I was rather looking forward to writing an article in the aftermath of Liverpool’s victory at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, discussing the effects that Tottenham’s back 3 could have potentially had on The Reds’ performance. Mauricio Pochettino, however, had other ideas, as the Argentinian scuppered my plans when he deployed a much more traditional back 4.
Shaking Things Up
Now, it remains unclear whether the Spurs manager used this different tactical approach to spite me or to try and overcome his hardest test of the season so far. However, there is one thing that is certain. His unexpected choice of formation played a crucial role in why everything unfolded the way it did. In this tactical analysis, I will try to talk you through how the Liverpool team capitalised on Pochettino’s blunder.
Mauricio Pochettino has long been a fan of playing 3 centre-halves. I mean, who wouldn’t be when you have the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez all available to you? The 3 centre-halves allow the likes of Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose to bomb up and down the flanks, contributing to all phases of play, in the form of wing-backs.
This trusted formation saw Spurs finish 3rd in the table of goals conceded during the last campaign. It is a resolute, yet potent system that has brushed aside many teams, including Liverpool in the same fixture last season, as Klopp’s men were demolished 4-1 in an embarrassing display. So, why did Pochettino decide to mix up the formation of his team when he already knew of a formula capable of downing the Merseyside club?
Pochettino Blinked First
There is only one reason why the ex-Argentina star tinkered with his team’s shape. He was petrified of being overrun in the middle of the park against Liverpool’s dominant midfield 3. The only way he thought he could counteract the intense press and work rate of James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keïta, was to surround them with 4 players. He chose Eric Dier, Moussa Dembele, Harry Winks, and Christian Eriksen to lead the assault in an exhilarating battle that took place in the centre of Wembley’s turf. To a certain degree, his plan worked. During the first half, it would be hard to say who won that battle, as both teams had spells of dominance in the middle third of the pitch.
Liverpool’s Dominance Explained
In order to carry out this masterplan, Pochettino had to sacrifice a player from somewhere else. Somewhat surprisingly, he decided that a centre-half should be the position to make way. This meant that Spurs were playing a very narrow diamond, with the only width coming from Kieran Tripper and Danny Rose. As the 2 wingbacks pushed high up the pitch trying to produce any sort of chance for their team, Liverpool’s attacking trio leapt into action, time and time again.
Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah were greatly criticised for their selfish displays, in which both players spurned the opportunity to square balls to a teammate in a much better position. However, their capability to cut off the passing lanes out wide was nothing short of stupendous. They denied Vertonghen and Alderweireld any opportunity to pass the ball out to their wingbacks, leaving a pass into the feet of either Moussa Dembele or Eric Dier the only option. Now, this shouldn’t spell danger for a team in any capacity. Passing to a creative number 6 is how many teams dictate play and the flow of a game.
The Firmino Role
However, when Roberto Firmino is hot on your heels like a crazy terrier, and James Milner and Naby Keïta are marking your 2 nearest allies out of the game, it is not very easy to successfully keep the ball moving without being tackled or having a pass intercepted. Firmino did not give the Spurs midfield a moment’s rest. The Brazilian was the catalyst for so many Liverpool chances, as he won 3 tackles during the game.
When Liverpool recovered possession through Firmino’s intense pressing, they pounced on Spurs, as wave after wave of quick breaks occurred. The Tottenham defence was in no position to defend these counterattacks. Their 2 wing-backs were miles up the pitch trying to engineer an attacking chance. This meant that both Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah were free to run either side of their Brazilian accomplice, as the fabulous 3 broke repeatedly on the helpless Belgian partnership of Alderweireld and Vertonghen.
To say that the 2-1 scoreline in favour of Liverpool flattered Tottenham would be a horrific understatement. Liverpool had 10 shots on target in the game. That is the first time since January 2014 that Spurs have faced so many shots on target at home. The Reds expected goals on Saturday stood just shy of 3. However, you can’t help but think that if they had been just a fraction more clinical or made better decisions, then it could well have been 5 or 6. Either way, Jürgen’s team march on and still maintain their 100%-win record. Better luck next time, Poch.