OK. Time for a sit down and a nice cold drink. You know what? They say it’s going to rain on Tuesday. In the meantime Chelsea and Tottenham produced something extraordinary here. This was a steaming, throbbing mosh pit of a game, climate crisis football, pegged out around a series of flares. On and off the pitch, it was an afternoon defined by full-strength collisions.
The most interesting of these was tactical, as Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea team produced 70 minutes of expert cover and team defence to smother the Tottenham attack; followed by a successful counter-tweak from Antonio Conte, and two late equalising goals. A 2-2 draw seemed just about fair, although Spurs will be happier with the point.
The moment that will take the headlines was of course a different kind of collision, a hilariously overheated clash of middle-aged egos in the managerial rectangle. This reached its operatic peak after the final whistle, a moment of extreme alpha-handshake warfare as the standard clasp was transformed into a kind of death-shake face-off.
No one will ever really know what happened inside that shake. The end result was Tuchel refusing to let go, sending Conte windmilling around – nobody windmills Antonio around – and inspiring a hair-raising tableau of waving arms, bumping chests, flashing eyes. like a Renaissance frieze entitled The Enragement of Antonio. Both managers were sent off. The only person who seemed to enjoy it was Tuchel’s ex-SAS bodyguard who loved every second – prowling expertly, eyes on swivel, securing the target.
It had been coming. West London had been a heavy, draining place all day, a city turning a little sour and sullen in the dog days of late summer. Chelsea had already been angered by Tottenham’s first equaliser, as Rodrigo Bentancur had seemed to foul Kai Havertz perhaps half a minute before the ball went into the net.
Chelsea went 2-1 up a little later, sending Tuchel off on his own wild, gawky, very funny sprint down the touchline, skinny arms pumping, legs pounding the turf, like a set of scaffolding poles bouncing off the back of a lorry. Tottenham’s second goal at the death, a header from Harry Kane, left Conte combination punching invisible orcs, a one-man Celtic war dance.
A banner had been unfurled in the south stand before kick-off with the message “Welcome to the House of Fun”. And this really was fun. For all the necessary stuff about scenes nobody wants to see (they do) these two teams also produced a brilliant game of football, as those touchline collisions mirrored the tactical interplay between the two managers, the tightness of the game, the condensing of space, and Tuchel’s basic gameplan, which involved smothering the Spurs attack at source.
A minute before half-time there was a telling moment as Kane picked up the ball in the centre circle, controlled it with a back-spun touch, and looked to turn and pass , but was instantly barged off his feet by Jorginho, then wrecked all over again by a full sliding challenge from Thiago Silva – the high point of a spell where Kane was buffeted about the pitch like an antique bookshelf being jimmied around a turn in the stairs by a particularly boisterous troupe of house movers.
Chelsea did something more teams should do in that period: they got around Kane in his deep positions. N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho and Reece James were all brutally swift. Kane completed five passes in the opening 40 minutes.
Conte had gone with his first choice front three here, Kane-Son-Kulusevski, one to run, one to pass, one to glide about making up his own in-out target man schtick on the hoof. But Kane was stifled here by Kanté in particular, who looked fit again, won the ball high up the pitch and seemed to be playing with that old sense of a two-second glimpse into the future while everyone else is on delay.
It was Kanté’s smart, spiky pressing that led to the corner that created Chelsea’s opening goal. On his touchline Tuchel turned and whooped, veins popping, fists clenched at his sides, like a man flying a jet pack through a lightning storm. He has a new look this season, less tracksuit manager, more history professor who also plays bass in a post-punk campus band.
And the plan worked here for most of the game. In the opening 70 minutes Kane, Son, Kulusevski and Richarlison had one shot on target between them, and were dispossessed 15 times, six of those in the ledger next to Kane’s name. James showed exactly why he is the best defender England have, and scored Chelsea’s second after some fine team pressing.
But Conte also had his say in that tactical crush. With 57 minutes gone he sent on Richarlison and rejigged his attack to a more standard 4-4-2, with Kane and Richarlison playing close together. Suddenly Spurs began to find space. Kane had some possession at last. For Chelsea that little knot of space invaders, the Kane squad, had either left the pitch or been thrown off by his position further up the pitch.
Richarlison offered energy rather than edge. But he was also there next to Kane in stoppage time as an inswinging corner was glanced past Édouard Mendy to spark the final crush of this utterly gripping hot-box of a Premier League game.