16 Conclusions: Tottenham 1-1 Liverpool

Date published: Saturday 27th August 2016 4:28

Harry Kane

* Jamie Redknapp said Mauricio Pochettino would be the happier of the two managers, but that depends entirely on how you measure success. Is it better to earn a point from a game you should have won in an impressive opening hour that showcased your strengths, or to gain a barely deserved draw from a match that highlighted your flaws?

Pochettino will at least know his team can play better – and certainly will with the returning Mousa Dembele and a working model of Harry Kane – but will Jurgen Klopp? That was arguably his first-choice side (with the possible exception of the not-quite-fit Emre Can) and yet they still look like a ‘not quite’ side. Not quite winning the match. Not quite keeping a clean sheet. Not quite creating enough clear-cut chances.

 

* This is now undoubtedly Klopp’s side. Of the XI that started the last time Liverpool lost to Tottenham in November 2012, only Jordan Henderson remains. The unlikely survivor. This might not be the team that Klopp bought, but it is the team he has built. They press high, they play with pace, they can be thrilling, they almost always look really bloody vulnerable at the back.

The talk this week is about the need for consistency from this Liverpool side but it’s hard to see them going on a long run of victories because teams that cannot keep clean sheets (they have not kept one away from home in their last eight attempts) will never be consistent winners. It means that we can only talk about an outside chance of making the top four rather than an outside chance of winning the title.

A left-back – an actual left-back – would be a start.

 

* On form, it should have been Harry Kane on the bench but it was a move we a) described as ‘bold’ and b) never seriously expected to happen. Harry Kane has never scored a Premier League goal in August and he started the match just 16 minutes shy of completing a ten-hour barren spell for club and country, but Kane has started every Premier League game for which he has been available for almost two years; Mauricio Pochettino is ballsy enough to exile Nacer Chadli and possibly to think he can make a world-class defender out of Eliaquim Mangala, but who is ballsy enough to drop Roy of the Rovers?

 

* But for whatever reason, Kane at this stage of the season looks like the Kane of Tottenham cameos three years ago when he was awkward, cumbersome, sluggish and lacking any kind of guile. In his 82 minutes on the pitch, he did not attempt a shot, failed to set up a single chance and – wait for a minute – found a teammate with just six of his 19 passes. That’s 31.6%. That’s awful.

A poorly weighted pass to Eric Dier when Spurs were pushing for an equaliser summed up his 83 minutes – a series of groans ended by warm applause from Tottenham fans who assume that November will bring a different Harry Kane.

“I’m always surprised when a goalscorer of his quality goes off,” says Alan Smith. But it’s not a goalscorer of Harry Kane’s quality who was taken off; it was his August imposter.

 

* The astonishing statistic that Kane had touched the ball just eight times in the opening half-hour can only be partly attributed to his own failings; this Tottenham side is sorely lacking Mousa Dembele. Without the effortless guile and dynamism of the Belgian, a midfield of Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier looks flat. And let none of us pretend that Dele Alli looks like the class act of last season. Those who blamed Roy Hodgson for not playing Alli and Kane close together at Euro 2016 should admit that no tactical re-shuffle can rescue players who are purely and simply out of form.

Pochettino was gifted the chance to change things after 28 minutes when Kyle Walker was forced off the pitch through illness and his decision to bring on Vincent Janssen rather another defender was telling – he knew he had to alter the pattern of the game and that meant bringing some movement into central midfield as well as pushing somebody beyond Kane. Unfortunately, the result was simply that Tottenham moves broke down deeper as Kane huffed, puffed and spluttered as a No. 10.

 

* Right from the opening whistle, it was clear that the narrow, energetic and mobile trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho would prove problematic to Tottenham’s defence, who naturally split to provide tempting yards of green grass. Pochettino had highlighted Liverpool’s danger on the counter-attack – both in terms of sheer pace and the speed of their passing – and it was evident in the fourth minute when high pressing from Adam Lallana (a master of the art) and a swift exchange of passes set up Coutinho for a phenomenal chance.

You can talk all you like about Michel Vorm’s impressive save with his feet, but he should never have been given the opportunity to make that save. A ‘haul’ of between five and eight Premier League goals a season is pretty dire from an attacking midfielder who takes an awful lot of shots. You would have backed Mane, Firmino, Wijnaldum or almost any other Liverpool player (but Lallana) to bury that chance.

 

* When two teams press so high and are determined to start with such blistering energy, the game can almost be too frenetic to watch in comfort. There’s a lack of time and rhythm that makes the game an entirely different spectacle, and I can’t say I enjoyed that first ten minutes when neither team managed to string more than two or three passes together. Only glimpses of Liverpool’s pace gave you an idea where the game could be won, and that largely came from the exciting Mane.

There was disdain before the season when we asked WhoScored to compile a feature comparing the strengths of Mane with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but that was largely born of snobbery and the Premier League disease of familiarity breeding contempt. Mane is frighteningly fast, clearly incredibly eager and will score oodles of goals in this Liverpool side if they can weight their passes perfectly into his path. Only Vorm’s skills as a sweeper-keeper saved Tottenham in that opening half-hour.

