* ‘Hard work, but a work in progress’. That was the phrase we used to describe Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool earlier this week. The Reds were without a Premier League victory in 2017, had won just one of ten matches in the new year, and were a club in the midst of supposed crisis.
The performance and accompanying result against Tottenham at Anfield made an absolute mockery of claims that Klopp has been found out, that the players have the wrong attitude, or that the manager’s preferred style requires a winter break to retain its effectiveness. Many a criticism has been levelled at Liverpool in recent weeks by assorted pundits, journalists and former players, each under the guise of ‘experts’, but this was the emphatic response that fans had awaited for over a month. The Reds are not perfect, far from it, and these three points do not right the wrongs of a faded title challenge, but judgements should perhaps be reserved for longer than four weeks next time.
* Of course, they won’t be. Liverpool have simply passed the crisis baton to Tottenham. The north Londoners might have recovered somewhat in the second half, but the damage was done in the first. The visitors would surely have expected a fast start from their opponents, the wounded animal looking to prove a point, but they were overrun. It seemed to surprise them that Sadio Mane was a bit quick, that Adam Lallana runs a hell of a lot, and that Liverpool press with relentless determination. It was as complete a 45 minutes as one will see, but it was aided by a horrible Tottenham performance.
This is no disaster for Tottenham, merely a setback. They are still second, still have perhaps the strongest starting XI in the Premier League, and have a manager capable of inspiring a response. The end of their 11-game unbeaten run is a reality check; nothing more, nothing less.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side were improved in the second half, however small an achievement that sounds. But changing their trousers for the second half did little to ease the embarrassment of having shat themselves in the first.
* A brief look at the respective starting XIs would have forced a double take and raise of the eyebrow. This fixture is one between two sides with realistic hopes of Champions League qualification, yet both fielded defences hardly befitting of the Premier League’s elite. Three of the combined back eight are midfielders by trade.
Many expected the game to be played down the respective left-hand sides. Lucas Leiva and James Milner formed the perceived weaker half of Liverpool’s lopsided backline, while Eric Dier and Ben Davies did the same for Tottenham. Two of those players exceeded admittedly low expectations; the other two were as bad as had been feared before kick-off.
But the fact that, in such a crucial match, injuries and form have left both these sides having to call upon less than suitable replacements simply emphasises just how impressive it is that they are able to compete with their more illustrious, financially-backed cousins. It also suggests that a lack of squad depth could damage either of their ambitions. Tottenham looked a different side in Danny Rose’s absence, and while Lucas was excellent as a makeshift centre-half, he cannot be considered a long-term option.
* Anthony Taylor must have come close to calling for the bell after just ten minutes at Anfield. Liverpool burst out of the blocks, while Tottenham were caught licking their own balls. In the opening ten minutes, the visitors attempted 38 passes. Six players completed fewer than half of their passes; only one player registered a pass accuracy above 75%. Toby Alderweireld did not make a single pass in the opening ten minutes.
By comparison, all but one Liverpool outfielder had completed at least 75% of their total 75 passes. Mane, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Lallana were at their effervescent best immediately, pressing and attacking at electric pace; Pochettino’s side had started the game by aiming the shotgun directly at their own feet. Davies, Kyle Walker, Dier, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele were all guilty of ceding possession far too easily. The game was decided in the early stages, but it was as much down to Tottenham’s own mistakes as it was Liverpool’s magnificence.
* Liverpool’s eventual breakthrough was rather predictable, but a wonder to watch all the same. From a loose ball in the centre of the pitch, six seconds passed before Mane was wheeling away and celebrating his first goal since January 2. Firmino’s backheel flick found Georginio Wijnaldum, whose brilliant through ball played in Mane to finish.
Few defences could have repelled such an incisive attack. Firmino’s movement dragged Toby Alderweireld out of position, thereby removing Tottenham’s strongest defender from the game. Wijnaldum’s pass was perfectly timed and perfectly placed, and Mane’s run bamboozled Davies. The Senegalese finished calmly, and Liverpool were more than deserving of their lead. Had they dominated for much longer without capitalising, the nerves might have set in once more.
* One-hundred-and-thirty-eight seconds. That is all it took for Liverpool to move from a position of control to one of complete dominance. Mane’s opener had visibly winded Tottenham, but the forward hadn’t even landed his knockout blow.
The 24-year-old robbed Dier of possession, before playing the ball into Lallana. Hugo Lloris saved the Englishman’s effort and Firmino’s subsequent rebound, but could not complete the hat-trick. Mane started the move; Mane finished the move, lashing the ball into the roof of the net.
