16 Conclusions: Tottenham 0-1 Liverpool

Date published: Saturday 11th January 2020 9:09

1) “They want us to be the clowns in the circus. The circus is here. Liverpool are to be champions,” said Jose Mourinho to his Chelsea players in April 2014. “But we are not going to be the clowns.”

It was a magisterial rallying cry, a powerful display of psychological warfare, an example of a master at work. It was Mourinho at his absolute best, manipulating his squad’s collective mind and capitalising on a carefully crafted siege mentality. It was the end of Liverpool’s title run.

The Portuguese presumably uttered something similar at half-time on Saturday, for Tottenham were much improved. His own tactical errors were somewhat rectified, his players offered a response of sorts and something was salvaged from what looked increasingly like a potential wreckage – one Liverpool forced – in the first half.

Tottenham will be disappointed at losing to a team that has won 29 of its last 30 Premier League games. Had they decided to play against this lacklustre Liverpool rather than their imperious reputation a little sooner, the clowns might have ruled the circus once more.

 

2) In that lies the most damning aspect of Mourinho’s initial approach. Mike Tyson once quipped that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Tottenham actively opted not to test their gloves until the final half an hour.

They had twice as many shots as Liverpool from the 60th minute to full-time, but were infuriatingly submissive and compliant until then. Only when the visitors were pressured and have their absolute control challenged did they start to show signs of vulnerability.

Had Giovani Lo Celso scored from a matter of yards, or Heung-min Son converted one of his efforts, it would have been labelled as another masterclass. Yet it feels like a wasted opportunity. Mourinho prepared himself and his players for an unscalable mountain and seemed to realise too late that they were perfectly equipped to climb it with a little more ambition and ruthlessness.

 

3) He will be happier than Klopp, which is not to say in any way that Tottenham were even vaguely better over 90 minutes; they irrefutably were not. But Mourinho sought for this game to be decided by a single goal, whereas his rival was visibly frustrated at Liverpool’s glut of missed chances and subsequent need to defend a more slender lead late on.

It seemed like a familiar script to begin with, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hitting the post after Roberto Firmino forced a goal-line clearance. But Liverpool cruised for so long in neutral – and Tottenham allowed them to – that they forgot to change gears. And they were genuinely excellent at times in the first half, with two or three huge opportunities missed even before the opener.

At various points in the first half they had more than 80% of the ball – that possession is nine-tenths of the law made their inability to capitalise almost criminal.

As ridiculous as it is to be criticising a team that started the day with a 13-point lead atop the Premier League table and ends it 16 points clear after beating the most recent Champions League runners-up away from home, that is the standard Liverpool have set. Klopp surely knows that while they matched it for a good hour or so, that last half an hour almost cost them, and those mistakes ought to be rectified.

 

4) Mourinho was clearly hoping to channel perhaps his most famous Premier League performance in that 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield almost six years ago. A dominant, destructive, title-bound side were met with a narrow back four featuring a 20-year-old full Premier League debutant and a side determined to defend for their lives.

Japhet Tanganga was cast in the role of Tomas Kalas and was as impressive now as the Czech was then. His positioning and decision-making was perfect for Liverpool’s first ferocious counter, clearing Firmino’s goal-bound effort. A couple of minutes later he made a fine interception from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s attempted pass and burst down the right, only for Lucas to fail to control the ball.

Another tackle on Sadio Mane midway through the first half was met with glee from the home fans, and rightly so. Mourinho deserves credit for opening his door to the first team; Tanganga warrants praise for knocking it off its hinges.

 

5) What tends to follow the first Liverpool opportunity is a tidal wave of pressure and chances. Their high defensive line pushes up to the point that Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk are straddling the halfway line, accompanied by a designated midfield driver, while the full-backs are penned in the opposition half. The force eventually becomes too much, the cracks start to form and soon become gaping holes.

Yet Tottenham almost accidentally rose that tidal wave to an early lead. Liverpool did not have another shot until Firmino’s was blocked in the 18th minute, followed by Virgil van Dijk’s effort in the 23rd. The hosts saw Lucas shoot just wide from a Gomez mistake, Son miss after robbing Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli fire over – albeit after a handball that VAR would have punished – in the opening quarter of an hour.

Like a nervous teenage boy, Tottenham ignored all the obvious hints. This was not quite Liverpool at their sumptuous, irresistible best. They were wonderful, incredibly difficult to deal with and impeccably coordinated but seemed to make more mistakes than usual under such small amounts of pressure. Tottenham should have realised it sooner.

 

6) Tottenham’s next effort even came after another Henderson error in the 21st minute, shortly before Van Dijk ought to have scored from the captain’s cross after a cleared corner.

This is why their approach seems so defeatist and pessimistic in retrospect. Mourinho set Tottenham up to defend resolutely and counter when they could, never committing too many players forward for fear of the possible repercussions. They relied too heavily on long balls and clearances towards an isolated forward, completing 54 passes to Liverpool’s 223 in the first 30 minutes. Liverpool had 75.1% of the ball in that time yet still completed twice as many tackles (eight to four) as their opponents. There is no better example of their frustrating passivity.

 

7) The counter-argument is that Liverpool are too dangerous to consider doing anything different. They can hurt you from every angle, be it Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deep crosses from the right or Sadio Mane’s incisive runs high on the left.

There is certainly too much talent and danger to hope to contain it for long, uninterrupted periods. So it proved towards the end of the first half when a seemingly innocuous Andy Robertson throw was headed clear by Toby Alderweireld, forced back into the box by Henderson, held up by Mo Salah and finished expertly by Firmino.

