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Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis of the Premier League match that ended Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Liverpool.
Two top 4 hopefuls locked horns at White Hart Lane with Spurs hoping to build on their narrow victory over fellow Londoners Crystal Palace and the away side desperately looking to bounce back after a ghastly defeat and abject performance at newly promoted Burnley. Both sides looked more or less at full strength with the exceptions of possibly Moussa Dembele and Daniel Sturridge, who began the game on the bench.
Far from being a season-defining game this early in the campaign, neither side would dwell too much on the result; however with the competition for the Champions League spot becoming fiercer and fiercer and with the Manchester clubs along with Chelsea very likely to secure the first 3 slots, both teams were looking for the 3 points which could not only help them go some way towards helping them gain ground on their competitors, but give them a psychological edge also.
The game was a fascinating one despite not having many clear cut chances; both teams were intent on preventing the other from creating any sort of stability in central areas and as a result we saw quite a direct, transition based game from both sides. Neither team employed the ferocious counter-pressing style that we are so used to seeing from both sides as a more conservative approach was chosen by the managers. Liverpool appeared to be on the front foot for much of the game and had a greater tactical discipline in and out of possession.
Ultimately though, their lead was vanquished in the 72nd minute when Danny Rose got on the end of a flick-on from Erik Lamela to slot the ball past Simon Mignolet. It was a disappointing result for those who backed the Reds through sports betting on mobile as the men from Merseyside could have put the game to bed well before Rose’s leveller.
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): 13. Vorm // 2. Walker, 4. Alderweireld, Vertonghen, 3. Rose // 15. Dier, 12. Wanyama // 11. Lamela, 20. Alli , 23. Eriksen // 10 Kane
Liverpool (4-3-3): 22. Mignolet // 2. Clyne, 6. Lovren, 32. Matip, 7. Milner // 14. Henderson, 20. Lallana, 19. Wijnaldum // 19. Mane, 11. Firmino, 10. Coutinho
Substitutions: 28’ Janssen, 83’ Onomah, 90+3’ Winks // 69’ Origi, 88’ Sturridge, 90+4’ Stewart
Goals: 72’ Rose // 43’ Milner (pen)
As stated before in the introduction, both sides opted for a more cautious approach in the opponent’s build up phase in an attempt to avoid space being exploited between the lines and deny each other the opportunity to carefully construct their attack through patient, deliberate build-up. The aim for each side was spatial control in central areas which would force a longer ball and result in the opposition being unable to build appropriate structures for the attacking phase.
Liverpool were in my opinion, the most effective out of the two at doing this with a smart and well organised shape in the 1st defensive phase which halted Tottenham’s progress significantly. This made for a much more condensed space for the Spurs midfielders who often times found themselves unable to provide a vertical passing option for the centre-backs. The defenders as a result were constantly forced to resort to long balls and speculative passes which would often be intercepted by a Liverpool man.
In response to this issue caused by the Liverpool block, Eric Dier was often forced to drop off from his 6 position to one which was more accessible to the centre-backs, who were unable to find him due to his passing lane being obstructed by the Liverpool forward players. An overload was created by the Spurs defensive players in this scenario however, there are some issues with this structure now creates by Tottenham. He is now short of options when he receives the ball as he is now isolated from the rest of the Spurs midfield. Eriksen and Alli are both being cover shadowed by the Liverpool 8s Lallana and Wijnaldum and thus, are virtually irrelevant in this current phase as they cannot be found with a pass.
When observing the image, one might say that Wanyama could drop into the space vacated by Dier (red zone), but this would likely result in him losing possession as Liverpool have created a pressing trap in the midfield. Should he receive the ball in that zone he would immediately be bombarded by Mane, Lallana and Coutinho, all of whom are within close proximity of him. Dier chose not to play into Wanyama and instead laid it off back to Vertonghen, penning Spurs back in the 1st phase of possession.
Jürgen Klopp’s side regularly set up situations such as this throughout the game, with one of them almost leading to a goal very early on as can be seen in the image above. Eriksen has dropped off from his wide left position to receive the ball from his defenders, however despite appearing to be in acres of space, he is trapped between 4 Liverpool players with virtually every possible passing lane blocked off. As soon as he receives the ball, he is under pressure from the nearby Liverpool midfielders who gain possession and almost immediately exploit the space left open by right-back Kyle Walker. The ball eventually landed into the path of Coutinho, who was unable to finish off the chance.
Blame could be placed at the feet of the other Spurs attacking midfielders, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela, who arguably could have done more to support Eriksen when receiving the pass. This situation ended rather dangerously for Tottenham but could have possibly led to a direct attacking threat to the Liverpool back 4.
As the Liverpool midfield pushed up to close the pressing trap that Eriksen move into, a significant amount of space was created between the lines. This space could easily have exploited by either Alli or Lamela had they dropped into the zone now left exposed by Liverpool’s wave of pressure. Eriksen could have used the trap to his advantage and attracted the Liverpool midfielders towards him and subsequently laid the ball off back to Wanyama. A pass between the lines could have reached the two Spurs midfielders had they made themselves available. However, they chose to remain static and as a result, Liverpool gained possession and very nearly took the lead early on.
Neither Liverpool nor Spurs proved capable of dominating the centre of the field for large stretches of the game with both teams so compact in these areas and space between the lines quite rare throughout most of the game. As a result, they both had to change the way in which they attempted to break down the opposition defensive block, with both teams choosing rather different approaches.
Liverpool’s primary form of attack was through the full-back zones which were left vacant by the marauding runs created by Walker and Rose, and later Dier when he switched to right back. Spurs proved unable to penetrate a stubborn Liverpool defence, who were quick and efficient in defensive transitions and dropped into their preferred 4-1-4-1 shape.