From the constant pressing to the clever movement to the raw pace, this was the Liverpool of the first half of the season. The ball was in Tottenham’s half for 56.2% of the first ten minutes; they were always on the back foot. The hosts could sense the fear, and the killer instinct that had been lacking for weeks returned in a two-minute blitz.
* Neither of Liverpool’s goals actually came down the left-hand side, but they represented rare opportunities for Davies to catch his breath. He was the sacrificial lamb offered to the predatory Mane, whose hunger had been sated upon his substitution in second-half stoppage time. Anfield stood to applaud as the forward left the field of play; how this band of attackers has missed its orchestrator.
And how Tottenham missed Rose, whose importance to their playing style can only really be measured in his absence. Pochettino must have been tempted to counter Liverpool’s interchanging forwards with a three-man defence, but the manager instead opted for a replacement that is like-for-like in position only. Davies is no Rose; he cannot balance offence and defence in the same destructive manner, and the Welshman failed to offer either here. He gained possession on one occasion, and lost it 22 times. He completed 61.1% of his passes, and the only two goalscoring chances he created came after Liverpool had raced into their two-goal lead.
By the 37th minute, Davies’ public humiliation was complete. The 23-year-old motioned to his teammates to help him combat Mane and the overlapping Nathaniel Clyne. Heung-min Son had neglected his defensive duties in the whole of the first half, opting not to help cover a left-hand side that the hosts rarely stopped targeting. He held the door open, leaving Davies as the only bouncer. Mane and Clyne strolled straight through.
* Tottenham had two shots on target in the entire game, both coming in the first half, both coming from Son, and the most presentable of which came in the 25th minute. He found space down the right-hand side and manoeuvred an opportunity to shoot, but it was thwarted by one Simon Mignolet.
In the build-up to the game, Mignolet’s position as No 1 was once again called into question. Klopp was forced to field questions about his goalkeeper amid claims that he would be dropped for Loris Karius. It would be the third time the manager had changed his shot-stopper throughout the season, but Mignolet’s recent performances had cost his side.
The Belgian could hardly have chosen a better time to keep his fourth clean sheet of the Premier League season. Both of his saves to stop Son were smart, but he exuded calm in his decision-making and distribution. He was also comfortable and decisive in collecting a number of Tottenham crosses. This is no victory in the battle with Karius for the status of starting goalkeeper, but it was an important step forward.
* Liverpool must have feared the worst on 35 minutes. Jordan Henderson, who was otherwise quietly efficient, fouled Harry Kane, who was otherwise just quiet, on the edge of the area. Christian Eriksen territory, if ever such a thing existed.
In a 2017 obsessed with building walls, this is the best effort yet.
Coutinho kneeling behind the wall in case Eriksen tried a low free kick. Very hipster. pic.twitter.com/4CoZUjvKcT
— Andy Ha (@_AndyHa) February 11, 2017
We need to see more of this.
* The half-time whistle was a shrill of mercy for Tottenham. Lloris was the only individual who could emerge with something resembling a reputation, the Frenchman maintaining a respective scoreline. Liverpool had 13 shots to Tottenham’s five, eight of which were on target to Tottenham’s two, and they had six more corners. The visitors made 22 clearances; Liverpool made 11.
It was unfamiliar territory for the Reds, who had registered just eight shots on target in the collective first halves of their five Premier League games in 2017. They managed just eight in the first 45 minutes against Sunderland, Manchester United, Swansea, Chelsea and Hull, and eight here.
It was also newly-trodden ground for Tottenham. In their previous 24 league games, they had not allowed more than seven shots on target in the whole game. They had restricted three teams to zero shots on target in 90 minutes. But in just 45 minutes at Anfield, Liverpool pulled them, pushed them and stretched them beyond their limits. The Premier League’s meanest defence had been utterly dismantled by its highest goalscorers.
* The winner against Manchester City, the equaliser against Chelsea, and now a wonderful performance against Tottenham. Georginio Wijnaldum is becoming Liverpool’s player for the big occasion.
