16 Conclusions on Tottenham 1-2 Liverpool

Date published: Sunday 16th September 2018 2:53

1) Let’s get the big conclusion out of the way right now: Liverpool can win the Premier League. There. We said it.

This was a performance that came loaded with all those cliches about statements of intent and putting down markers. We had seen them win their first four games of the season but we had not seen them truly tested. You could say they are still to be truly tested – Tottenham really were very, very poor – but beating a Big Six side away from home for the first time in two years should not come with too many caveats.

This was truly proof of how far they have come since last October, when a 4-1 defeat convinced Jurgen Klopp that any principles about spending big sums of money had to be abandoned in pursuit of a title. This was not a defence that needed coaching; this was a defence that needed an overhaul. Job done. Now for the small matter of another 33 Premier League games. There should be hope. There has to be hope.

 

2) That conclusion simply has to be followed by the opposite: Tottenham cannot win the Premier League. Peter Goldstein looked at the statistics this week and concluded that Spurs were just about hiding the fact that they are a team in the doldrums. There is no such hiding now; the world has watched a very flawed, lackadaisical performance that exposed a basic lack of pace.

Certainly, there is no hiding the fact that they have several players struggling after a long season and a long World Cup. Harry Kane looks like a passenger and Eric Dier simply looks like a competition winner, assuming anybody would covet the prize of being made to look like a dick by an excellent football team.

There is no real embarrassment in being beaten by this Liverpool side, but it is particularly damning that Tottenham looked short of both fight and organisation. They failed to clear even the lowest of bars at Wembley. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of this Tottenham side? That is not yet a conclusion but it is certainly a valid question.

 

3) We have to contrast the summer business of these two clubs because it has undoubtedly made a difference. In the red corner, we have a defence emboldened by a new keeper and a midfield incredibly motivated by the arrival of almost £100m of competition; Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner have reacted to the purchase of Fabinho and Naby Keita with a roar.

Meanwhile, in the white corner, Dier and co can stumble through games in the knowledge that there is no queue of players waiting for their chance. It’s ‘as you were’ and ‘as you were’ now looks a bit ‘not quite’. Where is the threat? What are the consequences of a dip in form or effort?

 

4) We have to talk about James Milner again. I wrote about him this week and noted that he seems to be hitting the form of his life at the relative old age of 32, thanks to a combination of excellent coaching, his own work ethic and some typical Yorkshire bloody-mindedness. Liverpool is a meritocracy and right now, he merits inclusion ahead of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, regardless of captaincy or fee.

This Liverpool formation is simply made for Milner, who can go wide and use his trusty thwack of a right leg to deliver balls into the box, but then tuck inside to press and to hound. Playing in a midfield two might not be an option anymore, but dovetailing with the understated intelligence of Wijnaldum from an inside right position showcases the very best of Milner in terms of both quality and effort. He will take some shifting.

 

5) Interestingly, Milner was one of only four survivors from that 4-1 shellacking at the hands of Tottenham last October, with Joe Gomez, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino the other Remainers. With Gomez moving to his more natural position, that is an entirely new back five. That is quite some transformation in less than 11 months.

The way that Klopp has overhauled that back line feels ruthless, and yet Alberto Moreno, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren are still Liverpool players, and all will play a significant part in a Reds’ season that could feature over 50 games. To upgrade and yet retain the services, commitment and belief of those you have replaced is quite the neat trick.

Oh and we told you they would not miss Emre Can.

 

6) Was Mauricio Pochettino trying to be clever with his pre-match routine of giving Eric Dier a defensive bib and conducting drills with him in a back three alongside Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld? It smacked a little bit of desperation and it served only to confuse his own players rather than the opposition.

You don’t need those kind of japes if you have confidence in the form of your own players; it cast them in the role of plucky underdogs trying to make marginal gains, and that is not a good look for any team on their ‘home’ turf. They never quite looked comfortable (don’t be fooled by that Old Trafford scoreline; they have not looked comfortable all season) and Liverpool are the very worst opposition to face when you are not quite comfortable.

 

7) It took less than a minute for Liverpool to have the ball in the net. It was rightly chalked off for offside but anybody who has played football at any level knows that such let-offs are followed by quick claps, shouts of “we got away with that” and a renewed defensive vigour. And yet Tottenham simply let them in again and again, making all the same mistakes time and time and again.

We can forgive them being not quite as sharp as Liverpool – too many players have had long World Cups, while Harry Winks has barely played football in nine months – but we cannot forgive the naivety of the full-backs constantly looking to push up field, as if they had forgotten they were playing the best counter-attacking side in the country.

Is that a problem with Pochettino’s instructions? Is there a lack of leadership when your captain is isolated at the other end of the pitch? Or do modern full-backs for elite sides simply lack the wherewithal to decide to simply be defenders for five minutes just to let a difficult game settle?

Liverpool created so many overloads simply by springing quickly when Tottenham’s full-backs were upfield that it started to feel like some kind of perverse performance art.

 

8) The worrying thing for those teams who will face Liverpool in the coming weeks is that their attacking trio is nowhere near its full potential. They really should have scored four or five but were plagued by scuffed finishes and bad decision-making.

