LONDON — While Stamford Bridge rose in acclaim at full-time, Willy Caballero found himself at the centre off a celebratory huddle. David Luiz, Pedro and Antonio Rudiger took some time to embrace their goalkeeper and so, too, did the members of Chelsea’s coaching staff who greeted him in turn at the mouth of the tunnel.
Caballero had not been called upon to save a single shot all evening against an insipid Tottenham; a resounding derby win outwardly owed little to the 37-year-old yet, at the same time, it had everything to do with him.
Or at least it had everything to do with what his inclusion signified. Maurizio Sarri bared his teeth in giving Caballero his first Premier League appearance of the season: he had to, really, because anything else would have told the world that Kepa Arrizabalaga’s insubordination at Wembley was acceptable. But after that he needed his team to show some bite of their own; to show that they could turn their manager’s instructions into a dominant performance against top opponents and perhaps, along the way, that they could mend some broken connections.
“I think the most important thing was that we were able to fight for the result,” Sarri said after Chelsea had breathed new life into their stuttering Premier League campaign. By the end there was a curious sense that something had been reset. Chelsea had battled, niggled, scrapped: the things, in other words, that this fixture routinely demands,. But they had shown something else too. If one of the criticisms of “Sarriball” this season has been their slow, methodical, often aimless-seeming buildups, here they moved the ball speedily and with purpose, sometimes even bearing resemblance to his old Napoli side. If it was not quite enough to exert total control in a match short of quality, it was still a stark departure from almost anything they have shown this winter.
Was such an insistent, high-tempo display a response to Arrizabalaga’s exclusion? “No, I don’t think so,” Sarri said, playing down the importance of his line in the sand. “The performance in this match was really very good, but it was a performance in line with the last one [against Manchester City at Wembley]. I think it was the right decision. Kepa made a big mistake. He paid with the club. Then he had to pay with the team. But now I think we have to stop.”
In reality it is something nobody can measure. But the under-pressure Sarri might have elevated himself at a crucial time. Whether or not Sunday’s incident was — as Sarri had said on the day — a misunderstanding, the optics of selecting Arrizabalaga to face Tottenham would have been terrible. Fielding Caballero in his place was not only a message to his £71 million keeper but also to the squad, Chelsea’s trigger-happy hierarchy and to the wider world. It was a seizing of control by a manager who had been accused of having none. On the only evidence available so far, a showing that had their stadium rocking to an extent that has been achingly rare this season, it has paid off.
Chelsea played with the energy that might have been expected from Tottenham, who had enjoyed almost 36 hours’ extra rest after their Saturday lunchtime defeat at Burnley. They tore into Spurs early on, only flagging a little towards half-time, and it was instructive to hear Sarri explain that his players had asked to press slightly lower as the game progressed. That should not be interpreted as a mutiny; more a collegiate decision in reaction to circumstances. Chelsea picked and chose their moments to take initiative in the second half and were rewarded by a smart goal from Pedro and, near the end, a clanger from Kieran Trippier and Hugo Lloris.
“In the last three matches we’ve defended very well, with a level of application and attention higher than before,” Sarri said. “I think that the level of aggression we had was good.” Pedro encapsulated that perfectly seven minutes after breaking the deadlock when, with Christian Eriksen looking certain to equalise, he appeared deep inside his own area to execute a breathtaking goal-saving tackle. Little had come off for Pedro until he cut inside Toby Alderweireld and fired under Lloris; his non-stop running, though, had set a platform for him to be a hero.
Sarri could also savour a sleek, all-action display from Mateo Kovacic — perhaps his best for the club — and another lung-busting effort from N’Golo Kante. At times they swarmed over Tottenham, who have looked alarmingly sluggish in the past four days. Some of their play carries a strong whiff of mental tiredness; their title hopes are effectively dead now and, unless they can raise things in an even bigger derby against Arsenal on Saturday, their top-four spot may even be under threat. “It won’t change my assessment of the players,” Mauricio Pochettino said. “We need to support them, lift them and help them to compete on Saturday.”
For the first time in Pochettino’s tenure, Tottenham had failed to land a shot on target during a Premier League match. Caballero had been restricted to the basics: some safe handling, one brave first-half punch, a wagon-wheel of accurate passes sprayed left and right. All of which ensured that, while his name was on everyone’s lips at kick-off, such an error-prone Lloris performance was the contribution they remembered upon leaving.
Authority on the pitch; authority off it. After making his selection, Sarri had achieved the effect he set out for. And maybe, just maybe, the unsavoury saga of Arrizabalaga and the botched substitution has altered the course of the Italian’s time in West London in a way few had deemed possible.