The Dutchman has faced his fair share of critics so far this season, but has been the club’s most consistent performer for some time. His assist for Mane’s first capped a performance which saw four tackles, all of his aerial duels won, and the highest passing accuracy of any starter for either side (88.9%). He misplaced just one pass in the first half – his last one. Oh, and he did this:
This wasn't even the best thing that Wijnaldum did tonight. pic.twitter.com/PaCjokOcuV
— Rousing The Kop (@RousingTheKop) February 11, 2017
Quite what it means for Emre Can’s future is uncertain. It is difficult to argue a case for the German’s inclusion in Liverpool’s starting line-up – at least in games against their main rivals. The best midfield appears to be Wijnaldum, Henderson and Lallana.
* When Lucas Leiva empties his pockets on Saturday evening after a hard day’s work, he will place on the table his phone, his wallet, his heart-shaped pendant with a picture of Rafael Benitez in the centre, and Harry Kane. For that is the best way to silence those who doubt your ability to adapt.
No player made more clearances (6). No player made more interceptions (5). No player looked quite as awkward and intimidating, yet in complete control of every situation Tottenham attempted to manufacture. There is a reason Andy Carroll considers him one of his toughest opponents.
To reiterate, the 30-year-old should not be one of the main back-up centre-halves for a team with such lofty aspirations. There were times when his naivety and eagerness to keep the opposition as far away from Mignolet’s goal as possible hurt Liverpool – on one such occasion he intercepted a Davies pass by kicking the ball as far as he could, wasting an opportunity to counter-attack – but he is a useful option in times of need.
* If the first half belonged to Liverpool and their excellence, the second saw Tottenham exacting a particular style of revenge. They sought not to overturn the deficit – they had five shots in the first half and two in the second – but they looked to level the score through other means.
What Pochettino said to his players at half-time we can only wonder, but the reaction was evident. Tottenham committed five fouls in the first half, before aggression increased that to nine in the second. Dier, Dele Alli and Kane were guilty of snide, underhand fouls, with Alli particularly childish. On two occasions the 20-year-old needlessly pushed a Liverpool player. The petulance was such that even Alderweireld joined in, receiving his first booking since April 2016.
Of the eight bookings during the game, seven came in the second half. It was hardly the Battle of the Bridge, but Tottenham looked to have lost their temper; their mentality can again be questioned. They seemed desperate to prove a point, like the bully trying to save face after receiving a taste of his own petty medicine.
* The players deserve censure, but do not absolve Pochettino of Tottenham blame. The Argentinean had witnessed his side fail to score in open play in successive games against Sunderland and Middlesbrough. The only difference between those two starting XIs was the introduction of Davies for Rose, who was injured 38 minutes into the Sunderland draw. So why did Pochettino again name that same starting line-up at Anfield and expect a different result?
Sunderland restricted them to three shots on target, Middlesbrough held them to five, and Lucas Leiva and friends were untroubled in preventing them a clear passage to goal on Saturday. Between them, Kane, Eriksen, Alli and Dembele could not create a single goalscoring opportunity. Davies laid on Son’s first shot on target, while a long ball over the top from Alderweireld played the South Korean in for his second. A beleaguered defence offered more going forward than the attack.
For all the talk of Klopp having to ‘find a Plan B’, the same should be said of Pochettino. Remove Rose from Tottenham’s starting line-up, and not only is their defence weaker, but their attack becomes one-dimensional. They moved to a diamond formation for the second half, but barely threatened the hosts. The manager’s first substitution to try and rescue the game was to bring on Harry Winks, while Georges-Kevin Nkoudou remained on the bench. Pochettino must have been impressed by Alli and Son both completing just 56.5% of their passes.
* Kane had one touch in the Liverpool penalty area. Alli had one. Eriksen had one. Son had two. Faced with a defence and goalkeeper that has been questioned throughout the season, Tottenham’s forwards suffered stage fright. But the Liverpool backline deserves immense credit. Lucas’ introduction at centre-half means that Klopp has now fielded 11 different combinations of goalkeeper and defender this season. Each of their four Premier League defeats have come with a starting defence changed from the previous game. Dejan Lovren will surely reprise his role upon his return from injury, but the manager must be desperate for a settled defence.
* Liverpool came into the game without a Premier League win since December, and with one victory in ten games. Tottenham were unbeaten in 11. And yet their respective records left the form book perched precariously next to the open window. The hosts remain unbeaten in fixtures against the rest of the top six this season, while Pochettino’s form against his main rivals leaves plenty to be desired.
Since his appointment as manager in summer 2014, Tottenham have won just one away game of 15 against any of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United. The manager has undeniably taken the club to the next level, but their familiar inability to perform against elite sides is a nagging one. It could come back to haunt them in the race for the top four; only two points separate second from sixth now.