In a replay of last season’s Champions League final, Liverpool hosted Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield. Liverpool dropped their first points of the Premier League season in their draw with Manchester United last weekend, but they are in much better form than Tottenham, who are enduring a torrid start to the season.
Jurgen Klopp sent out his men in their usual 4-3-3 formation, and Mauricio Pochettino matched him, with Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen flanking Harry Kane, dropping off into a 4-5-1 shape out of possession.
The crowd had barely finished singing that they were champions of Europe when Spurs took the lead. Son cut inside onto his right foot to unleash a shot at goal, deflecting off of Dejan Lovren and bouncing back off the post to the waiting Kane, who had followed Son’s shot in.
Such a quick goal makes it difficult to work out what the starting gameplans were, but, with the lead, Spurs focussed on defending whereas Liverpool sought to exert pressure on them and attack.
Without Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keita, Liverpool lack creativity through the centre of midfield and as a result end up reliant on their full-backs to create chances. Tottenham’s midfield line of five was clearly meant to stymie that, ensuring Son and Eriksen were never too far from Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andrew Robertson, quickly getting out to stop them whipping in crosses.
Having three men in the centre of midfield and Kane dropping off to block passes into Fabinho also meant that Spurs were well-covered through the centre, making it difficult for Liverpool to bypass the midfield and play into Roberto Firmino between the lines.
On top of this, Tottenham tried to make it difficult for Liverpool to build a rhythm, blocking the home side from taking quick free-kicks and throw-ins and taking an age over their own. They perhaps made it a little too obvious though, given they were scolded for their time-wasting before they had even gone in for half-time.
Showing how strong they have become mentally, Liverpool looked completely unfazed by going behind. They would move the ball out to one flank, dragging Spurs over to that side, then quickly switch play out to the other.
With Jordan Henderson generally pushing forward into attack on the right, Alexander-Arnold tended to sit back, leaving it to Robertson out of the two full-backs to bomb forward. This matched up well against Spurs, as while Son had the energy to quickly get back and defend against Alexander-Arnold, Robertson was frequently able to race away from Eriksen and fire low crosses into the box.
As well as this simple switching of flanks, Liverpool had some simple movements in midfield that allowed them to work the ball forward. As Kane continually looked to shadow Fabinho, the Brazilian frequently pulled out towards the right, dragging Kane with him and opening up space for Georginio Wijnaldum to drop into and receive the ball. Not wanting to give Wijnaldum room to turn and advance with the ball, Moussa Sissoko would follow the Dutchman, opening up space behind him for Sadio Mane to drop into. Sissoko was clearly wary of this threat and frequently got Eriksen to push forward and cover Wijnaldum instead, but this would open up space for Robertson on the flank.
Alternatively if Mane moved wide and hugged the touchline, Wijnaldum would push forward into attack, pulling Sissoko towards his own goal. Robertson could then play a one-two with Mane, sending the ball down the line then making a run through the middle to receive the ball fairly deep in Tottenham’s midfield.
Liverpool’s main attacking threats were playing in Robertson or Mane down the left to smack a cross across the face of goal from the byline, or trying to overload Tottenham’s back four with five attackers and having a player deeper in midfield, primarily Alexander-Arnold or Fabinho, cross or dink the ball into them. With Tottenham continually being forced deep into their own half defending, these players had time and space to pick out quality passes for a frontline outnumbering the defence.
There was never any respite for Spurs either: the flat midfield five offered good defensive width but little depth, with Kane alone in attack. This meant that every time Tottenham headed away a Liverpool cross, Fabinho would pick up the ball uncontested in Tottenham’s half, immediately restarting the attack. When Spurs did manage to get Son running on the counter, they looked dangerous, however it was a rarity as Spurs struggled to move from the edge of their box.
This was in part thanks to Liverpool’s attacking discipline. In many games, Liverpool will simply smack long balls over the top and get their pacey forwards to chase after them, yet this rarely happened against Spurs, even though the centre-backs were given the time to pick out passes. When the centre-backs did opt for a long ball, it was usually directed towards a Liverpool attacker rather than the space behind the Spurs defence, and the recipient would look to nod it down for teammates following in behind him in support. This more patient approach by Liverpool meant they could force Spurs players back so deep that when they did finally win back the ball, they weren’t in any position to threaten Liverpool.
Although Spurs managed to hold out for the first half, they conceded an equaliser shortly into the second. They managed to head away a Liverpool cross but, like usual, Fabinho picked up the ball alone. He exchanged passes with Robertson then looked to lift a pass into the back post, where Liverpool had three attackers against two Spurs defenders.
Davinson Sanchez was preoccupied with Salah, who offered a short passing option for Fabinho, meaning Danny Rose had to follow Firmino’s run down the Colombian’s blindside. Henderson made a run of his own behind Rose though, which Fabinho picked out. Following Firmino, Rose got caught under the ball and Liverpool’s captain finished with a left-footed volley.
Liverpool continued to dominate and finally got their winner through a penalty. Alexander-Arnold simply thumped away a clearance and Mane won the foot race to the ball. Serge Aurier recovered then, as he attempted to get the ball away, ended up going through the back of the Senegalese to gift Liverpool a cheap penalty.
It was one of Liverpool’s most impressive performances of the season. They have frequently edged out even games against weaker opponents through their world class pressing or the individual talent of their players, yet here they completely controlled the match, barely giving Spurs a look-in despite the early adversity.