LONDON — Chelsea won, but that was only part of the story on a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. After Son Heung-min was sent off 17 minutes into the second half, a bottle was thrown from the crowd at the Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, and a racist insult was aimed at Antonio Rudiger, leading to a warning about racism being relayed over the public address system. Two further announcements followed before the end of the game. Exactly what the racism consisted of or how many fans were involved remains unclear, but there will be an investigation.
In terms of the football, this was a very good evening for Frank Lampard. Just as the doubts were beginning to mount, his Chelsea produced probably its best performance under him, beating its London rivals Tottenham, 2-0, to consolidate fourth place in the table, four points above Sheffield United in fifth and now six clear of Tottenham, in seventh. The narratives of Spurs ascent and Chelsea decline suddenly don’t look quite so assured as they did at the beginning of the weekend.
When Mourinho was appointed as Mauricio Pochettino’s successor at Tottenham a month ago, Spurs trailed Chelsea by 12 points. Had Tottenham won here, it would have gone above Chelsea in the table, but instead it produced what was probably its worst performance under Mourinho, devoid of attacking ideas and defensively fragile. Chelsea was more aggressive, better organized and won with an unexpected sense of ease. After a spell of four defeats in five games.
Chelsea’s big problem this season has been its vulnerability on the counter, leaking a 24% higher proportion of goals on the counter under Lampard than the league average. One of the reasons for Chelsea’s loss of fluency in recent weeks, as it has lost four of its previous five league games, has been Lampard’s attempts to rectify the problem and solidify the midfield. Here his solution was to go back to the old Antonio Conte ploy of fielding a back three with two holding midfielders camped in front in a 3-4-2-1, something he had only previously done in the 5-2 win at Wolves earlier in the season in September.
It worked, particularly before halftime. Spurs were weirdly insipid, as though it were almost intimidated by Chelsea’s ferocity and made poor decisions again and again. The introduction of Christian Eriksen for Eric Dier at halftime was a notional gamble, but the midfielder has sunk into such a slump of form that it hardly felt like one. Spurs had more attacking imagination and purpose in the second half, and if it looked open to the counter-attack that was at least explained by the match situation. This was a game decided before halftime—settled by a barely explicable challenge from the goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.
Chelsea went ahead after 12 minutes as Tottenham’s defensive issues were exposed. Like Chelsea, Tottenham went into the game having kept only three league clean sheets all season and, after Toby Alderweireld signed a new contract last week, Mourinho is believed to be keen to replace the other three members of the back four. Serge Aurier has been improved under him, at least going forward, but it was his hesitation in getting out to Willian as a corner was half-cleared that gave the Brazilian the opportunity to cut inside and whip the ball into the far corner.
A dreadful half for Tottenham got worse in injury time as the Gazzaniga mystifyingly tried to kick a head-high bouncing ball from Willian, missed and clattered into Marcos Alonso. Quite why he didn’t simply catch the ball is a mystery. The referee Anthony Taylor, equally mystifyingly, initially gave Spurs the free-kick (he had also failed to award a penalty in the Manchester derby when Marcus Rashford was tripped by Bernardo Silva, only for VAR to correct his decision), but a VAR review overturned that to give a penalty. Willian calmly converted.
Any thought Tottenham might get back into the game disappeared after 62 minutes as Son was sent off after kicking out at Antonio Rudiger. It wasn’t the most heinous offense, and Rudiger appeared to overreact, but from a prone position he did flick his boot into the defender’s chest. It was Son’s third red card in eight months—albeit the one he got for the foul that led to Andre Gomes’s horror injury at Everton was subsequently overturned.
But in truth Son’s red was a symptom of Tottenham’s defeat rather than a cause of it, his frustration a reflection of the mood throughout the stadium, the game lost with a dreadful first half. The details of the game, though, feel like minor details beside the alleged racist incidents.