The goal lacked a particular defensive mistake. Alderweireld’s header could have been better, Alli’s challenge more authoritative, Davinson Sanchez’s intervention stronger and Tanganga’s mind quicker, but it would be incredibly harsh to apportion blame. The only thing it showed was the precariousness of such defensive game plans against such imperious attacks: deliver one line incorrectly and the entire script changes.

 

8) Firmino’s effort really was exquisite. When Salah’s pass came towards him Tanganga was no more than a yard or two away and blocking his route to goal. The solution was to cushion the ball delicately to his side, allow the defender to commit, venture into the space and shoot across Paulo Gazzaniga. The keeper was stationed at his near post in expectation; that was soon dashed.

It was the sort of instinctive genius that deserved to settle any game, eventual evidence of Liverpool’s dominance.

 

9) Tottenham actually responded well. Salah could have scored after twisting Sanchez inside out when Georginio Wijnaldum dispossessed Christian Eriksen, but the Egyptian shot wide. The hosts then ended the half with two efforts from Lucas, and started the second with the Brazilian missing from Aurier’s pass.

Aurier himself had the next meaningful attempt after Alli’s driving run was thwarted by a wonderful Van Dijk sliding tackle. Gomez, this time, was the culprit.

This was not his finest game. A couple of Tottenham’s better shooting chances came as a product of either him slipping or being positioned improperly to quell the danger.

It was a necessary reminder to temper expectations. He has struggled with injuries – this was only his seventh Premier League start since December 2018 – but suggestions that he could be part of the greatest central defensive partnership in Premier League history are patently unhelpful. He has the necessary attributes to be excellent but, equally, is still learning.

Still, that’s a ninth clean sheet in ten appearances so I’m clearly an idiot.

 

10) Through it all, it was great to see Aurier attempting audacious backheel passes in Liverpool’s area. If he won’t change for Mourinho, he never will.

 

11) Klopp sensed the change in momentum. Tottenham started the half with considerably more purpose and intent and Liverpool’s press grew more disjointed and less effective. Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular had become wasteful and indisciplined. He was substituted in the 61st minute with no tackles or interceptions made, 22 passes completed for a side constantly on the ball and five crosses attempted, none of which were accurate.

Adam Lallana helped his side regain composure with an excellent cameo. He completed more of his passes (25 of 27) in 30 minutes under much more intense pressure, making three tackles and one interception. If, as expected, he does leave in the summer, he can do so in the knowledge that he’s earned the impending winner’s medal as much as anyone. Without that substitution, Liverpool wouldn’t have won.

 

12) The selection of Eriksen as a defensive midfielder was plain bizarre. He was not there to spoil or shackle – he made one tackle – nor really to provide penetration. He was played to his weaknesses instead of his strengths and offered an unsurprisingly passive performance. The party invite demanded smart but he turned up about half an hour late, entirely too casual.

It is a relationship that should really have ended in the summer and has been allowed to drag on too long in the public eye. Tottenham will come to remember him fondly but, right now, he is emblematic of a club that has rested on its laurels and lost focus both on and off the pitch.

 

13) Perhaps most damning was the immediate impact of his replacement. Lo Celso was introduced in the 68th minute and helped create, at that point, Tottenham’s best chance of the game by the 75th.

It was another Liverpool mistake, this time Wijnaldum dribbling aimlessly in his own half, that gave rise to a Spurs attack. Lo Celso hounded and robbed the midfielder with a wonderful sliding tackle, with Son subsequently shooting over.

Tottenham needed that sort of moment, that display of assertiveness and fight, earlier. It prompted their best spell, culminating in Lo Celso’s own gilt-edged chance from Aurier’s cross, but it came altogether too late. Going forward, he has to start.

 

14) It turned out that attack might have been the best form of defence all along. Liverpool had most of the ball but no shots whatsoever from Mane’s effort in the 65th minute to substitute Divock Origi’s in the 90th.

It was refreshing to see someone take the game to them, to have the bravery to play them at their own game and deem the reward greater than the risk, even if they did time the push too late. Liverpool have been picking on people their own size but this was the first time in a while someone had the temerity to fight back. It speaks volumes of their character that they adjusted from a position of almost unparalleled superiority to one of safeguarding so seamlessly in the same game.

 

15) Wijnaldum was the game’s best player. The error that Lo Celso punished was the solitary blemish on an otherwise spotless report card.

His value to the side is obvious. In this game he was more often than not deployed as the auxiliary centre-half in possession to the right of Van Dijk, ensuring that Liverpool could maintain pressure and control. And Barcelona know all too well his attacking abilities, such is the Dutchman’s versatility.

He barely misplaced a pass and, with five dribbles, provided an outlet, spark and line-breaking . No player better defines Klopp’s era of Liverpool than a tireless but talented peg that can be moulded to fit any gap.

 

16) Mourinho’s reputation was on the line here, if nothing else. This was precisely the sort of game and occasion he was employed for, the stage that Mauricio Pochettino had failed to grace too often. Mourinho, a proven winner with a genuine track record, was shaped by these games.

The performance, then, was a welcome reminder that he can still cajole and coax something from a generation he had supposedly been left behind by. A defensive Tottenham outshot Liverpool over 90 minutes and almost stalled the procession.

There remains a question that will have to be answered on February 2 when Manchester City visit. Mourinho has now played three games against Big Six sides and been beaten in each. In no league season from the start of his career to 2014/15 did he lose three matches against teams that finished in the top six. In every campaign since 2015/16 he has been defeated at least three times by any of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City, Manchester United or Tottenham.

This reverse in particular can be forgiven. But the longer that run continues the more one has to wonder what Mourinho really guarantees, and how that differs at all from his predecessor.

Matt Stead

 

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