Tottenham Hotspur – Liverpool: Klopp’s boys roll to win at Wembley with frightening ease (1-2)
In what was supposed to be an even battle between Manchester City’s two main title challengers, Liverpool looked scary good, while some structural problems for Tottenham Hotspur surfaced.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino had to adjust a couple of things in his team and formation in one of the first real top fixtures of the Premier League season. His midfield looked iffy in the build-up and in transition from offense to defense in the last two road games against Manchester United (0-3 win) and Watford (2-1 loss). Also, Dele Alli was not available for this crucial early-season clash.
Pochettino tried to solve these two problems – and simultaneously attempted to control the center of the pitch against Liverpool – with a 4-4-2 diamond formation. Moussa Dembélé played as the deep-lying ‘six’, flanked by Eric Dier and Harry Winks, and Christian Eriksen as the playmaking ‘ten’ behind strikers Harry Kane and Lucas Moura.
Situation when Tottenham was building-up
Jürgen Klopp did not make rigorous changes to his side. The only change from the last league at Leicester (1-2 win) was a voluntary one: Jordan Henderson was replaced by Naby Keïta, who played as the midfielder with the most room to creatively roam, whilst Georginio Wijnaldum dropped back to the ‘six’ position – meaning that Liverpool returned to the exact starting eleven in which they comfortably won their first three league games.
Liverpool’s formation in possession
Tottenham’s woes: a funky midfield mix and an invisible Kane
The first half basically served as a 45 minute long example that this specific midfield diamond does not work for Tottenham with the current squad. The ‘numerical advantage’ in midfield (4v3) was nullified resolutely by the defensive positioning of the golden attacking trio of Liverpool.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané are masters in simultaneously cutting off both the passing lines between the center backs and fullbacks and between the center backs and central midfielders. In addition, Roberto Firmino fully understands the art of balancing between pressing the central defenders in their buildup and dropping off a bit, to cut off the supply line to the most deep-lying central midfielders.
The only pass repeatedly available in the build-up for Spurs today, was a long cross-the-field ball towards fullbacks Kieran Trippier or Danny Rose – who both had a rough outing in and out of possession today.
Harry Winks and Eric Dier, the ‘wide’ central midfielders today, tried to help out Moussa Dembélé in the build-up by dropping back. This made it quite easy for Liverpool’s midfield to defend the center of the pitch on their own half, because Christian Eriksen – who did not play one of his better games in his illustrious Spurs’ career – did not have enough support in this area to do some damage in the passing game.
As we all know, Liverpool is quite okay (or: really, really, really good, if you will) in pressuring the opponent’s ball-carrier when he receives the ball in disadvantageous positions. This skill of Liverpool’s front six proved too much to handle for the Tottenham midfield today.
Dier, Dembélé and Winks turned the ball over with great regularity, which led to a seemingly endless string of very promising counter-attacking opportunities for Liverpool that all just went haywire at the final pass, touch or finish. Were it not for a bunch of absolutely great individual defensive actions by Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, the score line could have been a lot uglier after 45 minutes from a Spurs point of view.
Kane was invisible today. So Tottenham struggled building-up, struggled progressing the ball through midfield ánd struggled creating clear-cut opportunities – an offensive bad-day trifecta. This was not the first time this season that Kane looked ‘off’. And that is a pretty weird and worrisome development, seeing that Kane has always been an above-average passing contributor as a striker – and not the type of striker that does not involve himself with anything other than scoring.
Liverpool wins the battle of width
Yeah, yeah, we all know that the most value – from an analytical point of view – on the field lies in the center of the pitch. There is a reason almost every top team plays with inverted wingers or creative central midfielders that can roam freely in the zones between the center of midfield and attack.
But some good-old domination of the wide areas also does the trick. Liverpool proved that today. Fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson had a big impact on this game, especially in comparison to the Tottenham fullback pairing of Trippier and Rose.
Liverpool’s dominance on the flanks of the pitch was most visible in the opening stages of the game. Twice within a span of two minutes from the kickoff, an overload on the right wing with Alexander-Arnold, James Milner and Salah led to huge almost-chances: the disallowed goal of Firmino and Mané, and the low cross that Firmino almost turned into a very cheeky opening goal. Pochettino packed the center of midfield with this formation, and Liverpool wasted no time, showing that it can also be very dangerous from the wider areas of the pitch.
The game-killing 0-2 also was the result of some excellent wing play from Liverpool. After a longer spell of possession, Robertson and Mané managed to convert a 2v2-situation into a high through pass towards Mané, with space to accelerate for the Senegalese attacker in the back of direct opponent Trippier. Mané’s low cross was, after bouncing of an almost-clearance of Vertonghen, easily finished by Firmino.
Liverpool’s ‘non-sexy’ improvements look thoroughly impressive
Let us be clear. The Liverpool of last season was already a damn good football team. I mean, they did kind of reach the final of the most important football league in the world, right?
Still, this year’s version of Liverpool already looks stronger. The rapid development of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson, along with the winter addition of Virgil van Dijk, has turned their biggest weakness – a back four that sometimes struggled to hold a steady high back line, one of the staples of Klopp’s pressing system – into one of their strengths.
Now that Jürgen Klopp can trust his back line more than ever before, the possibility has opened up for Liverpool to at times tone the high-press down and lean back a little more on their own half, setting up in a solid medium-high defensive block, patiently waiting for counter-attacking opportunities. Not too shabby an option, when you have a frontline that is extremely explosive and skillful with Salah, Firmino and Mané.
Even though Tottenham’s play in possession was less of a mess in the second half, when Pochettino switched to the more trusted 4-2-3-1 formation, and Dier dropped back regularly as a third center back to help in the build-up, Liverpool kept steadily creating good chances in transition.
Liverpool kept getting these counter-attacking chances in the second half because of very solid performances of midfielders James Milner, Naby Keïta and Georginio Wijnaldum when it came to balancing between dropping back in the defensive team block and chasing down ball-pressing opportunities.
It was fitting that Wijnaldum got a reward in the form of an opening goal from a badly cleared corner. The Dutchman – who, mind you, in his time at Feyenoord and PSV played as a Dele Alli-style attacking box-runner – put in another frugal and useful performance at a position in defensive midfield where he is not that familiar with.
The ever-running James Milner also put in another strong performance. There is a valid reason that expensive summer-signee Fabinho has not gotten a single minute in Premier League play so far. The contributions of role players deluxe Milner and Wijnaldum simply do not warrant replacement right now.
Today’s game was a definitive confirmation of various, solid in-team developments for Liverpool. Manchester City and the teams that aim to win the Champions League title should be on high-alert. The Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday should, by all accounts, be a very good one.
For Tottenham, this game should serve as a warning sign. Spurs still have one of the most talented squads in European football at the moment, but did not look like a top side in this top match. The struggles in midfield and defensive transitions need to be solved, Kane really should have some form of back-up or rest, and the absence of Dele Alli should not immediately have to mean a crumbling of Spurs’ attacking prowess. The question is if the Champions League encounter with Internazionale on Tuesday can serve as an opportunity to address some of these issues.