It was a crazy game between Tottenham and Chelsea on Monday, and we looked at the numbers behind Ange Postecoglou’s decision to go bold when he had two fewer players.
What do Tottenham and early 2000s rapper Afroman have in common? After some inconvenient occurrences befell them, they got high.
Obviously for Spurs, we’re talking about their defensive line (we can’t speak for Afroman) in Monday’s dramatic Premier League encounter against Chelsea. A game that saw five goals awarded, five goals disallowed, a penalty, two red cards, two enforced changes for injuries and more VAR checks than you could shake an angry Mikel Arteta at.
Tottenham started well against their London rivals, taking an early lead through a deflected Dejan Kulusevski effort and almost going two up but for a narrow offside against Son Heung-min. Chelsea came back into things and were already knocking on the door before Cristian Romero was sent off for a challenge on Argentina teammate Enzo Fernández that ended with Cole Palmer (just about) slotting his penalty to level things.
Destiny Udogie received a second yellow card to make it 11 against nine after 55 minutes, and Mauricio Pochettino – back to face his former club – saw his new side ultimately go on to win 4-1. But those who watched it will know, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
It had already been an interesting game, but when Chelsea had a two-man advantage and Spurs continued to play the highest of lines, it became something else.
With the game still finely poised at 1-1 as Udogie trudged off the field, the assumption was that Spurs would retreat and prepare to protect their penalty area from a blue onslaught. Instead, they continued to push up to the halfway line.
Initially, it worked a treat. Whether it was because they’d been caught by surprise or it was just a case of poor execution, Chelsea attempted balls over the top time and again and were thwarted by either an offside flag, Spurs goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario racing out to sweep up, or simply their own inadequate finishing.
In the 20 minutes between Udogie being sent off and Nicolas Jackson finally giving the visitors the lead, Chelsea had 76% possession, won 12 of 19 duels but only had three shots, with Jackson seeing a header from point-blank range flicked over the bar via the thigh of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who celebrated as if he’d just slammed one into the top corner at the other end, or found an extra bag of crisps in his multi-pack.
Finally, Raheem Sterling timed a run in behind to perfection, before setting up Jackson for an easy goal. Chelsea had finally broken through, and surely that was that.
Well, no, not as far as Spurs were concerned. Suddenly the team with two fewer players who had their backs against the wall for 20 minutes pushed forward, winning set pieces, scoring from one only to see it disallowed for offside against Eric Dier (who finished beautifully it must be said), and almost scoring from another when the ball bounced awkwardly in front of an unmarked Rodrigo Bentancur.
Despite the significant two-man advantage, Chelsea struggled to assert any control on the game as Tottenham tried to force an equaliser. In the 19 minutes between Jackson’s first and second goals, Spurs had three shots, with two on target (not including Dier’s disallowed effort), while Chelsea did not have a single shot at goal in that time. Spurs won six free-kicks, 11 of 15 duels and had five final-third entries to Chelsea’s two. When Son raced through and had a shot tipped away by Robert Sánchez in the 94th minute, it wouldn’t have necessarily felt like smash and grab had it gone in.
Seconds later, Jackson was sealing the game, before he completed his hat-trick moments after that.
Tottenham’s players were applauded off the pitch by their fans, proud of the nine who remained. Romero and Udogie had let their teammates down while injuries to James Maddison and Micky van de Ven in the first half were unfortunate (only three of the outfield players who started the game for Spurs finished it; Pedro Porro, Yves Bissouma and Son), but it was a hard-working effort from the hosts and, had Son’s shot gone in, you would have been able to say Postecoglou’s approach paid off.
Was it brave of the former Celtic boss, or was the high line actually to blame for the defeat? All three of Chelsea’s goals after Udogie’s red card came from balls in behind into acres of space and had a combined xG of 2.1, very high considering none of them were penalties.
In the history of the Premier League, following Monday’s game, there have been 73 occasions in which a team has had two or more players sent off in a single match. Of those teams, only two have ever gone on to win; Manchester City at Queens Park Rangers in October 1994 (2-1) and Leeds United at Arsenal in August 2001 (2-1). In 58 of those 73 games, the team with nine or fewer players has lost, meaning Spurs realistically only had around a 20% chance of avoiding defeat once Udogie was gone.
Tottenham forced seven offsides during the game, all of which came with fewer men, and four of which were when they were down to nine. As you can see from the graphic below, three of those were well outside their own penalty area, with one even in the centre circle.
To also give an idea of the effectiveness of the high line, of the 61 occasions when a team has caught the opposition offside at least three times in a Premier League game this season, only 10 have done so with an average higher distance from their own goal than Spurs did against Chelsea. The average distance between the offsides given and Tottenham’s goal was 37.5 metres – seven metres higher than the average of the 61 occasions – made all the more impressive when you factor in they had fewer men from the 33rd minute on.
When you see the areas in which Tottenham won possession below, you can see they did not differ all that much from when they had 11 men to when they had nine, showing that they weren’t merely waiting for Chelsea to get on top of them before engaging. They may have found it tougher to press the ball with fewer players, but they still found joy in not just standing off and retreating when out of possession.
Helpfully, there is an obvious counter to Spurs’ approach that we can compare it to. Only a few weeks ago, in the same stadium, Liverpool saw two players sent off against Tottenham. Curtis Jones received his marching orders in the 26th minute, before Diogo Jota joined him in the 69th minute. Like Monday’s game, the score was level at the moment it became 11 v 10 (Palmer’s penalty was as a result of the challenge by Romero), and it was still level when the second red was handed out.
Spurs did go on to win that game, but only 2-1 and with the winner coming in the 96th minute from a Joël Matip own goal. Jürgen Klopp went with a very different approach to having two fewer players, defending deeper and backing his players to keep Tottenham at bay, which they very nearly did.
Including second-half stoppage time, there were 16 extra minutes of 11 vs 9 in the Tottenham-Chelsea game, but Spurs had more shots (8) in their 29 minutes against nine-man Liverpool than Chelsea managed in 45 minutes against nine-man Spurs (7), though Pochettino’s men certainly crafted higher-quality chances. All seven of their shots came inside the Tottenham box, with a combined expected goals (xG) value of 2.89. Tottenham’s eight shots against Liverpool only amounted to 0.77 xG, with five of them coming from outside the penalty area (Matip’s OG doesn’t count towards the xG total).
That suggests that sitting deep does reduce the xG against even if not the number of shots faced. It all depends on the circumstances and the opposition, and the argument could well be that Spurs playing so high is what allowed them to almost force their way back into the game at the other end.
Regarding the high line, Postecoglou said after the game: “It’s just who we are, mate. It’s who we’re going to be as long as I’m here. We go down to five men, we’ll have a go.”
Football would be boring if all managers approached it the same way, and while Spurs fans might disagree, the rest of us would really quite like to see them reduced to five men just once to see what on earth it looks like.