blew at the Stadium of Light yesterday and the scoreboard read “Southampton 0 – Manchester City 3.” The former second-place Saints looked toothless and overmatched for most of the contest, and instead of finding a way to get back into the game when City central defender Eliaquim Mangala was sent off at 0-1 in the 73rd minute, Ronald Koeman’s men managed to let in two more goals.
However, the good news is that there are five more chances for Southampton to prove that they’re not Premier League pretenders. After this match at the Emirates, they’re due to play Manchester United twice, Chelsea once and Arsenal again in the next six weeks. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Saints cope with such a brutal stretch of matches.
Sunderland v. Manchester City (Wednesday December 3 – 2:45 PM ET, NBC Live Extra)
Congratulations to Sunderland, the only team to prevent Chelsea’s Blue Machine from scoring. Want another challenge, Black Cats? Try repeating the feat against suddenly awake Manchester City, who drove 3 goals past Southampton’s stingy defense. Nothing like trying to stop Diego Costa on the weekend, only to face supernova-hot Sergio Agüero four days later…there’s no rest for the weary in the Premier League.