This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
It is no exaggeration to say that Tottenham versus Chelsea is the biggest game in Spurs’ recent history. Their visit to Stamford Bridge will likely decide their future for the next four or five years and help move the club to the next level. Rightly or wrongly, victory here would mean at least as much as a Cup final victory did back in the pre-Sky era.
Fittingly for such a big game, it is not a foregone conclusion. In a season in which most of the big games have turned out to be damp squibs, this has the potential to rank alongside Spurs’ victory at Old Trafford as 2012-13’s defining moment.
With André Villas-Boas and Rafa Benítez in the dugouts, it is extremely hard to predict what will happen: both are creative tacticians and will be aware of each other’s capabilities. They will have studied each other’s habits and will have rehearsed several scenarios on the training ground going into the game. It is therefore a decent bet to expect the unexpected in terms of starting selection.
Given the high likelihood of a surprise in terms of tactics, it will not be a surprise to see the teams come flying out of the blocks but revert to more conservative strategies before long. In a game as huge as this, margins will be fine and leaving things to chance would spell disaster.
Chelsea’s strongest XI pretty much picks itself at the moment. The major question mark will be over David Luiz’s positioning: if he plays in defence then he will surely be partnered by Branislav Ivanović instead of John Terry, but it is possible that the Serbian may displace the excellent César Azpilicueta at right-back in order to include the former England captain.
Playing Luiz in midfield alongside Ramires would arguably give Tottenham more to think about – as anyone who has witnessed one of the Sideshow Bob lookalike’s ridiculous recent piledrivers can attest – but it seems likely that the more positionally astute John Obi Mikel will get the nod instead, provided he is fit.
If the Nigerian anchorman misses out, Frank Lampard will take his place, but having played 325 minutes in eleven days, the ageing anti-AVB crybaby goalscoring midfielder must be nearing breaking point.
The third band picks itself: Eden Hazard will return having missed Sunday’s victory over Manchester United, Oscar will presumably find himself in the somewhat restrictive narrow role on the right and Juan Mata, Chelsea’s ace in the pack, will play through the middle, notionally at least.
If Tottenham are to take anything from this game then their defensive strategy must be watertight. In terms of ability these three are up there with any combination in world football. Normally it would be overwhelmingly tempting for AVB to simply park the bus and take a 0-0, but at this stage of the season a draw just isn’t good enough.
Thankfully for Spurs, walking punchline Fernando Torres seems set to replace Demba Ba up front following the Senegalese’s ninety-minute shift at Old Trafford. Torres has now gone 1,011 minutes without scoring a Premier League goal, although he has been prolific in the Europa League.
For AVB, the task is simple but far from easy: cut off the space for Hazard, Oscar and, most importantly, Mata, while drawing Chelsea out sufficiently to allow Gareth Bale to influence the game. Both teams have looked extremely leggy in recent weeks and the Welshman’s phenomenal stamina and direct running could again prove decisive.
For me, the best way to go about achieving this would be a narrow and unambitious 4-3-3 that crowds the middle and forces Chelsea’s flair players wide. Start Bale on the right and tell him to drift and cut inside against Cole as he did when faced with Luke Shaw at the weekend.
Presumably Gylfi Sigurðsson will take the other wide berth and his job should be simple: play as sensibly as possible in order to cover Bale’s gung-ho attacking on the other side. Additionally, Sigurðsson’s defensive diligence would allow him and Bale to switch flanks as and when appropriate. This would give Bale different attacking possibilities while preventing Chelsea’s full-backs from supporting their wide-men.
What AVB will choose is likely to be the standard 4-2-3-1 and he looks set to fight fire with fire. How sweet it would be if he burned brighter than Benítez, silencing his Stamford Bridge critics once and for all.