You have to hand it to Tottenham defenders. Whatever their faults, at least nobody can doubt their entertainment value. After all they even managed to pull off the impossible during the first leg of this Carabao Cup semi-final, somehow dragging the spotlight away from Chelsea’s extremely apologetic record signing with a performance of spectacular slapstick at the back.
This must have been a form of rare torture for Antonio Conte. Even with Romelu Lukaku straining for touch and composure, Chelsea were dominant after welcoming their former manager back to Stamford Bridge for the first time. Thomas Tuchel had come up trumps after being forced to tweak his system and Conte cut a glum figure as half-time approached, his mood hardly helped by the farcical own goal that eased Chelsea into a 2-0 lead after 34 minutes of one‑way traffic.
It had been wretched from Spurs, who were dismal without Eric Dier and Cristian Romero at the back. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp were being pulled all over the place in central midfield, the movement of Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech a constant problem, and the vulnerabilities at the back were evident even before Kai Havertz fired Chelsea ahead in the fifth minute.
The gaps had appeared from Chelsea’s first attack. Lukaku, back in the side after annoying Tuchel by accidentally pledging his undying love to Internazionale, had something to prove. The time for talking was over and the £97.5m forward was involved in the first minute, tearing down the right flank before letting Spurs off the hook with a poor cross.
Still, it was a moment of promise for Chelsea. Always creative, Tuchel had a solution after the absence of Reece James, Ben Chilwell, Andreas Christensen and Trevoh Chalobah was compounded by Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kanté testing positive for Covid-19. The German had not veered away from a back three all season but he adjusted here, paying homage to Ralf Rangnick by switching to a 4‑2‑2‑2, a change that gave Lukaku more support and left Spurs all at sea.
Conte, who got the best out of Lukaku when he managed him at Inter, had not seen it coming. With Jorginho and Saúl Ñíguez assured in midfield for Chelsea, Spurs had no way out and they looked nervy with Havertz under instructions to play near Lukaku during the early stages.
The curiosity of that move from Tuchel is that Lukaku – who describes himself as a “multidimensional” forward – has often looked isolated this season. The Belgian has pined for his partnership with Lautaro Martínez, his former Inter teammate, and has struggled to live up to expectations since returning to Stamford Bridge. Tuchel, however, has repeatedly rejected suggestions that he has changed his system since signing Lukaku; as the German has pointed out, sharp-eyed observers will have noticed Chelsea used a 3‑4‑2‑1 when they won the Champions League last season.
Nonetheless this was no time to be rigid. Tuchel had only four fit senior defenders – in came the lesser spotted Malang Sarr to partner Antonio Rüdiger in central defence – so it made sense to bolster his attack by using Ziyech and Mount as roving No 10s.
Spurs, arranged in a staid 3-4-3, were confused. After five minutes Japhet Tanganga tried to play out from the back. The pass was too short and Marcos Alonso quickly stole in front of Emerson Royal before slipping in Havertz, who beat Hugo Lloris with the aid of a deflection off Davinson Sánchez.
At that point it was worth remembering Lukaku is not the only expensive Chelsea forward who has struggled to fire under Tuchel. After all, what is Havertz’s best position? Is he a target man? A No 10? A false nine? And just when will the £62m German build on his winner in the Champions League final to produce a consistent run of form?
Perhaps this, a goal against Chelsea’s fiercest rivals, will be a moment of ignition for Havertz. He was excellent before going off at half-time, troubling Spurs by drifting to the left to combine with Mount and Alonso, and he could have scored again after another wretched mix-up from Conte’s side.
Spurs could barely put a foot right. Harry Kane was barely allowed a sniff by Rüdiger and although Lukaku toiled at times, his difficulties encapsulated by the moment when he ran the ball out for a throw and tripped over his own feet, Chelsea were always on top. A second goal felt inevitable and it arrived when Ziyech’s inswinging free-kick led to more comedy, Tanganga’s attempted headed clearance bouncing off Ben Davies and flying past Lloris.
There was no way back for Spurs from there. Lukaku could have increased their pain when he headed wide and, although Spurs improved after the break, Chelsea are in control before the second leg next week. It is up to Conte to find the answers.