It can be easy to assume that Liverpool or Manchester City games will be foregone conclusions, but Spurs gave as good as they got at Anfield.
1) As Real Madrid and Manchester United had proved over the course of the previous few days, the psychological side of football is extremely important, all the more so at these high pressure points of the season. Millions of pounds are riding on these matches, both for the clubs and, in terms of bonuses, potentially the players, too.
Perhaps there couldn’t be a worse time to be playing this Liverpool team. Everything about the experience reeks of menace. That first look at their league form, in which they have won 13 of their last 14 games and remain unbeaten since December 28, is foreboding. A glance at the team sheets an hour before kick-off, packed with a group of names who function as brilliantly as individuals as they do as a unit, is daunting. That savage press, which engages within seconds of the start, is sobering. Just the kick-off itself moved them top of the Premier League table. It’s unnerving.
2) And Spurs are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Premier League. Fatalism has been the order of the day since Mauricio Pochettino was fired by the club in November 2019. The latest manifestation of this has been the cyclical toing and froing over Antonio Conte and whether he’ll stay for next season. It is a strangely insecure way of watching a football team – to be constantly looking over your shoulders as bigger clubs consider whether your players, including those who have been there for many years, might be worthy of their attention. Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Kyle Walker and Christian Eriksen have all passed through the club’s doors over the last two decades. All left for sunnier climes. And when it’s not the players and things are going okay, it’s the manager.
3) Furthermore, Spurs are locked in their race for a Champions League place and needed a result themselves. At the start of the weekend, Arsenal led them by two points with a game in hand, but with the teams also still to meet at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 12. No matter how daunting it all might have seemed from the outset, Spurs went into this match needing a result from it just as much as Liverpool did.
4) Liverpool just had to keep on winning. A glitch in the matrix caused them to fall two goals behind in their Champions League semi-final against Villarreal, but the system was patched and they ended up sailing through to play Real Madrid in the final with room to spare. It might not be enough in the Premier League. Manchester City have been just as relentless as Liverpool, and one tiny slip could have tilted the title race irrevocably in favour of their opponents. The noise and the press masked the fact that Liverpool were under pressure as well, and that tiny slip followed. They could still win an unprecedented Quadruple this season, but they could also yet finish it with only a Carabao Cup to show for all their exertions.
5) But for half an hour, Liverpool were all heat and very little light. Over the course of the first 30 minutes, the nearest Liverpool got to scoring came when Ryan Sessegnon inexplicably headed across his own goal, a moment of brainmelt which forced Hogo Loris to scramble across his goal and claw the ball to safety. Liverpool’s press was ferocious and relentless, but it was also largely fruitless. If anything, the best chance of this opening spell of the game came at the other end of the pitch. Liverpool’s line was as high as ever, and when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg got away on the right and crossed for Harry Kane, it took an outstanding block by Jordan Henderson to prevent what might well have been an opening goal for Spurs.
6) The frantic feel on the pitch was mirrored in the stands. After the pre-match hymn, there was a wall of noise to accompany the kick-off, rising to an apex every time the ball got within about 30 yards of the opposition goal and when an opposition player was perceived to have fouled a Liverpool player. That was, of course (as at every club) every time a tackle was put in on a Liverpool player.
7) Liverpool’s record with set-pieces is fairly common knowledge, and they came as close as they did all half from one. Virgil van Dijk’s run from a corner on the left turned Emerson Royal inside out to an almost comedic extent and led to a header which bounced out off the top of the crossbar. This lifted Anfield, which had been falling a little quiet. Shortly afterwards a daisy-cutter from Luis Diaz forced Lloris into a save.
The pitch started to rise towards fever levels again but then, within minutes, the ball was at the other end of the pitch. Liverpool’s high line again allowed Spurs’ midfield too much space into which they could break, and Hojbjerg’s low shot hit the base of Alisson’s post. Half-time arrived with the score goalless and, for all the pressure that Liverpool had exerted, it felt like a fair enough reflection.
8) So you get to the end of that first half, and you’re pleased with your performance. You’ve had to dig in really hard, but you got to half-time level and even managed to create a couple of chances of your own. Now all you’ve got to do is go out and repeat exactly that, only this time the Kop is very much on your back.
