Chelsea showed their best and worst sides. Tottenham, too, really. But the main event between Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte was worth it.
1) Antonio Conte will never get his one regular day of Barclays.
2) Spare a thought for perhaps the only individual who would not have enjoyed those 90 tetchy, pulsating, needle-fuelled minutes: Mark Clattenburg must have hated the long-awaited sequel to the Battle of the Bridge involving a referee who had no “gameplan”. Shame on Anthony Taylor.
3) Does anyone else suddenly really miss Erik Lamela?
4) It is almost (but crucially absolutely not at all) a shame that Conte and Thomas Tuchel’s unexpected blood feud will overshadow the less headline-worthy, eye-catching aspect of their duel. The tactical tête-à-tête between two tremendously talented technicians, teasing out their touchline tussle, was titillating.
It was a Tuchel TKO in round one. Chelsea overloaded the midfield, much as they had to great effect in January’s Carabao semi-final, and Tottenham’s counter-attacking threat collapsed in on itself as Heung-min Son and Dejan Kulusevski dropped back to offer support.
Conte responded in kind, rejecting the temptation of a half-time quintuple substitution and instead tweaking his system to mirror Chelsea’s, prompting the first equaliser.
Tuchel realigned his system with a single substitution, replacing Jorginho with Cesar Azpilicueta to provide far more width with Reece James freed to play at wing-back – and score Chelsea’s second.
Conte, creating his own luck, ended the game with Harry Kane, Richarlison, Ivan Perisic, Kulusevski and Lucas Moura on the pitch in the mad pursuit of another leveller. A slightly deflected header from a corner that probably shouldn’t have been is as good as any goal and for once the lack of a definitive winner in a game between two bitter rivals felt like the most satisfying possible conclusion.
5) Hopefully Conte versus Tuchel does at least distract the punditocracy for long enough to avoid any further tedious discussion about referees.
Chelsea had complaints surrounding the concession of both Tottenham goals. A foul from Rodrigo Bentancur on Kai Havertz in the build-up to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s strike went unpunished, as did Cristian Romero’s unsolicited act of sex masochism on Marc Cucurella.
There probably are legitimate points to be made regarding both: the first foul was missed and VAR could not pull play back that far, while Romero’s foul at one corner ought to have negated the taking of the one from which Kane scored.
But as ever, if your takeaway from a game of that quality is to get pissy about the officials for longer than five seconds, you’re watching this sport for the wrong reasons.
6) Also, Chelsea and Tuchel’s protestations are ever so slightly undermined by Jorginho deciding to do a drag-back in his own penalty area and Kane being left unmarked from a second-half stoppage-time corner. It’s difficult to reasonably accuse referees of negligence, complacency or mistakes with a straight face after defending like that.
7) In the case of Tuchel – and in that particular literal and figurative post-match heat – the German can be somewhat excused for publicly focusing so much on Taylor’s performance. But the coming days must be occupied with some introspection as to how Chelsea allowed this game to slip from their masterful control.
The first half specifically was a reminder as to how excellent this team and coach can be. Chelsea controlled the match and bent a wonderful, confident Tottenham side to its whim.
Their summer transfer window has been far less heralded than those of many others – Spurs included – but Cucurella, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raheem Sterling have raised the technical level of this side considerably in comparison to their predecessors. The latter two were instrumental in the creation of the second goal.
With that said, when the most defensive of those three additions is currently the best solution to a seemingly perennial and squad-wide profligacy, that does rather underline their most obvious problem.
8) A slight complication in that regard is that Chelsea’s front three were exceptional in the first half in everything but goal threat. Sterling constantly changed positions with Havertz and Mason Mount, the trio coercing Tottenham’s defenders to surrender possession with their energy and drive.
It is simultaneously obvious why Romelu Lukaku did not fit, but also why Chelsea deemed him a signing worth making. That attack works best and looks far more fluid without a rigid centre-forward focal point, yet one of those players is going to have to reach a currently unforeseen level of goalscoring potency to prevent the issue from rearing its head every other week.
The top five scorers of Tuchel’s 95-game Chelsea regime are: Mount (19 goals), Havertz (18), Jorginho, Timo Werner and Lukaku (all 14). That speaks particularly deafening volumes.