Vertonghen is in possession here and has two horizontal passing options either side of him. The Spurs positional structure is rather questionable as the spacing between the players is quite poor which leaves the entire team disjointed and makes the job of the Liverpool block a lot easier due to their inability to occupy key areas which could potentially disrupt Liverpool’s defensive organisation. The half-spaces have been left unoccupied and as a result they are unable to create any space centrally or attract the attentions of any of the Liverpool midfielders. In this image, Danny Rose’s positioning could be a lot wider and higher up the field. This would almost certainly open up the half-space even further for Eriksen, should he choose to drop deep.
Alli and Wanyama both occupy the 6 space but instead of spreading themselves to penetrate and stretch the Liverpool midfield, appear to be more or less in the same position. Had Alli decided to take up a position between the lines behind Lallana, Vertonghen would have had more time and space on the ball to drive forward. This would likely have led to pressure from Lallana and would have had the knock-on effect of giving Alli more space to turn and combine with Eriksen and Rose and create an overload.
After they gained the initiative, Liverpool looked to be in control of the game and threatened to go even further ahead. Spurs, on the other hand struggled to create any meaningful opportunities against this Liverpool side. It was not until the Walker injury and a switch to a narrow 4-4-2 that Spurs began to gain a foothold in the game.
Pochettino opted for a more attacking approach with Vincent Janssen coming on for Walker. He was primarily tasked with providing depth for the Spurs attack, constantly making runs off the last defender and forcing back the Liverpool defensive line. The biggest difference made, however, was with the full-backs who were given a greater amount of freedom as Tottenham chased the game.
As the game progressed, both Tottenham full-backs often pushed up at the same time, an occurrence which was not very common as one would typically hold his position to provide defensive balance. Both full-backs pushing up provided width on both flanks, which allowed Spurs’ wide men, Eriksen and Lamela to roam into the half-spaces and the centre, giving their side a greater presence in these areas. Throughout most of the game, they had struggled to occupy these zones, however with Dier and Rose now out wide and in advanced positions they could now position themselves in the areas which were severely underloaded earlier in the game.
This was a big risk though, and the pace of Sadio Mane in particular, down the right was a cause for concern during Spurs’ defensive transitions. This was a brave move from Pochettino and ultimately paid off when Eric Dier received the ball down the right flank and crossed the ball into Lamela, who flicked it onto Rose to bring Tottenham back into the game.
One of the greatest assets of Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino is his ability to be multifunctional and play in a variety of roles as an attacker. He is able to fill in on both wings whether that be as an inverted, half-space oriented wide man, or as a traditional winger. In addition, he plays the role of the playmaker behind the striker excellently when he has the opportunity, often linking brilliantly with his striker and proving to be a goal threat.
The game intelligence he has acquired from performing in such a variety of roles allowed him to play the role of a false 9 excellently in this game. He was a constant threat throughout the game and despite not having many efforts on the Tottenham goal, his movement was instrumental in the ball circulation and behaviour of this Liverpool side in the attacking phase.
One way in which he proved beneficial to Liverpool was through his assistance in the build-up phase. With both teams struggling to sufficiently occupy the centre of midfield and being forced to play long passes in the second phase, it was imperative that the defenders were given forward passing options to allow for the progression of the attack.
In this image, Firmino (circled), is on hand to assist the Liverpool defenders by dropping from his number 9 position to provide the option that they were in need of. Although he did not receive the ball in that area, as he would have liked, he was able to drag Eric Dier with him from the 6 space which did slightly disrupt the organisation of the Tottenham defensive block.
Here he can be seen in possession in a deeper midfield area, having dropped off again which allowed Liverpool to create a 3v2 overload within the midfield zone. He has given the defenders a problem as they are reluctant to follow him as he moves into deeper areas as it would lead to gaps being created in the defensive line which Sadio Mane, on the right could exploit with a vertical, penetrative run. Instead, he is given time to run and gain momentum as he approaches the Spurs defensive line.
His regular movements into midfield regularly proved problematic, more so when rotational movement took place between him and one of the onrushing central midfielders. Here, Firmino can be seen in the midfield zone with the number 9 space left completely empty. In his position now, is midfielder Wijnaldum who has rotated with the Brazilian.
The midfielders of Tottenham have been left bamboozled as their tracking of Firmino’s movement has led to space being created between the lines for Wijnaldum to exploit. This is accentuated by the centre backs again staying put and allowing Wijnaldum time and space on the ball to shoot which could have resulted in a goal.
Given that we are only 3 games into the new Premier League season, it is difficult to assess the chances of both sides for the rest of the campaign. It is a result that both sides will be content with at this early stage, as neither necessarily ceded ground to the other in the race for the coveted 4th place spot.
That said, Tottenham should, from my perspective, be more worried about the amount of points they gain in the early season fixtures as their Champions League campaign is fast approaching. Many teams with a slim squad have felt the force of the relentless run of games and ultimately faltered. Mauricio Pochettino can only hope that his side do not suffer the same fate as many before them.
Liverpool’s chances of finishing in the top 4 look rather promising, with Jurgen Klopp having a full pre-season with his side and a relatively full fit squad. It will be difficult to maintain the counter-pressing style in the league for the entire season though, he can only hope that the injuries are kept to a minimum if they want to mix it with Europe’s best next season.
Scoring goals seems to be another issue that they face with Daniel Sturridge on the treatment table virtually every other week. English football is well aware of what he is capable of when fully fit; the only trouble is that such occasions do not occur often enough. Should that change this season and he chips in with 15-20 goals, as we know he can do, then Liverpool’s chances of Champions League football look very promising indeed.
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