9) The press started again with the start of the second half, but Spurs were still finding that Liverpool defensive midfield to be a little spongy. Nine minutes in, Son Heung-min was able to carry the ball fully 50 yards with barely a challenge before having a shot blocked, and Liverpool didn’t seem to learn that lesson.
Barely a minute later, Spurs hit Liverpool with a sucker punch for all that empty pressure. Lloris released the ball to Royal, who found Kane. The striker’s diagonal pass was pulled back by Sessgnon for Son, completely unmarked, to tap the ball in from six yards out. In its own peculiar way, it was a goal that had been coming. The dominant theme of the first half had been one of Spurs hunkering down deep, absorbing this barrage of breath down their necks, and then breaking to not-inconsiderable effect. Following Henderson’s block and Hojbjerg hitting the post, perhaps one of these breaks was always likely to find a way through.
10) But the pressure did remain relentless, and it can make its own luck. With just over 15 minutes to play, Luis Diaz cut across the edge of the Spurs penalty area, and his shot was deflected off Rodrigo Bentancur to send Lloris the wrong way and bring Liverpool level. The noise reached a crescendo again, and for five minutes Spurs looked as though they were listing. But Liverpool’s final ball remained conspicuous by its absence and Spurs were even able to force a couple of breaks of their own, winning a corner with one and seeing Ben Davies shoot narrowly over from an angle with another.
11) Anfield filled with groans throughout the five minutes of stoppage-time, as crosses sailed harmlessly out into touch. And with four minutes of the five played, Spurs might even have snatched all three points with one last break. A long, diagonal ball found Hojbjerg, only for him to try to head it back across goal to Kane rather than leave it or have a go himself. The danger passed quickly, but although Liverpool were able to force a couple of corners, they remained unable to particularly trouble the Spurs goal.
12) There seems little question that this was Liverpool’s most difficult remaining Premier League match this season. But that’s really about as positive as it’s possible to be about their prospects of completing that Quadruple after having dropped these two points. Manchester City can now afford to draw one of their remaining games and they’ll still win the Premier League. Liverpool remained top of the table by the end but it was only by one goal on goal difference.
13) Much of the discussion of Spurs’ performance will focus on their dogged defensive showing, but what was truly impressive about their display was that, for all that Liverpool utterly dominated possession and for all that relentless pressure, they were able to create a couple of excellent chances and score a good goal. This was not just a matter of parking the bus and they can take considerable heart from the nature of their performance.
14) And the importance of the contribution of Son extended far beyond his goal. His turn of pace in the middle third of the pitch can make the best defenders in the world look as though they’ve got lead in their boots, and more than once he ran at the Liverpool defence in such a manner that we got a rare glimpse of the whites of their eyes. It remains highly surprising that he is not talked about in terms of being moved on to another club, such is the nature of football discourse.
15) For all the fatalism that has tended to descend over The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in recent years, Spurs have been a distinctly improved team since the new year and they do remain nipping at Arsenal’s heels, although the odds are against them. And while one point isn’t as good as three and Arsenal will probably be happy enough with that result, avoiding defeat at Anfield – especially when put on top of a league double against Manchester City – demonstrates that the potential is there. It will also be good for the headspace of the players ahead of a north London Derby on Thursday night that will likely determine the ultimate whereabouts of that last Champions League place.
16) The Premier League title race isn’t quite over and done with yet, but there is no doubt that this is a big blow for Liverpool. The risk with assuming that teams will simply carry on winning all of their matches is that the margins that define success and failure become extremely thin. And regardless, there will be little sympathy for Liverpool should they not win a Quadruple this season. They do still have the FA Cup and Champions League finals to look forward to, even if these dropped points end up costing them in the Premier League title race.
But on this occasion they ended up huffing and puffing, and the question now facing Juergen Klopp is one of how his players respond to this result. Much has been made of the near-absurd number of matches they have had to play, but the momentum of continually winning can push players through tiredness barriers. Following on from that first half at Villarreal, Liverpool may be showing signs of fatigue. The Premier League title race isn’t over yet, but Spurs’ doggedness tilted the initiative significantly away from Merseyside.