Tottenham’s dismantling of Chelsea showed why Mauricio Pochettino is becoming the next Arsene Wenger and how Mauricio Sarri will never be far from the sack…
David Luiz was once derided as a “PlayStation defender” by Gary Neville, although this slightly embittered and personal attack was unfair. Seldom can any PlayStation stopper have ever defended as badly as Luiz did against Tottenham on Saturday.
Even in the early days of the FIFA series back in the mid-90s, the computer-automated defenders showed basic positional awareness, the ability to tackle and the artificial intelligence programmed to think that getting in the way of a goal-bound shot might be “a good idea.”
It’s unfair to single out Luiz for Chelsea’s defeat of course. When an interviewer threw Maurizio Sarri a lifeline by asking if he thought Ross Barkley had impressed after coming on as a sub, the Chelsea manager replied simply: “No. Today I didn’t like anybody.”
The reply showed gallows humour and comic timing, but a Chelsea manager can afford maybe two performances like this before the s-word starts floating around. The fact this was their first defeat of the season is irrelevant. Managing Chelsea is like navigating the opening scene of an Indiana Jones film, where a single false step can result in a spear through the sternum.
It might be a bit harsh to blame Kepa Arrizabalaga for the first goal, given that he could barely have seen Dele Alli’s header before it nearly took his head off, but the second was inexplicable to the point of being suspicious.
One of the flaws in the early FIFA games was that if you reached a certain position around 40 yards out and hit the shoot button, you’d always score. (Exhibit A: the second goal, here).
This was almost how Harry Kane scored Tottenham’s second goal, although Kepa looked about as mobile as a victim of strychnine poisoning. His only defence is that he probably wasn’t expecting Luiz to actively move out of the way of the ball’s path.
In mitigation Chelsea might have had a soft penalty for a foul on Eden Hazard when the score was 1-0 but other aspects of their performance defy rational explanation.
The world’s best defensive midfielder Ngolo Kante was used as an auxiliary attacker, which made about as much sense as picking Cesc Fabregas in goal. For Tottenham’s third, Kante was stranded up the field after an attack had broken down and watched on as Son Heung-min completed a goal that looked significantly more brilliant than it might have done had Luiz not hared out of position and made a challenge that would have embarrassed a defender in FIFA 95’s Albania squad.
Tottenham stuck between two worlds
Tottenham were good, very good in fact, but they find themselves in a position similar to Arsenal in their early years at the Emirates. With everyone fit they can beat almost any side in Europe, but they are financially overstretched by the burden of building a stadium they still haven’t moved into and unable to reinforce.
Arsene Wenger’s obsession with the Champions League saw him repeatedly throw everything at doomed attempts to beat Bayern Munich and Barcelona, while fielding weaker teams in competitions they had a more realistic chance of winning. When he ended Arsenal’s trophy “drought” by winning the FA Cup in 2014 it was almost by accident (scraping past Wigan on penalties in the semi-final, playing his second-choice keeper in the final), but it’s the kind of accident Tottenham’s fans would love to repeat. They’ve won nothing since 2008 and only two league cups since 1991.
It’s self evident that their best chance of winning something lies in the domestic cup competitions but they remain tantalisingly capable of beating Inter Milan on Wednesday night and getting a result against Barcelona in the final round of matches to squeeze into the second round. Mauricio Pochettino will almost certainly play a full-strength side against Inter and a second XI against Arsenal in the league cup quarter-final next month.
Chelsea, despite last night’s play station calamity, have a far better chance of winning something this season. Paradoxically, Sarri still stands a far higher chance of getting the sack that Pochettino, who risks becoming an Argentine Wenger.