16 Conclusions: Spurs 0-3 Liverpool

A performance to blow away doubts that this Liverpool side are bound to regress. Not when they have possibly Europe's most exciting attacking talent in Raheem Sterling...

Last Updated: 01/09/14 at 13:45 Post Comment

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* 'Now proof is needed all over again. Defeat at Spurs would squeeze the breath out of Liverpool's hope. After just three games, it would make last season feel like a flash in the pan, a fond but distant memory rather that a foundation to be built upon' - F365's Big Weekend, August 29.

How's that for proof, then? Liverpool produced a carbon copy of their very best from last season: A degree of anxiousness in defence utterly overwhelmed by a superb start and a sumptuous attacking display that threatened to produce a goal each time they marauded forward. Liverpool had pace, guile and fluidity in their forward options - they may not repeat their heroics of last season, but the Reds will surely still be the most attractive side to watch. A club record of scoring in 16 consecutive top-flight away matches has now been equalled.

For Brendan Rodgers, further justification for his utopian outlook on his side's ambitions. The victory marked a century of matches in charge at Anfield, and few would have predicted a return of either 56 wins or 214 goals. The veil of comedy provided by his David Brent management speak is growing ever more thin - beneath it appears an ability to motivate and inspire that puts him above almost all others in the Premier League.


*
Liverpool won 5-0 at White Hart Lane last season, a result that ended the tenure of Andre Villas-Boas. This result will do nothing of the sort to Mauricio Pochettino, but each of Liverpool's three goals acted as a foot slammed on the brakes at Spurs after genuine hope of increased acceleration under their new manager. You let yourself believe again, didn't you?

Pochettino has been praised for the manner in which he has improved the performances of Nabil Bentaleb, Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli, but this was a display to give credence to the claim that results against AEL Limassol, West Ham and QPR would fail to provide meaningful evidence of improvement. Christian Eriksen made little impact on the game before his removal before the hour mark, but in truth it could easily have been Lamela or Chadli that was replaced.


*
Rodgers' decision to put Mario Balotelli straight into the starting XI saw the return of the diamond formation in midfield, with Raheem Sterling operating at the uppermost point.

With the departure of Luis Suarez, many predicted that Rodgers would prefer to utilise a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, predictions that were reinforced by the arrival of both Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana. Whilst the arrival of Balotelli in partnership with Sturridge may make for interesting team selection decisions further down the line for Rodgers, after a lack of cutting edge in attack against both Southampton and Manchester City, it made sense to try something new.


*
The man to miss out was Philippe Coutinho, who has flattered to deceive so far this season despite being given an opportunity to cement a place in the absence of Suarez. The Brazilian would prefer to play centrally and may feel frustrated at being dropped from the side so early in the season, but he is wasted as a wide forward in a 4-3-3. Coutinho may have to settle with being an impact player from the bench this season.

The 4-4-2 diamond (or perhaps 4-3-1-2, depending on your preference) also allows for Sterling to have a greater impact on proceedings. There is a concern that Sterling occasionally drifts out of games when playing on the right wing, and his best moments against both Southampton (run for the opening goal) and Manchester City (chance created for Daniel Sturridge) both came from central areas.

It took eight minutes for Rodgers' selection to be justified. With the knowledge that Balotelli would give a presence in the box (and Sterling an added central threat), Sturridge was able to drift onto the right to pick up the ball. His pass found Jordan Henderson, who drilled across goal. All that was left for Sterling to do was to tuck home from an angle at the back post - add that to his ever-growing list of being the man in the right place at the right time.


*
Weirdly, Sterling somehow seems to remain underrated. Perhaps after an era in which young England players have been consistently lauded above their current (or even potential) ability, we have now taken the subconscious decision to avoid placing talented youngsters on unrealistic pedestals - if so, I am about to destroy that sensible approach.

Of course there are still times when Sterling runs down a blind alley or fails to mark an exciting run with the desired end product, but he will not turn 20 until December. He has an aptitude for dribbling at pace and taking on a defender rarely seen in someone so young. Furthermore, after an initial two goals in his first 27 Premier League games Sterling now has 11 in his last 35 - goals have been added to make him a forward option rather than simply a wide midfielder.

The youngest player on the pitch at White Hart Lane was also comfortably the most impressive - Sterling is improving at a faster rate than any other player in England. He is now not just one of the best young English players, nor even one of the best in the Premier League; Sterling's performances for the past year have been so impressive that he must be considered one of Europe's brightest young stars, capable of reaching a level beyond any England winger since Stanley Matthews. If that sounds hyperbolic, then I do not apologise.


*
The entire first half was a joy to behold, two teams playing a high intensity, high pressing game and yet easily able to get into the opposition final third thanks to the some impressive sharp passing and a will to attack. At times it felt like a basketball match in which each side took turns to counter at pace.

The sense of excitement was only heightened by the propensity of both sides to succumb to the slapstick in defence. Dejan Lovren presented the ball to Adebayor but managed to recover with an excellent tackle and Mamadou Sakho still appears as if he is never more than five minutes away from a dangerous lapse in concentration.

For Spurs, the kicking of the usually reliable Hugo Lloris added to the occasionally farcical defending in front of him. One found Balotelli 40 yards from goal, but his volley raised an almighty cheer as it skewed well wide of the target.

Brilliant skill interspersed with occasional Sunday League errors: Is there any better recipe for an enjoyable game to watch?


*
Eric Dier may have gained cult hero status at White Hart Lane for his goals in his fledgling Spurs career, but his foul on Joe Allen demonstrated a (probably understandable) naivety - it is worth remembering that Dier is only 20.

