The strange cocktail of emotions that greeted Chelsea’s biggest win of the season was on full display after their third goal of a wild night at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Some 50 yards away from Nicolas Jackson, wheeling happily away in front of the ecstatic away support to celebrate sweeping in Conor Gallagher’s low cross from the right, an animated debate punctuated with wide eyes and frantic arm gesticulations played out near the touchline between Mauricio Pochettino and the leader of his defence, Thiago Silva.
Pochettino cut an agitated figure in his technical area throughout the closing minutes of the game, and had erupted seconds earlier when a costly turnover had afforded Son Heung-min the chance to charge unchallenged deep into the Chelsea half and work space for a shot against Silva, forcing Robert Sanchez to stretch low to his left to save.
That sequence so incensed Chelsea’s head coach that he showed no visible acknowledgement of the goal that finally secured three vital Premier League points for his team as he made his point to Silva, who spoke passionately in his own defence. As an exchange it felt like a fitting culmination to a match that, despite the final 4-1 scoreline, did as much to expose this team’s vulnerabilities as some of their worst losses this season.
Chelsea’s naivety against Tottenham manifested in three distinct phases. The first played out in the 12 minutes of time added onto the first half, when indiscipline threatened to erase the man advantage created by Cristian Romero’s straight red tackle on Enzo Fernandez.
Reece James was lucky to avoid sanction for a forearm into the head of Destiny Udogie, then Levi Colwill became embroiled in a shoving match with Pape Matar Sarr that Spurs players were eager to escalate. He escaped with a booking, and Pochettino sensibly seized the opportunity to withdraw him at the interval.
The second came in the wake of Udogie’s dismissal in the 55th minute. Tottenham’s unwavering commitment to defending on their halfway line with nine men was unusual and unexpected, and yet the game situation demanded that Chelsea carve them open. Anxiety crept into the visitors’ execution — in the timing of their runs in behind, the accuracy of their attempted through passes and the quality of their decisions.
For 19 surreal minutes Spurs survived with a defensive strategy that defied logic as their supporters roared approval and Pochettino grew more and more puzzled at his players’ inability to solve a relatively simple problem; having laboured on a steady diet of disciplined, low opposition blocks since August, this game appeared comparatively ideal for Chelsea.
Jackson was the most notable offender, frequently darting beyond the last Tottenham defender too early and then calling for passes from offside positions. In the end it was Sterling who took charge, combining with Cole Palmer and James to spring himself clear down the right flank and give his striker an easy chance to put Chelsea in front.
The third phase came in the closing stages when, having seized the lead, Pochettino’s team contrived to invite huge pressure from Spurs despite their numerical advantage.
Son’s late chance was the one that set Pochettino off, but substitute Eric Dier came desperately close to a spectacular equaliser when four Tottenham attackers managed to outmanoeuvre six Chelsea defenders and he connected with a deep Pedro Porro free-kick needlessly conceded by Sterling. Only a marginal offside call saved Chelsea.
Another in-swinging delivery from Porro then yielded a gilt-edged headed chance for Rodrigo Bentancur, made possible by a brainless Malo Gusto foul on Emerson Royal.
A decidedly calmer Pochettino was keen to put a more positive spin on Chelsea’s performance during his post-match media duties, but he admitted that his team had allowed an under-manned Tottenham side to create far too much danger.
“It’s true that we concede some chances that we cannot concede,” he said. “Maybe we can assess the performance to see the (disallowed) goal of Dier or Son, that we lose the ball and we allow them to run — of course, we need to control better.
“But that is about the situation. It’s about building our confidence and when you need to be more relaxed in the way that you play and you need to have more capacity.
“It’s not about quality, it’s more about the emotional moment and when you see that you can win the game, sometimes you take the wrong decision. But with time we are going to improve, (because) we have the capacity and we have the quality.”
Chelsea’s anxiety grew as Tottenham’s injuries and red cards transformed this game from one they wanted to win into one they were obliged to win. That is the same pressure that overcame this young team in their most damaging defeats against West Ham, Nottingham Forest and Brentford, even if the nature of the opponent could not have been more different.
It is also notable that Chelsea performed far better at home against Liverpool and Arsenal in games which, for varying reasons, they could credibly have been considered underdogs. Learning to cope with the burden of expectation is an important part of the growth of any young team.
Passing that particular test more regularly is also non-negotiable if Chelsea want to return to the trophy-winning heights scaled in the Roman Abramovich era, even if it will not apply when Manchester City visit Stamford Bridge next weekend. For now, having clung to positive performances minus the results to match too often this season, Pochettino will have no problem soothing any dissatisfaction with three big Premier League points.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)