Tottenham Hotspur – Liverpool: Conte and Klopp Delve Into Organized Chaos (2-2)
With Premier League postponements all around, all eyes were transfixed to a thrilling contest in North London. Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp’s differences in styles married with the addictive chaos, that both teams can bring, delivered an excellent game of football.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Considering the sheer quality of their teams’, it may come as a surprise that Conte and Klopp’s paths have rarely crossed. Nevertheless, a matchup so rich locked horns in not so glamorous circumstances. Amid the Premier League’s COVID mess, Spurs hadn’t played in two weeks, whilst Liverpool remained one of few team’s whose schedule has yet to be ransacked.
Since his appointment at the start of November, Antonio Conte has managed Tottenham on just four occasions in the Premier League. His trademark 3-4-2-1 system has been deployed and seen Spurs look comfortable, without imposing, in their three home victories, but this was the first major test for Conte back in London.
Liverpool has benefitted from the consistent run of fixtures, having won every game since their previous trip to the capital. Klopp’s team have found new levels in their attack, most notably Mohamed Salah, whose twenty-four goal involvements in seventeen matches is double the tally of the closest player.
Conte fielded a completely different midfield line, with Harry Winks and Tanguy Ndombele, who started as the double pivot, whilst Emerson Royal and Ryan Sessegnon played in the wing-back positions. Tottenham’s only other change came in the form of Dele Alli, who made his first start under the Italian manager, who slotted into the midfield to make a 3-5-2 formation.
Klopp made three changes to the team that beat Newcastle United in midweek. Tyler Morton made his first league start in the midfield, joined by James Milner and Naby Keïta to complete the trio. Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcântara came out entirely, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was available on the bench.
Tottenham transitions make a welcome return
Counterattacks between Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son was the only weapon of choice under José Mourinho, whilst fazed out by the aimless approaches under Nuno Espírito Santo. However, Conte brought these transitions back with important and subtle differences. Whilst under Mourinho these moments felt improvised, Kane and Son looked a lot more rehearsed against a Liverpool defense that immensely struggled on the transition.
The midfield trio of Morton, Milner and Keïta didn’t look out of place when their 4-3-3 press was in their high block and pushed aggressively against Tottenham, who weren’t exchanging deep too often. When the ball bypassed the first line, this was when the fresh midfield looked a lot more disorganized. Both Milner or Keïta appeared too far forward, whilst Morton was dragged out of position, by following the movements in front of him.
12th minute: Buildup to Spurs’ first goal. Poor transitioning from Liverpool midfielders, as the ball is moved back to Sánchez, enabled a lane to open straight to Ndombele to receive on the turn.
For the first goal, Liverpool would usually build on the transition, but a loose pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold towards Keïta was overturned and saw the three midfielders positioned in a straight line as Ndombele was fed the ball in space. Harry Kane stuck to the defensive line long enough, before timing his run perfectly between Ibrahima Konaté and Andrew Robertson, to score just his second goal of the season so far.
From this point, Spurs continued to offer a brutal counterpunch because they had an out ball from their 5-3-2 defensive block. With Liverpool counterpressing, a backwards pass to Harry Winks would trigger the two strikers to make runs in behind. These movements from Kane and Son were very effective: Kane sat on the outside of Konaté, whilst Son made penetrative movements between the two or on the opposite shoulder of Joël Matip.
Once again, Liverpool was disconnected on these transitions and missed the presence of both Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho, who often mop up the attempted long/second balls to cut out opposition counters. Morton remained deep but struggled to stamp out these moves from forming, alongside the center-backs who continued to leave angles open.
Tottenham chances came few and far between across the half but constantly produced high-quality shots. Just moments after the first, Kane and Son exchanged on the break, which saw Son put the ball agonizingly wide, from not a great ball put in front of him. Son could also spearhead these transitions, with Kane’s movement off the ball dragging Konaté and making space for Dele Alli, his shot well saved from Alisson Becker.
Klopp’s team may have had the control of the possession, but their phases on the ball weren’t as convincing as we have usually seen. Their shape resembled a 3-3-4 formation, with some exchanges between the personnel.
Milner had phases where he dropped behind Robertson, whilst Keïta pushed forward into the last line as Liverpool progressed the ball forward. They still had the pairings between fullback and wide forward that kept them moving forward, but Liverpool missed the rotation from the midfielders that could truly open Tottenham. Morton was static, just in front of the center-backs, but offered little in possession, whilst Milner was forced backwards easily when he dropped into the space behind Robertson to receive.
Tottenham’s change to a 5-3-2 defensive shape had great benefits in stopping Liverpool from moving the ball between the lines. A pass out wide to the fullback was a trigger for Ndombele or Alli to close the space, whilst the shifting between Winks and the far sided midfielder built compactness vertically. Most importantly, neither Royal nor Sessegnon were dragged out of position high up the field.
Example of Liverpool’s problems in the buildup: Tottenham press came from wide center-midfielder, without losing compactness centrally or from deep. Liverpool was forced to pass sideways as a result, as well as lack of rotation in central areas to open up opposition block.
