A farce that sums up a lot of modern football, or one of the games of the season? It maybe sums up how confusing and contradictory this game was that it could genuinely be both. Chelsea’s eventual 4-1 victory at Tottenham Hotspur could have huge effects for both of their seasons too. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have got the win it feels like they have been waiting for, and that at the stadium that still means more to him than any other in football. Ange Postecoglou’s scarcely believable high line with nine men and no main centre-halves did make it borderline for some time. Such a creditable approach earned the applause of the home crowd when it finally went wrong for Nicolas Jackson’s decisive second goal, but there was that unsettling feeling of momentum being undone. Spurs have not just lost their first league game under Postecoglou but also Destiny Udogie and Cristian Romero to suspensions and possibly James Maddison and Micky van de Ven to injury.
That all has the feeling of bringing down a flight that had been improbably soaring for some time.
Postecoglou could of course tell his players it was a freak game. That’s one way of putting it. It was almost several different events in one, as we saw a spell akin to the infamous Battle of the Bridge as well as Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final, a grand staging for every debate about VAR over and over and then what amounted to a bizarre but brave training session, where Postecoglou seemingly set up the irrepressible Guglielmo Vicario against the entirety of Chelsea’s young attack.
To top it off, and turn everything on its head, the previously misfiring Jackson got a hat-trick late on.
It wasn’t quite an exhibition of finishing but there was enough to show the potential that is there.
Whatever about this evening exhibiting various types of football events in one, mind, there were alternating periods that looked like it could have come from completely different matches.
It was incredible to contemplate this by even the half-hour mark, but the first 18 minutes looked like it would be a comprehensive and confident Spurs win to continue their early-season surge.
They were shredding Chelsea, especially on the wings. Both sides were being targeted, something inevitable given all the space, and the first real attack brought a goal. Dejan Kulusevski shot and the ball cannoned off Levi Colwell and past Robert Sanchez.
Reece James was even more exposed on the other side, allowing Brennan Johnson to just saunter through and square for Son Heung-Min to slide the ball in. It was all so easy that Spurs were getting ahead of themselves, as the Korean’s wayward foot saw the goal ruled out for offside.
That was what made what happened next all the more inexplicable, as Udogie went in with a dismally reckless challenge on Raheem Sterling. He didn’t get sent off – yet – but it was like the entire tone changed. It was also a bit of Chekov’s foul, as Udogie would go for similar later on. That itself was influenced by what the match briefly became, which was somewhere between an old storyline from this fixture like the Battle of the Bridge and the Libertadores final. Cristian Romero was at the centre of it, with two challenges of his own that each could have received red cards.
He was eventually sent off as part of the same sequence that saw a second Chelsea goal chalked off, to bring a penalty.
It was almost difficult to keep up, the sense of dislocation added to by how the match was played at a frenetic pace and yet also frequently stopped for long VAR checks. Cole Palmer’s ensuing penalty consequently may not have been as pure as he’d have liked but it did make its way in.
For Pochettino’s part, Udogie’s challenge wasn’t the only big change. He altered Chelsea’s formation to ensure they had taken tactical control of the game even before Romero’s red card.
It probably shouldn’t have got to that for Spurs, though. It was going to get worse. Both Maddison and Van de Ven had to go off injured before Udogie eventually got his red card.
What happened next was perhaps the most unexpected development of all, though. Postecoglou refused to back down. He doubled down.
Despite nine-man Spurs losing two of their leading players to injury, with both of their main centre-halves off the pitch, Postecoglou seemed to go even higher with his line. Spurs basically offered up the entirety of their half to Chelsea’s attack.
It was bold, to say the least. It immediately led to Chelsea setting up a series of one-on-ones, the game almost becoming a training exercise between their forwards and Guglielmo Vicario, with some vague use of the offside trap in between.
And yet this might well have been where there was a clear logic. Given how inexperienced this Chelsea squad is, many of them seemed to keep making the bad choices when such good chances were offered. There was rarely a third-man run. Mykhailo Mudryk and Nicolas Jackson kept going outside when they should have gone inside, or vice versa.
Vicario, for his part, was brilliant. Every unlikely stop amplified the atmosphere. It was as if every wasted one-on-one – and they were becoming countless – was further eroding their confidence.
This could have been a hugely embarrassing game for Chelsea, rather than the humiliation for Spurs it was almost set up for.
Except, the risk was just too great. A team with someone as experienced as Sterling was eventually going to get one right. It was duly his pass that set up Jackson.
At 2-1, Spurs had no choice but to go for it even more. Jackson claimed even more, twice scoring in stoppage time. That may be a turning point for him as well as Spurs, but only after a night that really did the rounds.
You can try to make sense of it – but maybe it’s just best to be experienced.