League Cup Semi-Final: 3 Talking Points

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3 Talking Points

  1. Sarri’s Changes Paid Off

After a fuming press conference following Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat against Arsenal last Saturday, Maurizio Sarri tore his team apart insisting that they lacked motivation and the desire for victory. Criticized heavily by much of the media who insisted he was digging his grave at Chelsea, Sarri refused to pamper to the personalities of the locker room – the same locker room that has effectively pushed out Mourinho and Conte after breakdowns in their relationship.

Keep shows Chelsea’s reignited fire.

Keep shows Chelsea’s reignited fire.

David Luiz came out in support of his manager, stating not only that Chelsea lacked the necessary energy to achieve the desired results but also defending Jorginho – another player for whom the media have not held back criticism. Among the constant shouts that Kante is being played out of position and that Jorginho only passes one direction, backward, Luiz clarified the Italian’s role: “I don’t think it is fair to talk about the number of assists he has made without comparing him to players who play in the same deep position. It all depends on the philosophy and how you play. I think the way he is playing provides energy for us, moving the ball and making the team keep moving.”

Whether it was Sarri’s criticism of the squad, Luiz’s support of his teammates, or just something special in the food at Cobham, Chelsea looked like a team reborn against Tottenham.

Sarri made significant changes to the shape and lineup of the Chelsea side by putting Giroud in at striker, moving Eden Hazard back to his best position on the left side of the attack, and replacing the sluggish Alonso with the energetic, proactive Emerson.

Having secured the loan deal of Gonzalo Higuain after the semi-final registration deadline, most Chelsea supporters and pundits assumed that the Italian manager would stay rooted in his ways and send out Eden Hazard in the center forward position. Sarri proved, however, he is capable of adapting when he penciled Giroud into the starting lineup. This tactical change proved immensely significant as Tottenham defenders could not double team Hazard with ease as they still had to worry about the meaty French forehead of Olivier Giroud. Although he missed a couple of golden chances that could have prevented penalties, Giroud played his part by allowing Eden Hazard to run free.

Free to drop deeper into midfield and dribble at opponents, Hazard looked like a new man. Whereas the Belgian looked uninspired in recent weeks as a center forward, he was able to pick up the ball deeper on the left side of the attack and dominate the final third. This shift in position led directly to the second goal of the match wherein Hazard both started and finished the move.

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Receiving a short pass from Ross Barkley just past midfield, Hazard drove towards the box, dished the ball to Pedro, and then sprinted into the box to flick the resulting cross from Azpilicueta into the corner of the net. The Belgian quite clearly was back to his best form.

With the most potent attack Chelsea has featured in recent weeks, it was their change at left back that secured them the victory. With Emerson in for Alonso, Chelsea seemed to be playing at 2x their recent speed.

Alonso, who has been rightly criticized as a slow, uninspired left-back, has left Chelsea playing with seemingly only 10 men on the pitch in recent weeks. Against Arsenal, Alonso’s poor form was on full display.

Emerson revealed to the world of football why he should be given more game time ahead of the sluggish Spaniard in his phenomenal performance against Spurs. Emerson was lightning fast on the left side of Chelsea’s attack pumping the ball in to Hazard and providing his own support in the final third.

Emerson leads the celebration after Chelsea beat Spurs on penalties.

Emerson leads the celebration after Chelsea beat Spurs on penalties.

Emerson linked well with Chelsea’s midfield executing many passing sequences that mirrored the fast-paced accuracy of Sarri’s Napoli side.

Emerson almost capped his performance with the game-winning assist in the final minutes of regular time. Blasting the ball past a dumfounded Davinson Sanchez, Emerson tore into open space down the left wing and crossed a gliding ball towards Giroud in the center of the box. Giroud scuffed his header right of the post, ruining Chelsea’s chance at ending the game before penalties.

Sarri’s changes to the squad revealed the great potential possessed by his team. With Hazard and Kante (who was phenomenal) playing some of their best football, a certain focal point to the attack in Higuain, and an extra dimension of speed on the left flank in Emerson, Chelsea appear lethal.

Chelsea will look to carry this good form through a relatively easy schedule over the next couple of weeks that features matches against Sheffield Wednesday, Bournemouth, and Huddersfield. They will certainly need to be at their best when they come up against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Final on February 10th.

2. Tottenham’s Woes Continue

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Although Tottenham entered Stamford Bridge with an aggregate lead of 1-0, they were never considered favorites. The lethal attack of Alli, Son, and Kane that tore apart Chelsea in early December had been defanged. As a result of injury and international duty, Tottenham relied on Fernando Llorente and Lucas Moura to provide the goals.

Although Llorente did well to muscle his way onto a Danny Rose header to pull Spurs level on aggregate, he rarely troubled Chelsea’s defense.

Spurs had to settle for yet another exit from a cup that felt unfairly premature. For much of their domestic success in recent years, the Tottenham trophy cabinet remains empty. For a squad of players desperate to change the legacy of their club, a trophy from a competition as seemingly insignificant as the League Cup could do wonders for their confidence and spur them to more significant victories in the future.

Much of the blame lies in the boardroom as Daniel Levy remains hesitant to invest in the squad as he is busy fending off the increasing debt from their new stadium. Although their financial frugality is understandable, surely spending a little to add depth to the bench could remove the team’s fragile reliance on Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Ultimately, Tottenham must decide their legacy for themselves. Whether they choose to take the bull by the horns, spend big, and become a genuine threat to the teams above them or they wallow away in debt with the certain transfers of their most prominent players on the horizon remains to be seen.

3. Pochettino’s Future Is In Doubt

Three weeks ago, Mauricio Pochettino was a favorite to take over as Manchester United’s manager at the end of the season. A string of 7 straight wins under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and a dip in Tottenham's form has slowed the enthusiasm that followed Mourinho’s sacking.

Pochettinos fate now rests on his capability to win. There is no doubt that Pochettino makes teams better. He develops players and encourages a fast-paced, high-pressing style of football. But is he a winner?

Currently, Pochettino has a long way to go before he is spoken in the same sentences as Mourinho, Guardiola, and Ferguson – proven winners who always find a way to put trophy’s in the cabinet.

Following the loss to Chelsea, Pochettino backed the effort displayed by his weakened team: “We have three more competitions, still. We arrived in a semifinal and lost to Chelsea, one of the best teams in Europe. I can only feel proud of the performance and the way we competed.”

Credit to Pochettino for supporting his squad, but at what point does feeling “proud” to lose in the semi-final of the league cup to a Chelsea side that have looked dreadful in recent weeks stop being good enough.

With Tottenham out of the League Cup, having a long run to get to the FA Cup final, struggling to hold down 3rd place in the league, and facing a challenging set of games against Dortmund in the Champions league Tottenham’s chances at winning a trophy this season are looking sparse.

Essentially, if Tottenham and Pochettino want to be regarded in the upper echelon of European football, they must do the same thing: win.

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