Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur met on Sunday for the first time since June’s Champions League final, with both teams having experienced very contrasting starts to this season’s domestic campaign. Liverpool have gone from strength to strength since that night in Madrid, taking maximum points from their first eight games before drawing at Old Trafford last weekend. Tottenham Hotspur, on the other hand, have failed to build on last season and, having suffered humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in Europe earlier this month, they arrived at Anfield with a point to prove and an opportunity to really kick-start their season with a headline performance. Mauricio Pochettino is currently enduring arguably his toughest period as Tottenham manager and, having not won at Anfield in their last eight visits and without an away league win since January, this would be a tough place to turn his fortunes around.
Whilst the scoreline would suggest Tottenham have made up ground on Liverpool over the summer, this tactical analysis will break down the key components in Liverpool’s comeback and discuss how the attributes they displayed can offer the red half of Merseyside genuine hope to end the generation-long wait for a league title.
Lining up with their usual 4-3-3 structure, Jurgen Klopp’s only fitness concern was a knee injury to Joel Matip, to which Dejan Lovren was preferred over Joe Gomez to partner UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Virgil Van Djik in the heart of defence. The combative and disciplined midfield trio of Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson were tasked with restricting Tottenham’s supply into the final third. Liverpool’s deadly trio upfront which scored 69 times between them last season have all hit the ground running this season and look to continue their rich reign of form against Spurs.
The visitors suffered injury to their captain Hugo Lloris earlier this month so saw Paulo Gazzaniga start in goal whilst there was no space in midfield for record summer signing Tanguy Ndombele. Harry Winks would marshall the midfield as part of a 4-1-4-1 formation with Eriksen and Son covering the flanks behind captain Harry Kane up front. On paper, Spurs starting XI consisted of many of the same players who lead them throughout arguably their finest team in the Premier League era. Yet with an out of form Alli, an unsettled Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld, whose best years in a Spurs shirt seem to be behind him, much would have to rely on an upturn in their individual fortunes to generate a team display to combat Liverpool’s spectacular start to the season.
A Lack of Support for Harry Kane
With just 47 seconds of football played, Kane’s predatory instincts saw him convert Son’s rebounded shot with a header into the corner of the Liverpool net. A brilliant start for the visitors, yet as the game progressed Kane would cut an isolated figure in the opposition penalty area and, being tasked with duelling with the league’s best centre-back before beating last season’s Golden Glove winner, the Spurs captain had a big task on his hands. This is not to say that Tottenham’s midfield was not supportive in attack, it was more a case that Alli and Son were more likely in search of the second ball or a knockdown rather than acting as a target themselves. This predictability in Spurs’ attack enabled Liverpool to adapt to containing Kane, and subsequently contain Spurs, shortly after their early goal.
Effective Full-backs on Both Flanks
Having both featured in last year’s PFA Team of the Year and become key stalwarts in Liverpool’s Champions League success, both Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold proved their worth with terrific offensive play on both flanks. Registering seven and 12 crosses respectively, they posed a constant threat to which Spurs were forced to retreat both Son and Eriksen into deep-lying positions in their own half.
Their license to roam forward was authorised by the astute positional awareness and defensive prowess of Fabinho, who’s refined reading of the game would stabilise Liverpool’s defensive unit sufficiently to enable both full-backs to occupy wide positions in the final third. Fabinho anchoring himself in the middle of the pitch also gave the full-back in possession an efficient route for the ball to cross flanks to the other side of the pitch in a swift two-pass movement. This option was exercised on numerous occasions and enabled the home side to reset their attack without losing their positional advantage.
With each of Liverpool’s front three having on numerous occasions lead the line in a central role over the last few years, this made them all equally adept at acting as targets for incoming crosses. This mixture of continuous crosses from their fullbacks and three prolific target-men to aim for is a very potent force and pressured Pochettino’s side into adopting a deep line of defence. With both full-backs pushing up high into the opposition half, this enabled all three strikers to focus their efforts on taking up narrow positions inside the box and causing Winks to drop back and support Spurs’ defensive line.
Such was their offensive mindset and the pace in which they could track back when needed, that each full-back would sneak up at the back post to join in with the attack. This would result in Spurs’ wingers being pinned back into their own box and limited their potential to counterattack. At times the responsibility of Spurs’ midfield to drop into the defensive line caused confusion between Aurier and Eriksen on the right and Son and Rose on the left as it was unclear who should pick up the overlapping full-back.
Liverpool’s Effective Midfield
Particularly in the second half, Wijnaldum and Henderson both took on more offensive positions and joined in with the front three’s attacking exploits. This is particularly effective when Liverpool have an astute a passer as Fabinho in center midfield, able to thread balls over the top or through tight spaces and into the path of Liverpool’s attacking front. This is exactly what happened during Liverpool’s equaliser as Fabinho received the ball in a slightly more offensive, but equally as central position, and played a first time through ball into Henderson who finished from six yards out.
Spurs Defence Struggle To Contain Liverpool Varied Attacking Options
Whilst both players should be commended for their accuracy in this play, a key component of Liverpool dismantling Tottenham’s defence was the positional ambiguity of Danny Rose in defence. After Robertson briefly touched the ball on the far left, the usual triggers were seen as the Spurs back four shuffled to the right amidst an expectant forthcoming attack from Liverpool’s left side. As part of this shuffle, Rose assumed the role of getting tight to one of Liverpool’s three centrally poised strikers – Firmino.
In turn, this left an inviting space at the far post for Henderson to exploit. The fact that the assist was was a chip from a centrally poised Fabinho rather than another cross from Robertson highlights the variety of options for box deliveries which Liverpool boast. Sunday’s encounter saw Liverpool play 97 balls into the final third, an average of one every 56 seconds compared to one every two and a half minutes for the visitors, who even then executed those passes with a significantly poorer accuracy.
Again, here Henderson holds his run until the full-back is sufficiently dragged out of position to press Alexander-Arnold on the ball. Liverpool’s skipper then makes a charge into the box, pointing at the vast space in which his compatriot can play the ball into him. He is looking to attack the large gap between Rose and Sanchez, giving Alexander-Arnold the option of which side of Rose to play the ball round to him.
Liverpool’s more intelligent use of width when going forward enabled them to camp in Tottenham’s half and press them back in a display of tactical superiority and possessional dominance. The analysis in the graphic below illustrates that not only did the home side enjoy more than two-thirds of the possession, but they also had eight of their starting players average positions in Spurs’ half. In contrast, only Son and Kane for Tottenham averaged a position in Liverpool’s half, highlighting how Robertson’s attacking outlay had Eriksen pinned back into his own half for large spells.
Amidst the attacking exploits of Liverpool’s full-backs and the persistence of their midfield, the individual performance which proved the biggest difference was to be from Tottenham’s second-choice goalkeeper, Gazzaniga. Facing thirteen shots on target and an xG of 2.69 proved why Pochettino was so eager to be reunited with him after a previous stint working together at Southampton.
Spurs’ at times sloppy marking left fans wondering whether it was caused by the absence of their experienced world cup winner Lloris, who’s leadership qualities serve to shore up and organise their back four. Liverpool outclassed their visitors using tactics which forced them into their own half, and it will be the intensity in which they press both in an out of possession which will make them serious contenders to finish the season at the summit of the Premier League.
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