Liverpool – Tottenham Hotspur: Conte’s Approach Puts Cracks on Title Dreams (1-1)
It’s been particularly ‘Spursy’ to troll Manchester City’s title run, but it’s only right for them to derail the Liverpool machine too. In a race that has so little margin of error, Antonio Conte would disrupt another contender away from home, in the way that he knows best: low block and counterattacks.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
The lunacy of the football world could see Liverpool end the season with a single trophy, or be announced as quadruple winners, within the space of a few weeks. Regardless of the outcome, Jürgen Klopp’s finest work is appearing to peak at the right moment, but it hasn’t been without close shaves against teams that have been able to keep their compactness.
Villarreal put Liverpool to the greatest of mental tests, thanks to their aggressive and compact style, which put them 2-0 up in the second leg. Just two shots, from 50/50 possession, are utterly alien statistics when attached to this Liverpool team, but Klopp’s team rallied to turn the game completely on its head. With four games left, and a single point behind Manchester City, Liverpool could not allow such complacency to creep in once again.
In a run for trophies, one of the last coaches you’d want to duel with is Antonio Conte fighting for positions. Tottenham already caused Liverpool issues in December, through punchy transitions, set by Harry Winks’ long balls and trademark combinations between Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Tottenham themselves could not afford to drop points, two points behind Arsenal in fourth spot and the North London derby still to play. With huge stakes placed on both, perhaps the organized chaos would not be as aggressive as the first fixture earlier on in the season.
Klopp made two changes from the team that faced Villarreal. Naby Keïta was replaced by Jordan Henderson in the midfield, whilst Luis Díaz came in for Diogo Jota, to partner up next to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané in the front three.
Conte rotated to a 3-5-2 formation in the previous fixture but stuck to the usual 3-4-3 formation as he made just one change from the team that beat Leicester City. This saw Dejan Kulusevski return to the front line, in place of Lucas Moura.
Narrow wingers surrender space to fullbacks
As Tottenham defended in a 5-4-1 formation, both Kulusevski and Son were relied upon to sit narrow, to compact the areas that Mané, Salah and Henderson were aiming to receive in. With the midfield line so narrow, the wide and deep spaces became crucial avenues for Liverpool to try to progress and make rotations.
Thiago Alcântara and Fabinho remained close to the same line in the buildup, as Liverpool’s flexibility came on the right, with Henderson inside and Salah outside to start. The dynamics on the right saw the hosts move the ball at a decent tempo, especially when Spurs were baited to pressing higher, which could see Liverpool gain a huge amount of space around the fullback areas.
4th minute: Example of the amount of space that Liverpool’s fullbacks could be afforded. In this phase, Tottenham was encouraged to press further forward, but Salah’s double movement stopped Sessegnon from engaging, whilst Son was occupied by Konaté.
Nonetheless, although the hosts’ circulation continued to see different positions taken up, across the midfielders and fullbacks, Liverpool wasn’t creating when the game was slower and Spurs were organized in the low block. Thiago had moments where he pushed further forward and Díaz rotated inside, but Liverpool issues in the buildup weren’t evolved around a lack of patterns, more that these movements still lead to Klopp’s team passing laterally, instead of vertically. Díaz dribbles inside created a threat, opening up the field once he shifted, but both he and Salah could only be activated on the outside of the wingbacks, whilst Mané was disconnected in these passing phases.
It’s the lack of creativity through the buildup that truly highlights the strength of Tottenham’s low block. Spurs wingers stepped forwards on Liverpool’s center-backs, whilst Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur stepped out more when the hosts had the ball in deeper areas of the Spurs half. The wingers continuously tucked in, whilst the wingbacks offered support to congest the wide areas.
When Liverpool found a route to one of their attackers, the center-backs were a lot more aggressive in their engagement, without the defensive line being distorted and pockets unavailable for the forwards to move into.
Spurs approach established, but Liverpool counterpress
Spells of Liverpool danger came in waves, thanks to Tottenham’s approach alleviating pressure. They had transitional threat, but in a different pattern, compared to the game at White Hart Lane. Instead of long balls to the forwards, Spurs continued to hit long balls to the high wing-backs and relied upon switching to make progress.
From goal kicks, their set-up resembled more of an asymmetric 4-2-3-1 formation, with Eric Dier and Cristian Romero splitting between the goalkeeper, Ben Davies and Emerson Royal staying deep, whilst Ryan Sessegnon pushed further forward. Spurs avoided engaging with Liverpool’s 4-3-3 zonal press, to begin with, by Romero’s long passes finding Kulusevski on the turn. From there, Tottenham aimed to move the ball towards the center, to stop Liverpool from resetting towards the flanks so quickly. As a result, the switch to Sessegnon was often a safe pass to make.
24th minute: Tottenham’s set-up on goal-kicks, able to escape Liverpool’s zonal press with Kulusevski dropping deep and able to receive the ball by moving laterally away from Fabinho.
