Harry Kane’s 22nd league goal of the season earned Tottenham a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Anfield on Saturday, but their failure to secure a victory allowed Leicester to stretch their lead at the top of the table to seven points the following day with a narrow 1-0 triumph over Southampton. Spurs will be disappointed to have lost ground on the league leaders, but their performance on a difficult day at Anfield against a resolute Liverpool side didn’t really warrant anything more than a point.
Liverpool: Defending From The Front
Mauricio Pochettino has turned Tottenham into one of the best drilled sides in the country over the past few months, and Jurgen Klopp showed Spurs the respect they deserve by putting his side’s primary defensive focus on ensuring Tottenham could not build up play like they usually do. The way Tottenham normally try to play out is to have Eric Dier splitting the two centre backs, with both full backs pushing on as high as possible. The two wingers usually tuck in, creating a central overload through which Tottenham can build and progress up the pitch, before using the two advanced full backs as outlets. From here, the full back can either cross or link up with the winger, who usually takes up a position in the half-space, to get in behind the opposition’s defence.
Klopp’s game plan was to stop Tottenham’s build up by pressing them high in the early phases of possession. Their press attempted to force Tottenham into a wide area, where Liverpool would have better access to the ball and thus give them a better chance of making a successful tackle and winning possession.
Liverpool always encouraged Tottenham to play the first pass out from the goalkeeper by not marking either centre back or Dier when he dropped back into the back line. This meant that whenever the centre back or Dier received the ball, Liverpool would immediately press in layers, with one player going to the ball carrier whilst his team mates behind him would ensure that Tottenham’s other two central midfielders, Deli Alli and Mousa Dembele, were man marked and thus were not an option to pass to. In this way, Liverpool prevented Tottenham from building up play centrally.
By putting the ball carrier under immediate pressure with no central options to pass to, Liverpool hoped to force him to play a pass out wide to a full back, which had been set as a pressing trigger. A long, high pass out wide is a good pressing trigger for several reasons. Firstly, the distance the ball has to travel is further, and therefore the ball spends more time travelling there, allowing Liverpool’s players to shift to that side of the pitch whilst retaining compactness. They could then immediately pressurise the full back as soon as he receives the ball, rushing the decision making of the player and thus increasing the probability of an error.
Secondly, in the words of Pep Guardiola, “The touchline is the best defender in the world.” By pressing the player in a wide position close to the touchline, Liverpool take away the option of the player turning away from the press, and can effectively close down all the space and passing options available to the player and force a turnover. Shown below is one example of how they did it in the match.
Jordan Henderson immediately applies pressure and forces Dier into making a quick decision to play the ball out wide.
Alderweireld decides to play another long ball to the other flank, once again initiating the pressing trigger for Liverpool.
This is just one example of how Liverpool dealt with Tottenham in the first phase of possession, but they were also equally good at forcing turnovers deeper down the pitch when Spurs were building in the second phase of possession. By being so defensively resolute, Liverpool prevented Tottenham from building through the lines and breaking through their side, and in turn limited the number of chances Tottenham created to a minimum. Any chances that did arise were usually the consequence of an individual error by a Liverpool player (Mamadou Sakho, most of the time). Pressing so aggressively also lead to a couple of good chances of their own, with the most clear cut one falling to Daniel Sturridge after Liverpool won the ball off Heung-min Son in Tottenham’s own half, but the Englishman hit a weak shot straight at Hugo Lloris.
There were occasions, particularly early on, when Tottenham circulated the ball incredibly well and managed to beat the Liverpool press with precise, sharp passing, but these nice link ups became increasingly infrequent as the game went on.
Although Liverpool did well to press and win possession off Tottenham in midfield, their main tactic in possession was to get in behind the extremely high Spurs defensive line as soon as possible, trying to catch their opponents out in transition. However, the accuracy of these passes in behind were lacking and the ball often found its way back to Tottenham, hence explaining why the visitors dominated possession despite often losing the ball.
The match was played at a frantic pace throughout, with both sides realising that their best chance of building a meaningful attack was whilst their opponents were disorganized. The speed of the play was also down to both sides counter-pressing aggressively as soon as possession was squandered. This lead to repeated turnovers throughout the game, with neither side able to build into an effective attacking structure through which they could create clear cut chances, due to the constant pressure that was being put on the ball.
