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Last week in this space we focused on Samir Nasri and, to a lesser extent, David Silva. These were transcendent, emerging figures in the English Premier League title race. If Nasri could continue playing like one of the world's top 20 players while Silva surfaced as the creative presence City desperately needs, Arsenal and City's title credentials would have to be reevaluated. A Robin to Cesc Fàbregas's Batman and a another player to keep City dangerous when they bunker? That'd force us to rethink the Premier League's power structure, and this weekend (allowing me to retrofit last week's premise) John Terry forced us to do the same.
The only difference: Whereas Nasri and Silva are emerging league icons, Terry's established as one of the league's trademarks, for better or worse. His on-pitch bullying of officials, his selling tours of Stamford Bridge (as well as the England captain's box at Wembley) and extra-marital affairs with ex-teammates ex-girlfriends - incidents too recent to be overlooked in any story of Terry's renewal. From the human perspective, that's unfortunate, but for the detached writer, there's drama in contrast. If he can reemerge as one of the best defenders in the league, ever-brave John Terry's new-found evergreen quality would be one of the season's great stories.
And great is what JT was on Sunday, though there will be debate as to his accountability on Roman Pavlyuchenko's opener (more on that below). Beyond that goal, Terry was dominant, prolific, and unfortunately for Chelsea, very needed. Exhibiting the spirit of worthy of his captaincy - evidenced the multiple time he would follow his challenge was a sprint up the pitch, into attack - Terry went beyond near perfect in his role as central defender. He was the team's spiritual leader. Again.
Beyond the ethereal, consider the chalkboard to the right, something I usually avoid using (others are better at such things), but this one is too telling to avoid:
Dominant - Terry won eight of nine tackles (top chalkboard), a remarkable total considering the success rate of his teammates. They won only 44 percent of their tackles (Spurs won 59 percent), but Terry tackled with an 89 percent success rate, his only lost challenge coming 35 yards from goal.
Prolific - Only one player recorded more tackles: Gareth Bale with nine (16 attempts). Terry was the match's most prolific and successful defender, with Sebastian Bassong recording seven tackles (six aerial wins, all recorded within the first hour). Unlike Bassong, Terry's numbers weren't a result of a specific strategy from his opposition, nor were they all of one type (four aerial, including the one in Spurs' area). Terry's tackles were diverse, wide-ranging, and frequent.
Needed - If you look at the bottom chalkboard and divide it into quadrants. you see seven of the nine tackles on Chelsea's left were made by Terry. Ramires and Florent Malouda were the only two players who helped. In the other half, Branislav Ivanovic and Paolo Ferreira each made at least three tackles. You could argue Terry's great day took tackles away from Ashley Cole (no tackles). Regardless, he was the only player holding down that half of the pitch.
One thing that spoiled Terry's performance (in some people's minds) was the goal, Roman Pavlyuchenko moving across the top of the box, away from Terry, able to get off a blistering left-footed shot that he curved around Petr Cech and inside the left post, giving Spurs a lead within a quarter hour. Check out the highlights, left, starting at the 0:13 mark.
Spurs deserve credit for quickly exploiting Carlo Ancelotti's solution for Gareth Bale. Chelsea's boss had right back Paulo Ferreira track Bale high up the pitch, leaving a huge space to the right of Ivanovic. Chelsea had Ramires track Luka Modric from central midfield into that area, thwarting a couple of early attempts by Spurs to exploit the tactic, forcing Tottenham to find an alternative.
The new idea came in the 15th minute: Move Jermain Defoe into the area and see how Chelsea reacted. It would be too much to have Ramires also track Defoe, since the Spurs striker would be making his run behind the midfielder. Ivanovic was the logical defender, and when Defoe received the ball along the left flank in the 15th minute, he dragged the Chelsea central defender with him.
This snapshot's from the Fox Sports package, above:
By this point, Defoe (in possession) has taken a ball played behind Ferreira and cut back toward the middle of the pitch. Ramires (far left) is waiting, while Ferriera and Bale are non-factors. The interesting part of this snapshot is Ivanovic, the Chelsea defender on the ball. Normally somebody who'd be positioned just in the center of the pitch, he's been dragged all the way to the right flank, forcing Chelsea's defense to adjust.
And from behind goal, after Defoe plays the ball for Pavlyuchenko.
Mikel has dropped into the back line, the expected adjustment for a holding midfielder, allowing the pass to come through the space vacated by the Chelsea midfielder.
At this point, Mikel is essentially the right-center half and should be judged according to those responsibilities. Likewise, Terry needs to be judged in terms of the left-center half's role, which he's performing by closing down Pavlyuchenko. As you can see in the snapshot, Terry has the situation somewhat under control. By the time the ball arrives, he'll be on Pavlyuchenko's left foot, forcing the striker away from a positive movement.
Of course, that's not what happens. The next snapshot shows where the defense broke down:
Pavlyuchenko takes the ball and moved across the top of the area, but look at Mikel's positioning. Where he should have picked up the man moving away from Terry, Mikel has slid too far inside. He's in no position to contest Pavlyuchenko's shot, allowing the attacker an unexpectedly easy chance on goal.
The play underscores two things. First is the cost-benefit of the tactic. Ancelotti probably made the right choice in putting so much emphasis on limiting Bale, but that choice came with a cost. Spurs' ability to quickly discern what Chelsea was doing allowed them to put Mikel in an uncommon and uncomfortable position. Put another way, Chelsea exposed a weakness in order to nullify one of Spurs' strengths. In the process, they held a Tottenham team that was averaging 1.6 goals per match at home to a single goal.
Second: It's a goal that can't be put at the feet of Terry, who put in one of the best defensive performances of the season, a shift that forces us to consider the implications of Terry returning to form. This is the type of dominance we haven't seen from Terry in at least a year, a level of play some thought has passed the recently turned 30-year-old. Terry had become more injury prone, a step slower, and more prone to poor positioning. But what if that was just a phase? What if Chelsea's poor form has forced their captain to refocus and find a lost standard of play?
If Terry can replicate this performance next Sunday against Manchester United, we will have to reevaluate Chelsea's title prospects. Prior to the Spurs match, we had implicitly assumed Chelsea's defense would feature a good if flawed Terry. If the new (old) Terry shows up on Sunday, Chelsea fans will have reason for hope amidst their late fall slump.