However, Tottenham struggled to convert such transitions into chances, and when they started to circulate the ball in Liverpool’s half, the aim was to feed the wingbacks without the spaces being available. Both Spurs and Liverpool were genuinely quiet upon entering the opposition box.
Despite this, as the wing-backs moved higher up the field, Liverpool was able to form counterattacks of their own but against center-backs that didn’t surrender central spaces, or engage in one-versus-ones. Tottenham kept Klopp’s team unproductive, but for the final ten minutes of the first half, breakdowns in Spurs’ buildup and effective counterpressing started to make half chances for the hosts.
With both Dier and Romero positioned on the same line as Lloris, it was easy for Mané to apply a more aggressive press and force the long pass out to go into more uncomfortable areas. Spurs resolved this by conceding free-kicks, but Liverpool applied pressure through such set-pieces, which saw Virgil van Dijk hit the crossbar from a corner.
Díaz also had an opportunity of his own off the counterpress, as Kulusevski attempted to dribble out. Díaz was now behind the winger, and a sharp one-two with Mané put him around Bentancur, his shot from range palmed away by Lloris. These phases were more chaotic, but Spurs could still pack a punch of their own. From the same phase, Romero played the ball out to Kane and Son found Højbjerg as the counterattack slowed. His shot from range smacked the foot of the post.
Tottenham transition pays off
Spurs started the half continuing to suffer on the counterpress, but not conceding big chances in the process. Therefore, Tottenham quickly shifted into their 5-4-1 low block and caused frustration of their own against their opponents.
Liverpool themselves were still lateral and unable to truly connect with their dangerous forwards. Crosses started to become more prominent when Spurs sat deeper, but the wide rotation of Alexander-Arnold inside and Henderson outside saw the Liverpool captain free at the back post on a few occasions. Nonetheless, momentum soon started to shift into Tottenham’s favor once they had broken through from deeper carries and holding width when on the attack.
Just over ten minutes into the second period, Spurs got their goal. From their corner, the ball filtered back to Lloris in the second phase, with Royal positioned on the left and free to receive the long ball. His switch to the right was picked up by Kane, whose dribble back inside created the angle to feed Sessegnon. The wing-back put the ball across the goal for Son to make an easy finish.
55th minute: Buildup to Tottenham goal. Royal was still on the left side, following Tottenham corner. Spurs able to create overloads on both fullbacks, thanks to the wing-backs on the same side, whilst Kane and Kulusevski hold the width on the right.
Crossing lottery can’t provide the winning numbers
Klopp still had his team perform pretty similar patterns after the first initial phases of the game. In the 2-3-5 formation, Alexander-Arnold was more engaged with Fabinho and Thiago, whilst Henderson appeared higher up on the right side. It came as no surprise as Diogo Jota would take the Liverpool captain’s place, whilst Konstantinos Tsimikas came on for Andrew Robertson at left-back.
Jota roamed more towards the left than Henderson, but the emphasis on Liverpool’s attack didn’t shift from working the ball up towards Alexander-Arnold and crossing the ball into the box. It’s not unusual for a team struggling to break a low block down to delve into the very mixed results of repeated crosses, but it’s very uncommon for one of Europe’s best attacks to be seduced into such desperation.
If it wasn’t crosses, it was shots from distance that the hosts attempted, in order to break the low block down. Fortunately for them, Luis Díaz was able to provide the goods. With Liverpool moving the ball out towards the left, Díaz moved the ball onto his right and was afforded space by Højbjerg stepping away from the Colombian. The shot deflected off Bentancur and the misstep from Lloris gave him no time to react to the ball bouncing in the opposite direction.
However, the equalizer did not prompt Spurs to become more open and encouraged Conte to double down on his conservatism. Ben Davies was moved into the left wing-back position, replaced by Davinson Sánchez, whilst Harry Winks came on to replace Kulusevski, as Spurs moved into a 5-3-2 formation with five minutes to go.
Liverpool didn’t have as much control throughout the game, as one would expect, but had completely lost it in the final stages, creating very little and the final big chance falling into Tottenham’s grasp. On the attack’s second phase, Spurs worked the ball backwards for Winks to deliver a cross. Højbjerg was in a golden position, but his decision to head the ball back towards Kane was massively misjudged and miscalculated, the ball bouncing behind the striker at the death of the match.
Liverpool cross a lot, but it is uncommon for them to look so unthreatening from them. Out of twenty-two attempts, just three hit the target, a miraculous achievement from the Tottenham low block, as well as having the transitional threat to stop being pressured for the full ninety minutes.
It’s a result that causes a huge dent in their title ambitions, Man City have the chance to move three points ahead, whilst the likes of Chelsea, in the FA Cup final and Wolverhampton, could deploy very similar approaches to Tottenham’s in the run-in.
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