Liverpool – Tottenham Hotspur: José Brought The Block But Klopp Had Solutions (2-1)
In the Premier League’s biggest game of the season so far, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur brought out the best of two contrasting styles. In a high quality and entertaining affair, Liverpool found the holes in Spurs’ defensive block to progress, despite alterations throughout the game. Roberto Firmino eventually rewarded the home team with a header in the 90th minute, which sent them top of the table.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
A matchup with an ultra organized low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. did not come at the right time for Jürgen Klopp’s men. After dismantling Wolves, a team renowned for defending deep, with a convincing 4-0 win, injuries to Diogo Jota and concerns around the fitness of Mohamed Salah in a draw to FC Midtylland raised questions about Klopp’s lack of rotation.
This resulted in a sloppy and stagnant performance away to Fulham; in the first-half Fulham continuously knocked on the door, before a converted penalty from Salah saved Liverpool some blushes. Thus, the last test for the biggest game, at least domestically, in the calendar so far wasn’t too promising for Klopp’s side.
Tottenham’s climb to the summit has been established in the big games. José Mourinho builds the wall and punishes blunt attacks with ridiculously efficient transitional play of their own. This was evident in wins over Manchester City and Arsenal in recent weeks; although not producing the stellar execution of counterattacking this team potentially can, both Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son are perfectly capable of building attacks and finishing them off amongst one another.
Unfortunately for Spurs, they cannot face ball-orientated teams throughout the entire campaign, and can become unstuck when encouraged to build without acres of space to penetrate. This was evident away to Crystal Palace, a performance which lacked in creativity and a turn of momentum which saw Spurs rightly punished. Nonetheless, Mourinho’s big game setup promised an awkward match against Klopp’s utilisation of his fullbacks.
Klopp made just one enforced change to the team that drew away to Fulham. Joël Matip’s injury resulted in Rhys Williams coming into the center-back spot. Mourinho also made a limited amount of rotation, with Ben Davies and Giovani Lo Cleso coming in for Sergio Reguilón and Tanguy Ndombele, respectively.
Liverpool pick through Tottenham down the left
In the past few seasons, two teams have nullified Liverpool’s attacks using 4-4-2 systems in the Champions League. Both Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli performed in similar ways; both relied on compactness, rest defending and kept in the low block whenever possible. As well as these core principles, Atlético deployed the asymmetric midfield line, while Napoli dropped the right winger, to stop Liverpool’s ruthless transitions forward and cover effectively down the channels.
What made Mourinho’s approach more interesting was the rotation of his personnel to try and limit Sadio Mané’s influence on the ball. Heung-Min Son operated next to Harry Kane, while Moussa Sissoko was deployed to the right of the double pivot, Two central midfielders next to each other. which consisted of Giovani Lo Celso and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.
The swap in personnel enabled Sissoko to go more man-orientated towards Andrew Robertson and provide better support for Serge Aurier down that channel. However, Liverpool’s rotations and overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. enabled access to space both in front and on the shoulder of Aurier, rewarded with a number of cutback situations throughout the first half.
Liverpool did this in a number of ways. Mané was consistently trying to pull Aurier out of the defensive line, with double movements and lateral runs towards the ball. Roberto Firmino dropped deep from the center-backs, to join the buildup down the left, which could create a four-versus-three. Curtis Jones’ rotations and off-ball movements also caused Tottenham problems, who made runs behind Sissoko when he would press Robertson.
20th minute: An opportunity is created for Liverpool thanks to the dynamism between Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mané. Results in Mohamed Salah meeting a cutback inside the penalty area.
A chance in the 20th minute embodied how Liverpool’s excellent interchangeability was able to break through the Premier League’s most notorious block. Mané had the occupation of both Aurier and Sissoko, which enabled Jordan Henderson to make an excellent progressive pass, an asset to his game that he’s really improved on, to meet Robertson’s run into space. The chance resulted in Aurier being isolated, cutting the ball back towards Salah who could only find Hugo Lloris’s gloves.
Liverpool maintained and circulated possession very well within the opening period, vertically building in the middle third, If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. while their rotating midfield made it difficult for Kane and Son to pick up receivers. Klopp’s team were still not creating the consistent high quality chances we have come to expect, but they were progressing and penetrating a defensive block A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. which every top club around them had struggled to do so.
Their efforts were rewarded in slight good fortune, but their staggering and movements made it all happen down the left channel. Both Jones and Firmino combined in a four-versus-three down the left, which enabled Jones to enter the penalty area. Salah’s shot took an almighty deflection, but looped over Lloris and into the top corner.
Everybody has a plan until…
Liverpool were in firm control up to this point. Midfield rotations kept their passing fluid, while up-back-and-through combinations enabled them to retain the ball. Though attempts to go direct and switch play didn’t always find a receiver, Tottenham didn’t win the ball back in areas where they could build a counterattack.
