What this match needed, as half-time approached and the spectacle stubbornly refused to match the expectation, was Luka Modric. It didn't even matter which side he was playing for: the one who brought him to England in 2008 and to whom he is contracted until 2016 or the one who tried to sign him for £40m last summer and who may yet succeed in their achieving their objective at the end of this season. Either of them could have used a flicker of the creative subtlety that makes him so admired.

Finally, in the second minute of time added on to the first half, he gave us a glimpse. The little man currently wearing the Spurs No 14 shirt wriggled to the byline on the left of the Chelsea goal, clipped the ball across the six-yard box, and watched as Rafael van der Vaart's shot was parried by Petr Cech, the Dutchman's second effort was blocked on the line by Ashley Cole, and Emmanuel Adebayor headed the second rebound over the bar.

What he had done, after 45 minutes of constant effort but little enlightenment, was light the fuse for a second half that, if never a delight to the eye, at least contained a fair helping of dramatic incident. As he and his sweat-soaked team-mates left the pitch at the end of the contest, their faces told the story. They had enjoyed the better of a goalless draw which cast neither side in a particularly flattering light and will have given most pleasure to another London side, given that neither was able to make more of a challenge to Arsenal's third place.

In his fourth season at Tottenham, having been hampered by injuries and fluctuations of form that may have been caused by positional miscasting, the 26-year-old Croat has started to look more like the long-awaited heir to the legacy of John White, the ill-fated Scot who functioned as the creative mainspring of the Double side of 1960-61. On Saturday, however, he started the match as a cog in the machine devised by Harry Redknapp to frustrate Chelsea's attempt to close the five-point gap between the sides lying fourth and fifth in the Premier League.

Redknapp adjusted his line-up for the occasion, with Adebayor up front, ranging across the line and pressing the defenders, and Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale wide in midfield positions ahead of a reinforced three-man unit of Sandro, Scott Parker and Modric, unambiguously deployed to screen the back four. "It's a system that suits us," Redknapp said, but it depended for its success on Modric's willingness to subdue his natural inclination to act as a prompter for the front-runners.

On the half-hour, for instance, the ball was played quickly out of defence by a combination of Modric, Van der Vaart and Adebayor. But as the Dutch midfielder and the Togolese striker proceeded to break at speed on the right flank, neither Modric nor any of his colleagues seemed inclined to provide support. Eventually Bale responded, but seven white-shirted outfield players were standing around or behind the halfway line as a 25-yard shot went flying over the bar.

It was not pretty, and it was not what history has encouraged us to expect from Spurs, least of all under Redknapp, who is popularly seen as a laughing cavalier of football management. That caricature represents a serious underestimation of his willingness to embrace pragmatism and expediency when the stakes are high and the odds are tilted against him – a match, indeed, such as Saturday's, against a club one place lower in the table, fighting for the same prize of a foothold in the Champions League, but enjoying considerably greater financial resources.

"It was an important point for us," Redknapp said. "I think they were more happy to hear the final whistle than we were." Both sides hit the woodwork – Chelsea through a Juan Mata free-kick against a post, Spurs with a Bale header against the crossbar – but in the account of chances created, the visitors came away with the better balance.

Modric could feel that he had done enough to secure all the points. With a quarter of an hour left his inswinging free-kick was met by an unmarked William Gallas with an inaccurate header from a perfect position. Four minutes later his quick-witted chip set Adebayor sprinting behind the defence to take the ball wide of Cech, only for his half-hit shot to be blocked on the line by Gary Cahill. It was from the ensuing corner that Bale set the bar twanging.

Cahill grew in stature throughout the match. When he smothered Bale's cutback at the end of the Welshman's dangerous slalom in the first minute of added time in the second half and headed away a free-kick from the same source two minutes later, it could be said that this was the day on which the former Bolton centre-back became a bona fide Chelsea player rather than a £7m misfit.

And if you were Luka Modric, which shirt would you want to be wearing next season? He has yet to sign the new contract in which Tottenham promise to double his current wages of around £45,000 a week, while Chelsea are dangling an even more substantial lure. Perhaps he will opt for the side offering a guarantee of top-level European football next season. Or perhaps he won't.