A run of just two goals conceded in nine games is some riposte to the doubts about Chelsea’s defending. Some doubts remain, but given how exposed Frank Lampard’s side were to the break last season, when they had the worst defensive record of any Chelsea team in 23 years, stifling Tottenham, the kings of the counterattack, is not an achievement to be underplayed.
This felt like a major test passed. Those previous eight games had not been unduly challenging: when Chelsea faced Sevilla, their opponents were in the middle of a run of scoring just four in seven games, while the clash with Manchester United was chiefly notable for the tentativeness of both sides, who essentially sat in their own halves and looked nervously at their opponents without ever seeming too concerned about doing anything that might have jeopardised their clean sheet.
Although this game was nothing like as cautious, it did bear some similarities to that stalemate at Old Trafford. In a season in which the title is likely to be won with 85 points or so rather than 95+, that perhaps is natural: a draw no longer feels like two points dropped. There was some probing of the opposition, but fundamentally the game was shaped by a determination not to concede.
And that is the one big caveat remaining for Lampard: his sides can attack (they’ve scored four twice in the league this season, and three four times) and over the past six weeks they’ve shown they can defend, but can they do the two together? Although they’ve now kept two clean sheets in three games against fellow members of the “big six” this season, they haven’t scored in any of them; equally, their hardest Champions League game so far, at home to Sevilla, finished goalless.
Getting that balance right is perhaps the hardest thing for any elite team. But they are far more coherent than in the opening weeks of the season. Personnel have clearly made a difference. Édouard Mendy is far more assured than Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose confidence had deserted him entirely. Thiago Silva has an authority Chelsea missed last season. Ben Chilwell gets forward well from left-back while looking far more secure defensively than Marcos Alonso did.
What was really notable here, though, was how well the supply to Harry Kane was squeezed. He managed just 17 touches in the second half, only one of them in the box. And for that credit has to go to N’Golo Kanté – and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mateo Kovacic. Kanté has returned to his more familiar role as the deepest lying of the three midfielders and has begun to dominate games again, raising the obvious question of why, when if you have a player as good in his position as Kanté, you would ever play him anywhere else.
There has, it’s true, been a thought that Kanté had been distracted by a rancorous legal dispute in France over image rights, and that that lay behind his dip in form, but it still seems mystifying that a player who was probably the best Pac-Man-style defensive midfielder in the world in his first three seasons in the Premier League, should have spent the past two seasons shunted further forward into a role in which he was far less comfortable.
That there wasn’t a great furore about it perhaps says much both about Kanté’s lack of ego and the way the role is generally undervalued. Back in his natural position for the last four league games, though, he’s been like somebody refinding a favourite pair of boots they had mislaid. Suddenly everything just feels more comfortable, easier. It may not make for the most eye‑catching gifs or YouTube clips, but snapping around, pressuring opponents, plugging holes and gobbling up possession are just as vital to winning football matches as brilliant goals or spectacular feats of technique. Chelsea, accordingly, have looked far more solid, far better balanced in midfield.
Here, he protected his two centre-backs, sat in the space Kane looks to drop into, and closed down the channels to Son Heung-min in particular. This was like the Kanté of old, and that in turn provided a base from which Kovacic and Mason Mount could operate. Occasionally in the first half Spurs did offer the glimmer of a counterattacking threat; by the second that had almost entirely dimmed. Even by José Mourinho’s minimalistic standards, five shots in the 90 minutes, only one of them on target, isn’t much by which to try to win a game.
Lampard, in that sense, evaded the trap Pep Guardiola fell into last week. In time, he will presumably hope to find a way to unleash at least some of the vast attacking potential of his side while maintaining this sort of defensive structure. But for now, a point from an old-fashioned grind of a big game will do – particularly as he seems to have Kanté back.