That was until Mourinho’s team registered their first shot of the game, and showcased the attacking benefits of Lo Celso playing as part of the double pivot. Tottenham attempted to thread one or two attacks before this one, but perhaps didn’t take the right option in buildup or enabled Liverpool to reset due to the lack of tempo.
Lloris’s short throw to Lo Celso in space gave him time to turn and drive the ball upfield, right up until reaching the halfway line. Lo Celso’s pass carved through the Liverpool lines, while Steven Bergwijn’s dummy run pinned Rhys Williams centrally and occupied Trent Alexander-Arnold, resulting in space for Son, a maneuver not many Tottenham midfielders (outside himself or Ndombele) could do from deep.
33rd minute: Player positions for Tottenham’s equalizer, which involves an excellent carry and pass from Giovani Lo Celso, evading Liverpool’s counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. before splitting their defensive line.
Son was able to align himself perfectly, before arrowing the ball past Alisson at the front post. A well crafted and high quality chance created within just a few seconds – all while the broadcasters remained transfixed on the Liverpool cross, which was collected by Lloris.
Mourinho adjusts to plug the gaps
Following Liverpool’s exploitation of Tottenham’s right flank, Mourinho adjusted and reverted back to the wide center-midfield approach that we saw in recent performances. Sissoko moved next to Højbjerg, while Lo Celso took up his position on the right of the double pivot.
This swap of positions gave Tottenham a lot better coverage in the right halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and enabled multiple players to occupy Mané down that channel. Mané was originally dealing with an opposition overload, but had space to move into and players to combine with. Take that space away and Aurier would be able to maintain his position in the defensive line, while having Sissoko in support.
Liverpool’s 2-5-3 buildup structure against Tottenham’s 4-4-1-1 low block, which solidified the left halfspace thanks to a switch between Giovani Lo Celso and Moussa Sissoko.
Ultimately, their defensive coverage was a lot better in the second period, and was able to cut off combinations in the final third. Their compactness and spacing completely shut off access around the penalty area, which left them in a predicament: throw more players forward in search of openings but concede a shot at the other end or leave yourself short and expect moves to end.
Liverpool’s most likely route towards the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. would open up on the transition. Bergwijn’s positioning on counters are very central, working in proximity of his fellow attackers, which on the transition would leave an overload of Liverpool player’s down their right channel. However, Klopp’s team did not capitalize on these moments and Bergwijn was able to regain his defensive position, without being exposed.
In fact, it was Tottenham who would produce more opportunities, outshooting Liverpool five-to-three in the opening twenty minutes of the half. This would involve identical chances for Bergwijn, thanks to direct balls from deep. The first was skewed wide, while the other was brilliantly crafted between Kane and Son’s flick-ons, which led to the Dutchman smacking the foot of the far post.
From the following corner, a Harry Kane header could be looked back on as a “what if”-situation at the end of the campaign. Kane won the duel from six yards out, heading the ball into the ground and bouncing over Alisson’s crossbar.
Liverpool’s resilience and old habits die hard
Kane’s missed header proved to be the final opportunity for the Tottenham attack. As the minutes ticked, Spurs took up more and more defensive positions, remaining as compact and disciplined as they could. However, this wasn’t to say counterattacking situations weren’t there to be developed, which made Ndombele’s disregard more curious, when Spurs could’ve done with someone to relieve such pressure.
Spurs were incapable of holding the ball upfield for long periods, and when caught out of shape, space could really open up. Williams’ showcased this, passing directly to Salah after Kane miscontrolled by the halfway line and enabled the attacker to get a direct chance at goal. Tottenham may still have plenty of bodies back while they didn’t commit the fullbacks or central midfielders, but it was still enough space for Liverpool to penetrate.
Liverpool continued to circulate the ball effectively, able to make progress by moving into the blind side of the player pressing them down the channels. This is something that Alexander-Arnold and Georginio Wijnaldum performed when combining on the right flank, with one or the other in substitute Sergio Reguilón’s blind side. If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind the defender’s back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blind side.
Though Liverpool’s staggering was effective, it wouldn’t be Tottenham’s open play defense which would cost them. They held until the 90th minute, when Robertson’s corner was met by Roberto Firmino, with a bullet header back towards goal. This hasn’t been the first time Spurs have dropped points in the last ten minutes either, with Newcastle, West Ham and Crystal Palace all picking up points, and all from set pieces.
Generally speaking, midweek domestic clashes don’t tend to be the most memorable, even with top spot at stake. When you also consider the gruelling fixture lists all teams have gone through, especially with Champions League and Europa League campaigns going on, this had every right to be a borefest with both teams prioritising their fitness for the Christmas period.
However, the Premier League was due a tactically galvanising, high energy and quality affair. Liverpool and Tottenham showcased why these two currently hold the top two spots in the league, although Klopp’s team gained a significant morale-boosting win, Mourinho can still hang with the very best in 2020.
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