Unbeaten and thirteen points ahead at the top of the Premier League, a repeat of last season’s Champions League final comes at a good time for Liverpool, yet new Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho plays a large role in why many Liverpool fans won’t believe they are winning the trophy until they see it grasped in Jordan Henderson’s hands. Much has changed on both sides since but a win over the Portuguese would help to exorcise the demons of the Reds’ last title charge.
Mourinho set up his team in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Jurgen Klopp rested most of his first teamers against Everton in the FA Cup, but he made only one change from the team that beat Sheffield United – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing the injured James Milner. They set up in their usual 4-3-3 shape.
Looking at the line-ups before the game, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mourinho was planning to spoil the game, parking the bus with a back five. Although he didn’t do that, Spurs still ended up being forced back into defending.
Dele Alli would stick close to Henderson in the midfield yet when Henderson dropped back alongside the centre-backs, forming a makeshift three as he has many times this season, Alli didn’t follow him. Spreading out across the pitch, Alli and Lucas Moura couldn’t cover all three of them and so were left unable to press, forcing Spurs back into defending as Liverpool moved the ball from side to side.
While Liverpool had plenty of the ball, they did struggle to create clear-cut chances as Spurs defended well. Henderson dropping back stopped Spurs from being able to effectively pressure Liverpool’s backline, but also left Georginio Wijnaldum alone in midfield. With Spurs keeping narrow and Alli positioning himself well to block passes into the midfield, Wijnaldum alone wasn’t enough to work the ball through the centre.
Unsurprisingly then, Liverpool worked the ball forward down the flanks instead using their full-backs. On Spurs’ left, Son Heung-min did a good job defensively, staying inside to cut out passes through the centre then rushing out to close down Trent Alexander-Arnold when the ball went wide. On the opposite side, Serge Aurier was less impressive – he was preoccupied with Andy Robertson’s positioning, staying much wider than Son and often dropping back to form a back five.
While this meant Robertson was quiet, it left gaps through the middle for Liverpool to exploit. Sadio Mane often dropped back into the space between Aurier and the midfielders to take advantage, however Japhet Tanganga had an excellent debut, not giving the Senegalese any chance to turn.
It was another mature performance from Liverpool in possession though. They simply looked to keep hold of the ball and switch play from flank to flank, forcing Tottenham to shift across the width of the pitch. When some space opened up inside, they would pass into one of the forwards, who would look to quickly combine and interchange to carve open a chance, usually from a cross. Spurs had plenty of men back and were defending well, but Liverpool were continually asking questions of them, slowly strangling them with pressure.
Roberto Firmino in particular was everywhere, constantly dropping off and looking to receive the ball. It was the Brazilian that opened the scoring, afforded time by Tanganga’s failed attempt at cutting out the ball to open up his hips and rifle the ball past Paulo Gazzaniga and it was his movement that created the chance, timing his run perfectly to catch out Harry Winks. Spurs didn’t do a lot wrong, but in allowing Liverpool to have all the momentum, a goal felt inevitable – they had been very good at stopping Liverpool from finishing off their attacks, but they weren’t doing much to stop them from getting into these dangerous positions in the first place.
Spurs did manage to look dangerous at times. Pouncing on Liverpool’s mistakes and countering well, with Moura putting pressure on Liverpool’s centre-backs chasing down the ball while Son was always very quick to get up in support of him.
In the second half, Spurs pushed up and pressed Liverpool high up the pitch, with the wingers moving up to support the forwards so that Liverpool couldn’t easily play around them. This opened up the game, increasing the risk of Liverpool getting a second by leaving more space to exploit in attack, however the closed game had left Tottenham camped out in their own half with little chance of getting one of their own, so it was a change they needed to make to get back into the game.
Liverpool would pass along their backline until they could find an open pass into midfield, which would then allow them to cut through Spurs and attack. It left little room for error though, and any mistake was immediately seized upon by the Spurs attackers, allowing them to burst forward with four or five players close to the Liverpool goal. Even if Liverpool did cut through Spurs, when the North Londoners recovered the ball they had plenty of men forward to mount a meaningful counter-attack, whereas in the first half most of their team were having to run the length of the pitch to get into attack. Having more men forward gave Christian Eriksen some actual options to pick out with his passes, rather than just trying to hit it long for Moura to chase.
With twenty minutes left to play, Mourinho made attacking changes, bringing off Danny Rose and Eriksen for Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso, as Spurs changed to a 4-3-3 formation.
They continued to push men forward and pressure Liverpool, with Joe Gomez in particular looking flustered throughout the second half, however the away side held out to claim yet another victory.