9) The first-half imbalance was perhaps best summed up by the period between the seventh and 14th minutes, during which no Tottenham player had a single touch in the opposition half. Chelsea penned their visitors in so thoroughly as to isolate and subsequently neuter one of the Premier League’s best and most fluid front lines. Their pressing was ferocious and in stark contrast to the lethargy which underpinned the awkward opening win over Everton. Tottenham were constantly squeezed off the ball, their players never given more than a second to think before the blue swarm arrived, while Chelsea seemed blessed with the requisite time and space to pick their moments.
Arsenal and Tottenham have certainly closed that gap to Chelsea but this was proof – and it absolutely was needed if pre-season forecasts are anything to go by – that the Blues remain on the podium with Manchester City and Liverpool.
10) But their only goal in that opening period was a freakish event: an unmarked centre-half’s volley directly from a corner. Congratulations to Koulibaly on his Garth Crooks team of the week debut but Chelsea did not make anything close to enough of their clear advantage until nor after his excellent effort.
The sight of him standing on the edge of the area with no Tottenham defender within a few yards was undoubtedly a little jarring but it inevitably gave rise to the usual mistaken critiques of zonal marking. Quite frankly, it’s been around long enough, is deployed by more than enough and has proven to be a better enough option than man-to-man when carried out properly that people really should get over it.
11) Within minutes of the second half, a first real sight of Kane as the striker turned on the ball and slipped Son in for a quarter-chance. A while later he had his own opportunity when played through by Hojbjerg but his early shot was dragged just wide. It seemed like it would not be the England captain’s afternoon until his late equaliser.
The part he played in the build-up to that second goal should not be ignored. Just as James was being crowned a deserved man of the match for a fine game, the Chelsea defender was lured into needlessly fouling Kane in a dangerous position.
That free-kick was curled in by Perisic, cleared by Azpilicueta and deflected out for a corner from Yves Bissouma’s volley. That was the delivery at which Romero tugged on Cucurella’s hair and Ben Davies forced a great save out of Edouard Mendy. From the next corner, Kane earned Tottenham a point that could be traced back a couple of minutes to his experience in earning that free-kick.
12) That was possibly the only blemish for James, who was otherwise imperious in defence and influential in attack.
Son offered precious little and is not accustomed to being removed so soon in games of such importance. When James was then switched to play at wing-back he instantly whipped in a glorious ball for Havertz to somehow miss, before finishing a fine move for the second goal.
He truly is a wonderful player and it’s a real shame he has to spend his existence on the Erling Haaland v Darwin Nunez undercard in a perennial battle with Trent Alexander-Arnold that neither deserves to be reduced to.
13) Richarlison had seven touches, no shots, no key passes, no dribbles and no statistical impact of any tangible note in his 33 minutes. Yet the Brazilian still helped change the game through his attitude and application, chasing down and finding previously lost causes and cajoling that extra ounce of energy, belief and resolve from his teammates.
He will likely never match the technical level of Kane and Son but there is a great deal to be said for a player who offers something unique. Richarlison’s work ethic and sheer tenacity can make the difference. And this sort of irritable, fractious game suited his style absolutely perfectly.
When Conte finds an unpickable lock, Richarlison will be the one he trusts more often than not to run a hole into the ground so Tottenham can find an alternative route. There were signs of that here.
14) And this will surely be Conte’s last stand in terms of not starting any of his shiny new signings. Richarlison might not necessarily have earned himself a spot in the first XI but Ivan Perisic and Bissouma should have. Or rather, Ryan Sessegnon and either Hojbjerg or Bentancur played themselves out of one.
Emerson Royal similarly ought to fear for his place. No Tottenham player looked particularly comfortable in that first half but he was categorically the most panicked in possession and Matt Doherty will have enjoyed the view.
15) N’Golo Kante, sublime before his hamstring injury, deserves a mention. The similarly unreliable Ruben Loftus-Cheek might have found unlikely salvation in that hybrid right wing-back role. It requires a certain level of intelligence to play such a layered position and his midfield background really does lend itself to those drifting and driving runs from wide.
The mental strength he has needed to overcome obstacles and maximise his physical and technical capabilities should not go unnoticed. The next stage is to develop his decision-making and final ball because that was noticeably lacking in a team hardly equipped to let the opportunities created by his dribbling go to waste.
16) Frame 144-cap England international Karen Carney’s face just after Graeme Souness said “I think we’ve got our football back, as I would enjoy football, men at it,” and hang it in the sodding Louvre.