The first, second and third sections of the counter-attack are already working – the press, the interception and the quick ball forward – but Liverpool are yet to find their attacking groove. And yet they are top of the Premier League having won their first five games. And that is why the first conclusion was so easy to write. This Liverpool team will get better before they get worse.

 

9) Virgil van Dijk really is imperious. There was a minute in the first half when he won a towering header and then a second later he made a perfect interception in which he not only came away with the ball, but delivered it – perfectly weighted – into the feet of a midfielder, who had sent Sadio Mane away within another second. Now multiply that minute by 90 and you arrive at the £75m that Liverpool paid for the Dutchman.

We rarely give prizes for the signing of a calendar year, but I saw little in the summer of 2018 to rival the capture of Van Dijk in January. We knew he was good. But did we know he was this good?

 

10) In truth, Tottenham settled after a frantic and nervous opening 15 minutes but it is pretty dangerous to ever feel like you are settling against this Liverpool side. It was Dier who made the game’s first glaring error, his sloppy pass becoming a through ball for Mo Salah, who is – mercifully for Spurs – not quite in the groove of 12 months ago.

We cannot ignore the paradox of Dier, who has worked himself into a bizarre situation where he is not quite one of Tottenham’s first-choice players and yet almost never misses a game. He is simply not good enough for any team with genuine title aspirations and yet his versatility and Tottenham’s thin squad mean that he is somehow invaluable. While simultaneously looking cumbersome, slow and always about a millisecond away from disaster.

There is a reason he has a storied history of making mistakes against Liverpool; their speed of thought and deed are his worst nightmare.

 

11) The first half settled into a rhythm – of Tottenham largely dominating possession without ever looking remotely dangerous, before they sloppily lost the ball, allowing Liverpool to break quickly and immediately look about 17 times more dangerous as they had an actual plan rather than a vague hope that something could happen.

If that ‘something’ was going to happen, it would have to be produced by Lucas Moura, whose movement and industry was in direct contrast to his strike partner. Pochettino can protest and protest, but Kane is so obviously not fit, and has barely looked fit since the injury that briefly halted his goalscoring mission last season.

He somehow won a World Cup Golden Boot while often looking like a passenger during England games, but the same kind of non-performance is not what Tottenham need right now when there is no real flow to their football.  And yet, there is absolutely no prospect of Kane being rested between here and May. I will be astonished if he is not sidelined by injury in the meantime.

 

 

12) It is easy to blame Michel Vorm, and second-choice keepers are a favourite scapegoat for the media and fans, but there were three Tottenham errors in the build-up to Liverpool’s opener. And no team can make three successive errors against Liverpool and expect to emerge unpunished.

Toby Alderweireld, Eriksen and Vorm were all in some way culpable for a goal that looked inevitable as soon as the opening minutes showed us that this Tottenham side were nervous and under-prepared. The football had been sloppy and the goal was the epitome of that sloppiness.

At that juncture, Tottenham had conceded five goals in five games and all five had been headers. This is a genuine problem that does not begin and end with a goalkeeper.

 

13) “There needs to be a change,” said Jamie Redknapp, who for once did not follow that with the words “doesn’t there, Gary?” but instead with the wonderfully insightful “I don’t know what”.

And for once it felt like Pochettino didn’t know either, as his solution seemed to be to move Dier out to a full-back position when Tottenham had the ball, push Moura out left to further isolate an already hermit-like Kane and bring Winks more central. Again, it seemed to confused Tottenham more than the opposition, with Trippier visibly urging Dier to move away from his section of the pitch.

What quickly followed was another Liverpool 4 v 3 and Tottenham were once again lucky to still be only a goal down.

 

14) Then came the Moura chance and the very first time that Liverpool looked a little shaky, the very young English defensive partnership of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez exposed by the Brazilian, who reminded both that they are not yet the finished products. He shaved the post with his effort, created entirely by himself.

The contrast could not have been greater with Liverpool’s second of the game four minutes later – created by the vision of Andy Robertson, the neat spin and pace of Mane and the determination of Firmino to finish on the line. While Moura’s teammates were watching him, Mane’s were flooding the box to create uncertainty.

It’s not a compliment to say that Tottenham’s passivity and reliance on individualism made them look a little like Jose Mourinho’s Man United.

 

15) “We deserved to win that game today. Over 85 minutes we were really dominant,” said Jurgen Klopp, whose grin presumably hid an annoyance that Liverpool won just 2-1 rather than 5-0. History will see this as a close encounter when the reality was that the Reds were better finishing and decision-making away from the kind of result that would prompt the same kind of inquest at Tottenham as was prompted a year ago at Liverpool.

Liverpool were never worried until Erik Lamela’s late consolation and Klopp’s celebration when a 94th-minute Tottenham attack came to nothing (when it should have been a penalty) is not something he will be in any rush to repeat.

 

16) “We competed, we were close, and the action at the end of the game was crazy and the challenge on Son at the end should have been a penalty,” said Pochettino. “Then the result would have been different.”

Yes, but the performance would still have been as wretched. And that should worry the Argentine even more than losing consecutive games for the first time in over two years.

 

Sarah Winterburn

 

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