Tuchel’s powerplay shows widening gulf between Chelsea and Tottenham

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<span>Photograph: Tony Obrien/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Tony Obrien/Reuters

With 10 minutes to play at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with Chelsea 2-0 up and looking like a team just running up and down the scales of their own attacking possibilities, N’Golo Kanté took the ball and surged towards the Spurs defence. By that stage this London derby had descended into a selection of minor human interest storylines. Most obviously: can anyone on this pitch, in either a blue or white shirt, force Timo Werner to score a goal?

Related: N’Golo Kanté transforms Chelsea in second-half rout of Tottenham

Kanté did his best, dinking a pass towards that familiar scurrying blond collection of random impulses. What followed was an extraordinary 30 seconds of kung-fu pinball stuff, the blue shirts taking it in turns to belt the ball into a series of full-body blocks.

And no, Timo didn’t score, but he did set up the third goal for Antonio Rüdiger. And he was present as Chelsea simply ran all over Spurs in those final minutes, a siege that captured, in alarming close-up detail, the wildly contrasting trajectories of these teams.

Not to mention the stark gap at the top of the Premier League between that executive tier who might hope to win it, and the clubs just below. Much has been made of the possibility, from here of a three‑ or four-way title race, a genuine rarity in any European league. But we also have seven months of this in store: evidence on a weekly basis of that ever‑widening gulf.

This was an afternoon spent with half an eye on the sepia past as both of these clubs mourned the death of the great, and greatly loved, Jimmy Greaves. The match itself was packaged up as a kind of fond Viking funeral, with its big‑screen montages, fine words from old teammates at half-time, and the pre-match reverence of the crowd.

But it was also something deeply modern, a game decided by a kind of footballing determinism. Basically Chelsea won because they have better players, a better manager and a better bench. So much so that with the game scoreless at half-time Thomas Tuchel was able to produce not just the perfect substitution, but an unanswerable powerplay.

Game plan not working? Midfield collisions a little tight? How about bringing on the best driving defensive midfielder in the world. Enter: one box-fresh Kanté, who produced a supreme little spell while the game was up for grabs. There will also be something galling for Spurs, and indeed their fans, in the other decisive presence during that period. How do you rationalise defeat to a team that has spent close to £300m on attacking talent, when that swatting aside is led, in the event, by a long-serving half‑speed left-back?

Related: Tottenham and Chelsea put rivalry aside to remember Jimmy Greaves

Marcos Alonso has chewed his way through five years and four Chelsea managers. He’s a very funny figure in some ways, an amusingly upright semi-defender, who seems to have only one cruising gear. But he did for Spurs here with a sustained period of ambling influence just after half-time.

It was Alonso’s inswinging corner that saw Thiago Silva jog in from the edge of the box, to nod the ball down past Hugo Lloris. Dele Alli was the nearest defender (the word is used loosely). Again, the gulf in resources was clear. Alli seemed to be playing half in and half our of this occasion.

N&#x002019;Golo Kant&#xe9; skips past Dele Alli.
N’Golo Kanté skips past Dele Alli. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The summer traffic in forwards was of course the biggest indicator of this. For Chelsea: a club-record £97.5m recruit. For Spurs the retention of Kane has resulted in a kind of mutual assured mediocrity. He looked keen for half an hour here, and ineffective for the rest of the game. Kane needs a new challenge. Spurs need a new team.

Perhaps Nuno Espírito Santo is the man to deliver it. He is a deeply un-Spurs like figure in many ways. This has been a place down the years of impresarios, dynamos, wide boys, salesmen, whereas Nuno has the air of a very sad, wise, dying Jedi. In reality there is little the manager can do when his team is so profoundly outgunned.

To their credit Spurs produced a performance of high-pressing parity in the opening 45 minutes. But they congealed towards half-time as the adrenaline levels dipped, and subsided completely after half-time when Chelsea shuffled their pack. With 57 minutes gone it was 2-0 and game over, as Spurs fretted over clearing the ball and ended up watching Kanté’s shot deflect off Eric Dier’s foot and into the corner of the net.

Things only got worse form there, the gap beginning to deepen, the seams to stretch. Tired opponents chasing the game? With 20 minutes to go Kai Havertz was replaced by Werner, who finally got the chance to play a league game alongside Romelu Lukaku, the kind of assured physical presence that had brought the best out of him at RB Leipzig.

Briefly it looked like this might have been Werner’s moment. Lukaku drew two players to him, then laid the ball off in front of goal, only for Werner to produce a wild, splayed, attempt at a finish, with a note of panic about it, like a cat startled by a sneeze.

Chelsea can afford these diversion, such is the power of the squad right now and the certainty of Tuchel’s selections. Mohamed Salah’s penalty at Anfield is the only goal conceded so far in five league games. One thing is clear. Given the gulf in class in evidence here, it is the internal collisions of that four-team elite that seem most likely to decide the destiny of this league title.

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