As a result, Liverpool’s ball circulation was a lot more lateral, but they could still cause problems. With the three Tottenham midfielders encouraged to work closely on the edge of the box, space could open for either Liverpool fullback to receive in a dangerous position on the switch. Mané also caused havoc down the left side, whether that would be receiving from a crossfield pass or around the defenders from the left sideline.
Liverpool may have been unusually uncreative, but they sustained attacks well, won a lot of fouls inside the opposition half and looked fruitful when Robertson and Mané engaged on the left. It was down this channel that saw the equalizer develop.
In this phase, Robertson’s higher position and Ndombele confronting Milner enabled the fullback to pull Royal out. Mané made his run inside of Davinson Sánchez and although the first phase was blocked, Robertson pounced on the loose ball, crossed towards the edge of the six-yard box and Diogo Jota scored from close range.
Feeling control slip
Not only were Liverpool behind on the quality of shots, but had started to lose the possession count too. Transitioning amongst the midfield three was not fixed and Tottenham was able to move the ball out of counterpressure comfortably, more notably on the right where Ndombele was left free from Milner on a few occasions, which led the ball towards Royal.
Nevertheless, their forms of shot creation did not change, as they continued to hit runs in behind, just in a much higher position. Having circulated the ball around the Liverpool medium block, a long pass from Eric Dier created one of the game’s biggest chances. Alli peeled off Alexander-Arnold to connect, whilst none of the Liverpool defenders reacted to both Alli and Kane behind them. Alisson showed elite levels of composure as Alli didn’t put enough weight on the pass back to Kane and the space was drastically closed as the goalkeeper made the save.
54th minute: Buildup to Kane chance. Backpass from Winks triggered Alli’s curved run, whilst Dier’s open body shape, as he received the ball, encouraged Kane to move just after, whilst none of the Liverpool defenders followed their opponents.
Kane would then have another close attempt moments after, this time from a Son corner, with the ball flicking off Mané’s foot and just too high for Kane to get the best connection. Though Liverpool still had effective moments, when their front three were engaged in the press, Spurs had gained the reigns and had more combinations around the center of the field.
On the ball, Liverpool continued to show little creativity without a midfield that offers rotation in possession. Klopp made a bold move on the hour-mark, as Morton was replaced by Roberto Firmino, and they switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation: Firmino behind Salah upfront, whilst Jota moved onto the right.
Liverpool adapted their shape and was better accommodated to dealing with the ball being moved towards the channel. As the full-back received, Firmino would move out of the central position to become an option in the halfspace. They made progression quicker into the final third, but the game was still very balanced and they were missing the forms of chance creation that are rarely detached from their displays.
68th minute: Buildup to Liverpool’s second goal. Lateral pass from Jota to Robertson encourages Royal and Skipp to move out of their defensive block to confront, whilst Jota freely moves into the space behind the two defenders.
Nonetheless, they got into the lead, after dealing with a very similar pattern that Spurs created at the start of the second period. Another long ball into Alli reached the midfielder, but Liverpool dealt with the transition and created yet another opportunity down the left side of the field. Once again, Liverpool was able to encourage Royal out of the defensive line, this time by Jota’s lateral pass into Robertson, which created space behind him. Jota’s cross connected with Salah, but Hugo Lloris punched the ball to the right. However, Alexander-Arnold pinged the ball straight back into the penalty area and Robertson squatted to head the ball in from yards out.
From the kick-off, Spurs held onto the ball for a long period, as they circulated the ball in their 3-5-2 formation and Liverpool sat deeper in a 4-2-3-1 medium block. Klopp’s team still had their triggers forward and a few minutes after the goal, Keïta miscalculated and opened for an up-back-and-through combination to form. Winks’ ball behind the defense forced Alisson to come out, but a lack of proper connection was perfect for Son to receive and put the ball into the open goal.
This would have set up an open and frantic final fifteen minutes, but Robertson’s sending off forced Klopp to move more cautiously. Mané was replaced by Konstantinos Tsimikas, as Liverpool moved into a 4-2-3/4-4-1 defensive block, with Firmino now on the left.
Conte’s team had total control from this point onwards and built several neat patterns to play through the opposition block: another up-back-and-through the center to create space for Royal to deliver a cross, but the delivery was not great, whilst an excellent underlapping run from Ben Davies put him through after Sessegnon and Son combined, but his cutback was cleared.
This is a little more like Tottenham. Well organized with a clear game plan, but most importantly, offensively imposing. Kane registered six shots against an elite team and Spurs should have easily scored more. Though not a victory, this is a very encouraging sign that Conte can compete with the personnel he already has at his disposal.
With key players missing and a brand new midfield, maybe there isn’t too much to read into Liverpool’s defensive performance here. Nevertheless, despite their fullbacks high creative numbers, the influence from their midfielders has significantly grown over the past year and was evident in this display.
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