 

* Obviously we now need to talk about the flip side of his eagerness, which will inevitably lead to red cards and possibly should have seen him sent off on Saturday. There’s no nastiness to Mane but his greatest strengths – pace and desire – lead him to overstretch. Under a manager who will encourage him to press, harry and tackle from the front, Mane will pick up cards. But he’s also picking up a lot of respect from Liverpool fans who perhaps bought into the notion that he was flimsy or inconsistent.

 

* The look on Pochettino’s face when Eric Lamela fluffed what should have been a simple pass not long before Liverpool’s opener was enough to paint a thousand words and a good half of them would have been ‘for’, ‘f***’s’ and ‘sake’. Having spoken in the build-up about the differences between his philosophy and Klopp’s and Tottenham’s mission to “manage the ball”, his players were making him look like a liar.

At that point Tottenham’s pass completion rate was a woeful 69% (for comparison’s sake, they had recorded a rate of 80% against both Everton and Crystal Palace) and that can be attributed to two factors:

1) Liverpool’s excellent pressing.

2) Tottenham’s sh*t passing.

Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen were not quite at Kane levels of incompetency but they were sloppy and lazy in possession against the very worst opponents. There were questions in the build-up about the slight frame of Joel Matip but Tottenham made him look like a colossus by generously passing the ball into his path time and again.

 

* Jurgen Klopp was angry that Robert Madley had not awarded Liverpool a penalty for Jan Vertonghen’s wrestling with Joel Matip in the box, but there was a passable shout for a spot-kick at the other end of the pitch as Matip grappled with Vincent Janssen. In the end a penalty award score of 1-0 to Liverpool thanks to Lamela’s slightly clumsy challenge on Firmino was probably just about fair. There was some mild incompetence (with Mane remaining on the pitch the worst of the decisions) but it would be difficult for either side to argue that Madley cost them all three points.

 

* Tottenham fans reacted with fierce loyalty when we questioned the strength of a substitutes’ bench that featured no player over the age of 24 and only Son Heung-Min (jury still out) and Ben Davies (back-up left-back) with any Premier League experience, but even they will surely admit that with Janssen already on the pitch, half-time brought the realisation that they had no game-changer available. When your front five contains not one single player in blistering form, how do you score a goal?

The answer is that you hope to sneak a set-piece or put enough pressure on a famously vulnerable defence to force an opening. An hour’s pretty aimless football split Tottenham’s first and second attempts on target, both from free-kicks and both saved relatively comfortably by Simon Mignolet.

There’s a reason why Pochettino is chasing a player like Wilfried Zaha. Is he better than Lamela? Is he better than Eriksen? Probably not. But is he faster than both? Is he trickier? Is he less predictable? Yes, yes, yes. Whatever his commitment to youth – and that will always earn him praise – his commitment to winning football matches means that he needs more variety in his squad.

 

* It was another incredibly lazy, sloppy pass that led to Liverpool finding the net a second time, with Eric Dier the culprit as the Reds covered almost the length of the pitch with a few strides and fewer passes. They really can be devastating to watch in those vignettes, when any defence in the country will struggle to cope with the drive of Gio Wijnaldum, the determination of Lallana and the sheer pace of Mane.

If they can get those final passes right – and that will come with familiarity – then their pace will be an astonishing weapon. Remember when Arsenal used to play like that? Unfortunately for Liverpool, they do not have the security of Gilberto Silva providing a wall in midfield or Ashley Cole at left-back. Or indeed anybody at left-back. Which is why this was 1-1 rather than 2-0.

 

* When Tottenham’s equaliser came, it was Liverpool’s lack of a natural left-back that was exposed. When the long ball was aimed at Dier – pushed high from right-back – we saw Milner react like a midfielder, taking steps forward to try and intercept the lofted pass he could never have intercepted. Alberto Moreno would have probably made the same decision (out of rubbishness, rather than out of position) but Milner’s mistake left Dier with time to control and put the ball into the box.

One brave header from Lamela and a poor initial touch from Danny Rose later and the ball was lashed into the net. It was 1-1. Deserved? I probably agree with Milner that it is difficult to argue that Liverpool deserved the victory, so that’s a tacit admission that Tottenham deserved an equaliser. Sort of.

 

* “We have four points and probably should have had more but the performances are not far off the level we need,” said Milner after the game, and that’s what should be a tad worrying for Liverpool fans. They are only three games into the new season, they have only four points, and yet it’s difficult to see how they can massively improve. Against Burnley we saw the limitations of playing without real width and height against ultra-defensive opponents and against Arsenal and Tottenham we saw that they will ultimately struggle defensively against teams who go toe-to-toe with them.

A left-back – an actual left-back – would be a start.

 

* “It was our first real mistake and it was a goal so that is not really fair,” said Klopp, but that’s not really how football works. The result is fair because you managed three shots on target in 90 minutes and failed to be organised at exactly the time when you needed to be organised. The danger right now is that this Liverpool are going to be more fun than successful this season.

Right now Liverpool are shorter odds than Spurs to both win the title and finish in the top four but – and this deserves repetition – there seems more potential for this Tottenham side to improve. We have to assume that Kane, Alli, Eriksen and Lamela will never be quite this collectively poor again. Ultimately, Redknapp is right: Pochettino will be happier.

 

* I would be surprised if Daniel Sturridge is at Liverpool beyond January. Not every excellent player can thrive under every excellent manager. Just ask Paul Pogba.

Sarah Winterburn

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