LONDON — At the end of a game that was horrible in every possible way for Tottenham both on the pitch and in the stands, Frank Lampard bounded over to the pocket of Chelsea fans in the corner of Spurs’ vast and shimmering new stadium. The players gathered behind him but stood and watched as Lampard pumped his fists, skipped from side to side and applauded the fans, not so much basking in the adulation of these fans who have loved him for two decades as participating in it.
– Rudiger suffers racial abuse during Chelsea’s win at Spurs
When Lampard arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer, he was adored for his feats as a player, but this game could be a sign they will adore him all over again for what he does as a manager. It’s also impossible to escape the idea that this game not only saw the apprentice overcome the master, but also that it emphasised Jose Mourinho is yesterday’s coach, that one of the men whose playing he shaped so emphatically all those years ago could have already already overtaken h im as a manager.
Of course, this is only one game. Chelsea’s recent form has been poor, and Lampard has been years to go before he can match Mourinho’s pedigree and haul of medals. But put it this way: Who would you rather have in charge of your team at the moment?
Chelsea won 2-0 on Sunday, but it could have been much worse for Spurs, who didn’t register a shot on target until injury-time, conceded a penalty and were reduced to 10 men because of two astonishingly bone-headed decisions by Paulo Gazzaniga — fouling Marcos Alonso to give Chelsea their second goal — and Son Heung-Min, who was dismissed after VAR consultation for kicking out at Antonio Rudiger. But the disgrace on the pitch was eclipsed from the terraces, after Rudiger was racially abused in the second half.
An announcement was made three times over the tannoy, stating that “racist behavior among supporters is interfering with the game” after Rudiger heard abuse coming from the stands and reported it to captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who subsequently notified the officials. It’s understood that there was only one incident, but it wouldn’t matter if there were more: Racism is society’s problem, but football is a reflection of society, and you’re left feeling helpless in trying to think how it can be substantially combatted.
“I don’t know if it’s getting better or worse,” Lampard said after the game. “We have a protocol where we report it, which is a positive step — of course, in a perfect world, we wish that wasn’t needed.”
It was depressing that Lampard spent as much time discussing the alleged actions of racist supporters as he did perhaps his defining triumph as Chelsea manager. His side came into this game on the back of four defeats in their previous five, but Lampard devised a system to not just get the best from his players, but to effectively combat Mourinho’s.
“The most important factor in my thinking was how it could help us offensively, in terms of controlling possession,” Said Lampard, about the 3-4-3 set-up he deployed. “Tottenham defend quite compactly, so we wanted to use the size of the pitch, and wing-backs help you do that. That allowed us to get Mason Mount and Willian slightly in behind Tammy [Abraham] so we had a bit of protection and allowed us to have loads of control of the ball.”
Indeed it did. As if to emphasize that, while we’re told Mourinho has changed and is a kinder, fluffier version of his former self these days, he did his best to undermine Lampard by pointing out that it was a system Chelsea were used to from Antonio Conte’s days. That six of the starting XI didn’t play for Chelsea under Conte didn’t seem to matter excessively.
Mourinho has always been a reactive manager, one who doesn’t necessarily have a dogma of his own, but who sets up his teams to best combat the opposition. But in another sign that Mourinho is not the manager he was, it took him too long to react after it was clear his team was thoroughly outplayed. Postmatch, Lampard mentioned that he had been waiting a long time to have a clear week to work with his players on a system, time that Mourinho had, as well: It was pretty clear which manager made best use of their time.
Of course, we can discuss systems and approaches and so forth for days, but this game was equally characterized by Gazzaniga and Son briefly losing the run of things and making two of the worst decisions you will see on a football pitch this season. Mourinho was unhappy with the way Rudiger reacted when Son kicked out at his ribs from the floor, saying the German defender should have been booked for his exaggeration, but while there might not have been exactly bone-shattering contact, why did Son even give the officials the chance to send him off?
Then there’s Gazzaniga. Why didn’t he just use his hands? For all the time, energy and thought that goes into trying to understand the intricacies of the game, sometimes the simplest and most basic questions are the ones to ask. Why, when the Spurs keeper ran off his line to claim the ball ahead of Alonso, did he ignore the obvious option of staying on his feet and catching the ball, instead launched himself 4 feet into the air, horizontally, with his boots flying like he was doing an impression of a “Street Fight he” character?
It was tough to work out which was more embarrassing or confounding: Gazzaniga’s challenge or referee Anthony Taylor initially giving Spurs a free-kick. For once, we can be grateful for VAR intervening and giving the penalty.
Perhaps it was all a symbol of Tottenham’s muddied collective thinking. There was another, less tangibly damaging moment in the second-half when Dele Alli went to mop up a chance in his own box and had the chance to clear, but instead ran back towards his own goal and in the end just tried to twist and scoop the ball away from goal , conceding possession in a dangerous area.
Chelsea were clear of mind, determined and well-drilled; Spurs were muddled, erratic and ill-prepared. At the very least, we can be sure that their “new manager bounce” has disappeared, and now we’ll see what sort of manager Mourinho is now. We’ll see what sort of manager Lampard continues to be.
“The reason to get so excited is not that we’ve accomplished anything, because we haven’t,” he said, when asked about his emphatic celebrations. “But just for the fans to see what these players can do when they’re absolutely at it. That’s a big deal. Now, can we be consistent? Can we keep reproducing that?”