In the end, perhaps, a stalemate suited both sides. Tottenham has the best defensive record in the Premier League this season, Chelsea has now let in just two goals in its last nine games in all competitions, and a 0–0 draw took Spurs back to the top of the table, level on points with Liverpool, with Chelsea two further back. Both sides could step away with honor intact.
This wasn’t quite as damp a squib of Chelsea’s 0–0 draw against Manchester United a little over a month ago, but it was a game with which it bore a lot of similarities. This is how clashes between top sides used to be a decade ago, cautious, tight, and controlled less by a desire to win than by a determination not to lose. When the title race is as tight as it is, when it’s likely the championship will be won with 80-something rather than 95+ points, a draw does not bear with it the sense of ground lost it has over the past three seasons.
The big doubt about Frank Lampard’s management last season was the 54 league goals conceded last season, Chelsea’s worst season defensively in 23 years. Most worryingly, there was a susceptibility to counter-attacks and to crossed set-plays, two aspects of defending that demand rigorous work on the training ground. Those issues were present in the opening month of this season but, since the 3–3 draw against Southampton, the last game before Edouard Mendy became a fixture in goal, it has conceded only two goals in nine games.
Mendy has been a clear upgrade on Kepa, whose confidence by the end was utterly shot. Thiago Silva, after his nightmare in the first half at West Brom, has projected a sense of authority that Chelsea often lacked last season. The return of N’Golo Kante to be the deepest-lying midfielder seemed to give them a better structure, while Ben Chilwell has fitted in well at left back. The only caveat was that none of those previous eight games were particularly testing defensively: two games against Rennes (one of which Rennes played with 10 men for more than a half), and one against Sevilla (which was in a run of scoring just four goals in seven games), Manchester United (that extremely tentative stalemate), Krasnodar, Burnley, Sheffield United and Newcastle.
Mourinho’s Spurs on the other hand, were a real threat. Tottenham has specialized in counter-attacking this season, Harry Kane dropping deep to feed Son Heung-min, Steven Bergwijn or Lucas Moura running beyond him. That had the potential to expose Chelsea if that weakness remained. That Kane was so uninvolved suggests just how well Chelsea shut down that avenue. But there was a cost. Its determination not to concede was evident and in never overcommitting, it barely committed at all. Tottenham was narrow and compact and Chelsea’s pacy wide men rarely got a run at their full-backs.
This is the next challenge for Lampard. Chelsea’s defending has improved radically over the past few weeks, but the task now is to configure the side to defend while still offering the sort of creativity the attacking players in this squad should be capable of. That’s perhaps the hardest aspect for the elite: it’s one thing to defend, and another thing to attack, but being able to do both in relative equilibrium is the next level. Although Chelsea went into this match having scored 22 goals in its first nine games of the season, it hadn’t scored in either of its games against other members of the putative Top Six.
Too often here, especially in the first half, Reece James and Hakim Ziyech seemed to rush their crosses, as though slightly uncomfortable about finding themselves up against a full-back. When they did get crosses into the box, as they did a handful of times early in the second half, neither Timo Werner nor Tammy Abraham could get on the end of them. The thought immediately was how Olivier Giroud may have relished that sort of delivery—which is one of the downsides of having a squad as rich and deep as Chelsea’s. He was finally introduced for Abraham with 11 minutes remaining, but this was a game that had felt like a 0–0 from long before half-time.
Both sides will probably be happy enough, but for both the question remains: Can they find a balance that allows them to retain defensive solidity while still offering creative threat?