Spurs supporters (or at least those that are prepared to deal in wilful blindness) may claim that the penalty award was harsh, but I would urge them to use this ingenious method of distinguishing whether a penalty should be awarded:

'Was a foul committed in the penalty area?'

If you answered yes, then it is a penalty. Allen may have made as much of the contact as he could, but by Dier reaching out and tugging his shirt, the decision was made for Phil Dowd. To doubly criticise Dier, his ill-advised tug (now, now) was made as a result of failing to track Allen's run.


*
There is little doubt that the signing of Mario Balotelli is a calculated gamble from Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool. Rodgers is a manager that preaches the importance of squad morale and motivation in his management style, and Balotelli has history in causing ripples to both of those ideals.

In addition, Rodgers' success at Anfield is based on an insistence in everyone pulling together, the manager this week introducing his own version of 'there's no 'I' in team': "He [Balotelli] is a good player, a talented player," Rodgers said. "But he has got a lot of work to do here. We have a number of top-class players and the star of this team will always be the team." It's not always been a mantra that Balotelli has abided by.

Rodgers reiterated his desire for hard work before the game. "The thing for Mario to work on is transitions, from losing ball to winning it back," he said. "Our ethic is about pressure, the intensity of the press."

This was a performance of some promise on that front. Balotelli missed three presentable opportunities, but acted as an effective option in holding up the ball and allowing others to be introduced in attack. His holding off of Kaboul during the first half, before turning the Frenchman and beating him for pace, demonstrated just how effective he could become operating outside the area, with Liverpool's midfielders running beyond him to create problems.

Now time to work on that heading in training.


*
Remember when people moaned about Henderson's price tag of £20million? The corresponding fixture last year was a match in which the England midfielder seemed to come of age, pulling the strings in the absence of Steven Gerrard with his runs into attacking areas making things hugely difficult for Spurs.

Henderson enjoyed himself in similar fashion on this trip to White Hart Lane. His run beyond Sturridge created the opening goal and, in contrast with Gerrard, he was impressively accurate with his passing (93% vs 71%).

With Frank Lampard following Gerrard in announcing his retirement from England duty this week, Henderson has the chance to establish himself in Roy Hodgson's side for the next five years. The hope is that he is given as much opportunity to roam forward for his country as he is with Liverpool.


*
Tottenham supporters were this week pleased to see the departure of Michael Dawson to Hull, a likeable man and a fine servant but ultimately no longer good enough for the first team. After Kaboul's display against Liverpool, those same fans may have been happy to see the Frenchman head the same way were there more than just 24 hours left in the transfer window.

Kaboul has suffered serious injury and his return to fitness is praiseworthy, but he now appears to be a shadow of his former self. Too often caught out of position, his pace is insufficient to allow for an instant recovery.

The presence of Federico Fazio in the centre of Spurs' defence cannot come soon enough, and nor too can Kaboul's inevitable move to Loftus Road, on the evidence of Sunday's rank offering.


*
Andros Townsend has started two league games since November 2013. He is a 23-year-old attacking player and has three goals and one assist in his entire Premier League career. Townsend lost the ball with his first touch against Liverpool, from which Alberto Moreno scored the third goal.

He'll probably play for England on Wednesday. Our options have never looked so thin.


*
Moreno (or should that be Alberto. M?) suffered something of a character assassination after his mistake against Manchester City on Monday evening, but against Spurs the 22-year-old demonstrated his attacking prowess.

After winning the ball from Townsend, Moreno surged forwards akin to John Arne Riise in his Liverpool heyday. With Kaboul inexplicably backing off, Moreno needed no second invitation to rifle his finish into the bottom right-hand corner via the post.

A Liverpool full-back potentially frail in critical defensive moments but capable of glorious moments in attack. It was ever thus.


*
Whilst Phil Dowd was entirely correct in awarding Liverpool's penalty, the same cannot be said for his failure to penalise Lovren for his pull on Adebayor's shirt in the latter stages of the game. It was not a decision that would have changed the course of the match, but that is obviously beside the point.

The easy comparison between the two decisions simply provides a further stick with which to beat referees for their inconsistency. It is that flaw in officiating that leaves managers aggrieved more than any other, and threatens to accelerate the introduction of appeals on decisions in real-time with the use of technology.


*
This summer has brought conspicuous comparisons between Spurs and Liverpool, but a contrast must surely be made on the point of squad depth.

Whilst Liverpool could call on summer signings Lazar Markovic and Emre Can (plus Lallana returning from injury) and left Coutinho and Rickie Lambert unused, Spurs introduced Townsend and Mousa Dembele, players forced onto the fringes of the squad through their own under-performance.

With Harry Kane as the only back-up forward in the matchday squad (it appears that Roberto Soldado will leave on Monday), there remains a worrying lack of competition for places in attacking areas for Pochettino. For Liverpool, the reward for doing their summer business early remains clear for all to see.


*
This result is in no way terminal for Spurs' optimistic ambitions of Champions League qualification, but it will act as a reminder to those that had allowed themselves to get a little giddy: Pochettino, like Villas-Boas before him, will be judged on his side's results against the biggest and best teams. Victories over weaker opposition do not a glowing reputation make.


*
For Liverpool, this is a reminder that having deservedly stepped into the spotlight last season, they have no intention of moving back quietly into the wings. The fast starts, the exciting fluidity and the commitment to free-flowing attacking football remains. Their summer arrivals will seemingly help, rather than hamper, their intention to remain as part of the Premier League elite.

Having now faced three of last season's top eight, and two of the top six away from home, Brendan Rodgers' side now play Aston Villa, Ludogorets, West Ham and Middlesbrough before the first Merseyside derby of the season at Anfield on September 27th. Maintain this level of performance and those four matches in three competitions will surely yield the maximum return.

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