Though Liverpool did try and play out from the back early on, they were always met with an high Spurs press which they struggled to beat.
After a few more mistakes in build up forced by a strong Tottenham press, Liverpool wised up and stopped playing out from the back. Instead, they played long balls towards Tottenham’s full backs, basically giving up possession so that they could immediately counter-press the full back in a wide area, playing to one of their main strengths. Alternatively, the full back’s header would be inaccurate and would gift possession back to Liverpool anyway, in a higher part of the pitch.
It was in this way that Liverpool tried to advance up the field, and although it was regularly successful, they were quickly met with a counter-press from Tottenham after winning the ball, and possession subsequently regularly changed hands.
As a result, neither side were able to keep possession for prolonged periods of time, especially in dangerous areas of the field, and the game was subsequently thrown into an end-to-end battle.
Alli’s poor performance
As mentioned earlier, Liverpool made it very difficult for Tottenham to progress through the lines centrally. However, there were occasions when Tottenham were able to get in between the lines, usually after catching Liverpool out in transition, but the substandard first touch and spacial awareness of Deli Alli squandered numerous counter-attacking opportunities that could easily have led to clear cut chances and indeed goals.
These are two examples of poor bits of play by Deli Alli but there were several more that cost Tottenham good counter-attacking opportunities. If Alli is going to make it to the top of the game, his touch under pressure in key areas of the pitch, where space is limited and time on the ball is uncommon, is going to have to improve drastically.
In a game of few clear chances, the first goal was always going to be important and it came through a neat bit of interplay between Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. This was one of the rare times Tottenham settled back into a deep position in their defensive shape, in this case a 4-4-1-1, and it was an incredibly sloppy goal to concede from their perspective.
Coutinho is in a safe enough position for Tottenham to be happy with the situation. They have two banks of four with only Sturridge and Lallana ahead of the ball.
Sturridge, circled, has managed to make a run across the length of the Tottenham defence in between the lines without being detected. It’s really poor of Dembele not to check his shoulder and track the run, although he could have been worried about Henderson with Son not goal-side. The Tottenham defenders, however, should have communicated better and organised their team mates to deal with it. From here, Coutinho plays a simple one-two with Sturridge to open up a shooting opportunity just inside the area, which he cooly takes.
Liverpool drop off
After executing a high press really well for the opening 55 minutes or so, Liverpool began to drop off and settle into a deep defensive shape more regularly. This could have been due to fatigue, or because the players felt the natural urge to drop deeper to protect their one goal lead.
Whatever the reason was, this gifted Spurs a lot more time on the ball in midfield, and their talented passers gratefully took advantage. Even before the goal, the warning signs were there. When Dier was offered time on the ball in the first half, he clipped the ball over the top of the defence and Moreno just about dealt with it. The second time this happened, Spurs got even closer, with Dier finding Son with a nice lobbed through ball, and the South Korean’s volley went just wide of the post. There was even a third warning, when Walker was played in down the right by a long diagonal pass, but still Liverpool didn’t learn.
Eventually they are punished, as Alderweireld is given the freedom of Liverpool to stroll forward with the ball from defence and pick out Christian Eriksen with a diagonal to the left. The Dane just manages to keep it in play, and Harry Kane does the rest, turning Lovren brilliantly and firing a low drilled finish into the far corner.
The rest of the match played out in an end-to-end fashion, with neither side pressing as aggressively due to fatigue, and as a result, space began to open up. However, both sides lacked that final piece of magic in the final third and struggled to create a clear opening. With neither manager possessing a very threatening bench, the substitutions that were brought on were rather ineffective and struggled to make an impact.
To sum it all up, this was an evenly-matched tie where a point a piece was probably fair. These were two very well set up sides who both negated the other’s strengths with excellent defensive game plans, and as a result, neither side looked able to seize the game by the scruff of its neck. There may not have been many chances created, but it was an entertaining, fast-paced match and certainly one of the most interesting tactically the Premier League has offered up.
Written by Siang Xu
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