With Manchester City running away with the Premier League, the only real interest left at the top end of the table is who gets the remaining three Champions League spots – the five teams in the fight throwing away their chances to get ahead just as often as they grab at them. Tottenham won against Manchester United in mid-week but that followed two disappointing draws against Southampton and Newport, while Liverpool also won in mid-week against Huddersfield, following on from losses to Swansea and West Brom. Their consistent inconsistency meant that you couldn’t really be sure what to expect going into the game.
Jurgen Klopp set up his side in their usual 4-3-3 formation, whereas Mauricio Pochettino went for a 4-4-2 diamond, with Dele Alli to the left, Eric Dier to the right and Christian Eriksen at the tip behind Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane.
The two teams used opposing strategies: Liverpool looked to break quickly, whereas Spurs tried to build up patiently.
As Tottenham looked to play out from their goalkeeper, Liverpool’s forwards positioned themselves between Spurs’ first and second line. This meant that the first pass out to either centre-back was simple, but the passes into the full-backs or Moussa Dembele at the base of the midfield were closed off – Roberto Firmino was blocking the pass into Dembele, Mohamed Salah into Ben Davies and Sadio Mane into Kieran Trippier. From there one of the forwards would then close down the centre-back, angling their run to ensure they were still blocking the pass into the player behind them. Liverpool’s midfielders were also on their toes, ready to press whenever possible, stepping through whenever a pass was played backwards and pressing whenever a player received the ball facing his own goal.
This resulted in a lot of misplaced passes by Spurs early on, meaning Liverpool were regaining the ball close to the Spurs goal. With Liverpool’s forwards positioning themselves between Spurs’ first and second lines, they were also winning the ball back in an immediate three versus two situation, often four with James Milner stepping up, with Spurs’ backline spread wide across the pitch. Despite both having played very well this season, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen were looking nervous, with Sanchez in particular missing the cover of the back three.
Even when they weren’t regaining the ball high up the pitch, Liverpool were attacking directly. Spurs were pressing high in Liverpool’s half, but Liverpool beat it easily just by playing long balls over the top for their rapid attackers to chase. This caused problems for Spurs, whose backline were struggling to cope with being turned constantly by the pace of Mane and Salah. Liverpool got their opening goal by simply hitting passes over the top of Spurs, with Salah finishing after a comedy of errors led Dier to putting him through on goal.
Liverpool continued to have the better of the first half, but didn’t attack as aggressively as they started. This was in part due to the wingers gradually retreating deeper, more in line with the rest of the midfield, meaning Spurs weren’t on the back foot quite so quickly once they lost the ball.
If Dembele was able to evade the shadowing of Firmino though, the Belgian would push forward on the ball, forcing one of the Liverpool midfielders to leave their man free and close him down. Dembele could then slip the ball through to one of the midfielders between the lines, although this rarely came to anything with Liverpool’s back four on hand. They could have caused more worry if Liverpool’s backline had been more stretched, however, although Trippier and Davies often had space out wide, the full-backs rarely pushed forward down the outside of Liverpool’s defence, instead sending in easily cut-out crosses. Only Son really troubled Liverpool’s defenders, popping up in some good positions.
Pochettino made one change at half-time, switching Alli and Eriksen. The Dane’s main job in the first half was to pick up the ball between the lines then send it wide to the full-backs, but in a deeper role he saw more of the ball with the play in front of him. Davies also pushed up much higher on the left, now trying to get down the outside of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
A mixture of tiredness making their pressing less effective and seeking to protect their lead saw Liverpool drop deeper and deeper into their own half, empowering Spurs further. Klopp substituted Jordan Henderson for Georginio Wijnaldum and Mane for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before swapping to a 3-5-2 with the addition of Joel Matip for Milner. Liverpool were holding off Spurs and it required a screamer from substitute Victor Wanyama for them to equalise, but Liverpool had been inviting the pressure by sitting back deeper and deeper.
Having altered their strategy to stopping Spurs, Liverpool found it difficult to then go back to attacking. Salah appeared to have bailed them out with a moment of magnificent skill, but a questionable penalty allowed Spurs to claim a point.