In the midst of the mayhem, a football match broke out but it was unclear whether anybody noticed.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge towards the end of last season, when Chelsea held Tottenham Hotspur to the 2-2 draw that dashed their title hopes, is remembered for the malevolence, the bench-emptying flashpoints and Mousa Dembélé’s eye-gouge on Diego Costa.
There were 12 yellow cards – a record nine for Tottenham – and the minor miracle of no reds. There was Érik Lamela’s Bafta nomination for best innocent face after his deliberate tread on Cesc Fàbregas. And there was Guus Hiddink being knocked down into the pit of the dugout during the mass confrontation at full-time. The Daily Mail wondered whether it had been the Premier League’s most shameful game. Frankly, what was not to like?
Mauricio Pochettino breaks into a broad smile. Before Saturday’s rematch at Stamford Bridge, the Spurs manager channels his inner old-school Argentina defender and admits that, yes, he would love to have played in that game.
“I was just talking with Eric Dier in my office about how different football was 20 years ago, when I was a player,” Pochettino says. “I used to watch the ball, and watch the opponent, because maybe you can receive a punch or a kick. But there weren’t too many cameras then to get players suspended like now. It was tough to play.
“It’s true that we have to show an example of football these days but it’s also true that life now is about what you are doing with your phone, the internet and so on. You are not always free. You are in a box and football is the same.
“I felt more freedom when I was a player. There weren’t so many consequences. Today, with every action, you are in the spotlight. It’s too difficult now to show your real emotions. You need to have more control and it’s more difficult. It’s a different era and we need to accept it and control everything. We cannot behave with freedom. Today, there’s too much control everywhere.”
It is easy to detect the wistfulness in Pochettino, a laddish relish for the days when a sly elbow would not result in a pesky video review and retrospective ban. But, as Pochettino acknowledges, composure is king in the modern game – and how Tottenham paid for losing theirs against Chelsea last May.
Pochettino talks of the special circumstances of the night, including what had gone on in the buildup. Tottenham were hurting after the damaging 1-1 home draw with West Bromwich Albion in their previous game, when they had lost a lead and their nerve, and were riled by interviews in the press with various Chelsea personnel, who suggested they were eager to foil their rivals and see Leicester City crowned as the champions.
“For different reasons, we arrived at that game in a very sensitive moment,” Pochettino says. “We were very aggressive in all that was happening. It was a special moment, very special. Out of context, we can say: ‘Why did Tottenham behave like this?’ But with all the context, in that moment, I think it was normal.”
There has been plenty made, not least by Pochettino himself, of how Tottenham showed they were not soft touches that night – thereby burying an old impression of the club. They had fought their corner hard.
The alternative reading is that they showed their weakness and immaturity. When Son Heung-min had put them 2-0 up in the 44th minute, they were set to take the title race to the penultimate round of fixtures. The party at Jamie Vardy’s house fell silent. The Leicester striker and his team-mates could feel that Tottenham were still clawing at their heels.
What happened was extraordinary. Danny Rose’s tackle on Willian in front of the dugouts saw the two players square up and Pochettino dash on to the pitch to pull them apart, before others arrived to form a melee. During it, the normally ice-cool Dembélé gouged Costa. To recap, Tottenham were 2-0 up at the time. “I was involved in the game and I forgot my thoughts,” Pochettino says. “It was a mistake. I cannot go on to the pitch.”
Some of the wilier Chelsea players had sensed that Tottenham could be tipped over the edge. There was provocation from them, with Fàbregas the agent-in-chief. It was incumbent on Tottenham to show coolness in the second half and true toughness, which meant not becoming involved in the silly stuff. They failed. When Eden Hazard equalised for Chelsea, there were still seven minutes plus stoppage time for Tottenham to find the winner but, by then, they had lost their heads completely.
Pochettino and his players return to Stamford Bridge at a curious juncture. They remain the division’s only unbeaten team and lie one point outside the top four – which is where they want to be. It was only on 2 October that they were beating Manchester City 2-0 at White Hart Lane to extend a winning sequence in all competitions to five matches. But there is no mistaking the sense that Tottenham have come to lack cohesion and vibrancy.
The immediate consequence of the Battle of Stamford Bridge were the back-to-back losses against Southampton and Newcastle United that saw Tottenham contrive to finish third – and, significantly, behind Arsenal – in what had felt like a two-horse race for the top.
The post-Chelsea trend has been downwards and the statistics bear that out. From the start of last season to the trip to Stamford Bridge, Tottenham’s win percentage in all competitions was 52% and they averaged 1.8 goals per game. Including the 2-2 draw at Chelsea, the win percentage has since dropped to 36.4 and the goals per game to 1.4.
Pochettino has missed several key players because of injury and suspension – most notably Dembélé, Toby Alderweireld and Harry Kane – and any team would suffer with analogous absentees. But there have been many games when Tottenham have looked narrow and one-paced, with the full-backs, Kyle Walker and Rose, struggling to get forward.
The dark cloud has been the Champions League exit, which was confirmed by Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss at Monaco. Tottenham were damned by their creative failures, having scored only three times in five ties and once from open play. It has also been noticeable to see Pochettino’s tinkering with his starting formation. He has used three different ones in the past three games and the impression has been of a manager grasping for the right blend.
Tottenham have routinely lived on a knife-edge, with only three of their matches this season having been decided by more than the odd goal – the league victories over Stoke City and Manchester City, and the EFL Cup drubbing of Gillingham. It feels as though the shackles have tightened. Pochettino craves freedom.
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