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A look at some key tactical match-ups ahead of this weekend's London derby against Chelsea.
Rejoice, Spursland, for the "Internationlull" is almost over and normal service is about to resume. After two weeks of international tedium, this weekend sees Tottenham Hotspur host Chelsea at White Hart Lane Lane.
Chelsea's fantastic early season form leaves them undefeated and five points clear of Spurs at the top of the table. A Spurs win this weekend over their London rivals will narrow that gap, send a message to the league, and let AVB feel warm and fuzzy inside by putting one over his old employers.
If Andy Town-Snake wants to stick it to Uncle Roman, there are some crucial battles on the pitch he's going to have to prepare for.
Oscar v. Dembele
So far Arsenal and Juventus are the only two really good sides Chelsea have encountered this season. In both matches, Di Matteo had to figure out how to shut down a deep-lying playmaker and keep him from dictating the flow of the match. And in both cases, the answer was Oscar.
As expected, Oscar has already proven to be a wonderful creative talent with a keen eye for a wonder goal. What most people didn't expect, however, was his defensive discipline. Against Arsenal and Juve, Oscar was charged with the task of pressing high against Arteta and Pirlo, and he did a frankly excellent job. He harried them in possession, closed down their passing angles, and forced them deep into their own half so they could get on the ball. They both failed to have anywhere near the kind of impact on a game their team needs them to.
Given how we've already seen Dembele steamroll Man United's midfield twice this season, RDM isn't going to take any chances against him. Oscar will almost certainly be tasked with staying tight on Dembele to keep him from exerting an influence on the game. Even though he doesn't have the passing ability of Arteta and Pirlo, there's no question that he's been the pulse of the side and Di Matteo will try and shut him down.
Luckily for Spurs, Dembele is far superior to Arteta and Pirlo when it comes to dribbling, and if Oscar's going to keep him from passing, Dembele's going to be looking to burst past him with a quick accelerated dribble to create space for himself to work. I am fully confident he's up to the task.
The other thing to Spurs advantage is that even if Oscar does manage to lock up Dembele, he's got Sandro right next to him for a quick outlet pass. And as we've already seen from Sandro this season, he's blossoming into a capable creative contributor as well. If Oscar keeps Dembele under wraps, Sandro must be prepared to shoulder some of the attacking burden.
Bale and Lennon v. Ivanovic and Cole
Chelsea have a powerhouse attacking midfield three of Hazard, Oscar, and Mata. But the price of having that many attacking midfielders on the pitch at once is a lack of defensive cover. Hazard and Mata both like to drift into central areas, and even when Hazard does stay wide, he doesn't show a whole lot of interest in tracking back and playing defense.
The result is Chelsea's fullbacks tend to find themselves very isolated and exposed. Ashley Cole especially looks very vulnerable this year. This is a very favorable match-up for Spurs since we have probably the two best outright wingers in the EPL. And in Vertonghen and Walker, we have two fullbacks who love getting forward to support the attack.
Spurs need to press hard down the wings and overload them on the flanks. If Adebayor plays, he needs to do his customary drifting into the channels thing and create passing triangles with the wingers. Dempsey is going to need to be sharp in the box to get in ahead of Terry and Luiz on crosses and make our wing play count. Adebayor's drifting should pull a center back out of position and give Deuce the space he needs to mop up loose balls in the box.
It's possible Di Matteo adopts a cautious approach away from home, and he may deploy Ryan Bertrand in midfield to offer some wing protection for Cole to help nullify Spurs' threat from wide. Even so, it's highly unlikely he'll also play Moses or Ramires on the other wing, so at least one flank should be vulnerable to Spurs pacey widemen.
Vertonghen v. Mata
Eden Hazard was Chelsea's headline-grabbing story this summer, but the real danger man for Chelsea on Saturday is going to be Juan Mata. Hazard is off to a great start to the season, and we obviously can't discount his threat, but Mata is the one who worries me. For all Kyle Walker's defensive frailties, he's got the pace to keep up with Hazard and rarely gets beaten on the dribble. Chelsea aren't the kind of team to float back post crosses to Hazard's head, so Walker's suspect positioning shouldn't be an issue (hopefully).
The real threat for Chelsea is going to come from the battle between Mata and Vertonghen. We all love Jan. He's been stellar at center back and his marauding runs forward have been pretty great, but his positional awareness as a left back leaves something to be desired. He often looks unsure whether he should come out to the ball or stay close to his centerback or track his man.
If Mata can exploit this uncertainty in Vertonghen's defensive play, Spurs could be in trouble. He's been absolutely on fire lately and could very well punish us if we're not careful. He loves working his way into space between the lines and exploiting gaps between players.
The pocket of space between Vertonghen, Gallas, and Dembele is his sweet spot and if Vertonghen gives him the room he needs he has the ability to slice through our backline with an incisive pass, clever off the ball run, or he can take it inside himself toward the goal.
If Chelsea are going to score this weekend, it's very likely this is where the goal is coming from. Look again at United's first goal against Spurs. Valencia makes an off the ball run that pulls Vertonghen inside and away from the wing. Rooney takes up the space and is completely unmarked to make a cross inside the box. Mata is perfectly happy doing the same thing.