* On Tuesday evening, Mauricio Pochettino prepared a Tottenham side that drew 1-1 in the Bernabeu against the Spanish and European champions. They enjoyed some good fortune in Madrid, but earned some too. Spurs hassled and harried Zinedine Zidane’s side, and now have one foot in the Champions League knock-out stages.
On Sunday afternoon, eight of that same Tottenham side rolled over Liverpool with the swagger and style of a team that had enjoyed a fortnight’s rest. Liverpool were more than partly to blame for their Wembley downfall, but Pochettino’s team are masters at identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of any opposition. They are everything that Liverpool must wish to be.
This is the house that Pochettino has built. This is a squad of players with bundles of quality and at least three times as much energy, a team in which at least half of the outfielders are comfortable playing in at least two positions. Pochettino has created a team that swarms over its opponent when in form, and battles and bustles when they are struggling, because he has created a hunger within them. If there ever was such thing as a Wembley curse (and the truth is a little less mysterious than that phrase intimates), you could trust Pochettino to overcome it.
Don’t want to play for Tottenham? Fine, we will sell you and sell you for huge money because the manager made you a better player. There will be at least two players desperate to take your place anyway, because why wouldn’t you want to play for this coach?
This is also a team that learns from its mistakes. Tottenham lost to two teams in the league between January and May: West Ham and Liverpool. They have now outclassed both in the first two months of 2017/18, and few will bet against them making amends for August’s defeat to Chelsea in the return fixture.
It would be a mistake to talk of title bids from Tottenham. That’s not because they are not good enough to sustain one, but because doing so creates unfair pressure on Pochettino. To talk of a title is to establish expectation. Missing that expectation therefore leads to disappointment, and everyone saying “yeah, but what have they won?” every time you dare praise them, as if Tottenham were ever supposed to be involved in title races anyway. Instead, we should just sit back and enjoy this magnificent period of management, and selfishly be pleased that there are young, English players lucky enough to be painted by this brush.
When Pochettino was appointed, Tottenham had just finished ten points off fourth place. Within two months, he had drawn up a plan of how progress would be achieved. Within two years, he had established Tottenham within the top four. Within five years..?
* Jurgen Klopp is 17 months behind Pochettino in calendar terms at Liverpool, appointed in October 2015, but Liverpool’s progress has been much less steep under his stewardship. For all the improvement under the German’s management – and there has been plenty – Klopp is still being hamstrung by the same defensive deficiencies that put paid to his predecessor’s hopes of keeping his job.
Klopp is far away from that demise. He has assembled a delightful strikeforce and, on occasion, Liverpool can look Tottenham-esque. But their average performance level is far below their Sunday opponents, and they’re now seven points behind in the table for good measure.
For Liverpool to be three points off fourth place after nine games of the season (and having played Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham) is no disaster, but their defence is. Were there signs of improvement, it would be easy to believe in better. As it is, Liverpool’s defending is getting worse. This is not just a question of individual incompetence, but of systemic inadequacy. It shouldn’t be this easy to pin down a team and stop them from moving.
* We almost got a wonderful game, but the shame for those watching without a horse in the race is that it was taken away from us by Liverpool’s problems. For a period of 20 minutes before Dele Alli’s goal, Liverpool and Tottenham attacked each other at will, reminiscent of Manchester City vs Monaco last season. With the crowd buying into such absorbing, attacking football, the game felt as if it was reaching a magnificent crescendo.
That crescendo was curtailed by the game’s fourth goal, but it was an inevitable ending. If you can’t perform such a basic aspect of the game properly, expect to be found out before too long.
* The announcement of Tottenham’s team allowed those of us in the ground far too much time to play a wonderful guessing game; Mauricio Pochettino does like to surprise us. Serge Aurier and Kieran Trippier? Three central defenders, but Harry Winks as the only natural central midfielder? Christian Eriksen, Heung-min Son, Alli and Harry Kane against a team that loves to counter-attack? The game barely needed hyping up, but that certainly added a further layer of intrigue.
As it happened, the warm-up gave it away. Aurier started on the left, presumably starting ahead of Ben Davies to deal with the pace of Mohamed Salah. That did indeed leave Winks and an attacking player as Tottenham’s central midfield, although it was Eriksen over Alli who stayed slightly deeper. Against one of the best counter-attacking teams in the division, that asked an awful lot of Eriksen’s positional discipline. Pochettino also used Son centrally rather than out wide, as a fairly regulation 3-5-2. Without the ball, that became a 5-3-1-1.
That shape also made Aurier the fifth different player to start at left-back or left wing-back for Tottenham in 12 games this season. Their first-choice left-back Danny Rose isn’t one of them. Has Pochettino created the most versatile team in the division?
* “I don’t know about the line-up today. He is in my mind…if it is about a start you will see tomorrow,” said Klopp before Liverpool’s game against Maribor on Tuesday. “Since Alex came in he has been twice with the national team, there have been a lot of games with no training and so his start has been interrupted. He is a big signing for us, obviously, but a fast player like him needs the circumstances to perform so he needed time.”
As it happened, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t start against Maribor. Klopp instead preferred to give James Milner a chance in central midfield, and he took it with both hands. When the teams were announced at Wembley, it was Milner who kept his place. No Adam Lallana, no Sadio Mane, no Georginio Wijnaldum; still no Oxlade-Chamberlain.
There is nothing wrong with a player needing time to settle into a club and system, and Klopp has repeated that message numerous times. Yet we must judge Oxlade-Chamberlain by different rules, simply because he was available on a free transfer had the club waited nine months. If it was going to take him this long to settle, why on earth pay £35m for the privilege? Especially when Milner reverting back to a central midfielder from left-back already gave Liverpool a new option in that position, and Naby Keita will join next summer.
Now, it appears that Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t a central midfielder at all, with Klopp describing him as a winger rather than a No. 8 in midweek. So it will take both Mane and Salah being out for him to start games there? The logic in his signing is muddled beyond belief.
* Dejan Lovren is not quite playing on one leg for Liverpool, but it’s pretty close. The Croatian takes painkillers to get him through each match, and has been sent home from international duty because he is not considered fit enough to play.
And yet he plays for Liverpool, because Klopp has no choice, despite his appalling form over the last 18 months. At Wembley on Sunday, Lovren finally hit his nadir.
It started after five minutes. Trippier’s ball over the top was either misjudged or simply ignored by Liverpool’s central defender, and he allowed Kane to run through. Lovren’s was not the only mistake, for Joe Gomez played Kane onside, but Lovren’s was the most obvious.
Simon Mignolet was also not faultless. The Belgian goalkeeper made the decision to rush out of goal rather than stay on his line despite Kane still being on the right edge of the penalty area. Mignolet got a touch on the ball, but could only parry it back into Kane’s path and leave himself helpless on the floor. Kane’s composure did the rest. It was his first Premier League goal at Wembley.
* Another noteworthy point on Tottenham’s opening goal is just how impressive the decision was from the assistant referee. Last week, The Times published a really interesting video quiz where you played the role of assistant referee, judging offsides. It emphasised just how difficult the job is. The user was placed in a perfect position to make the decision, and did not have to deal with any other issues such as free-kicks or throw-ins. The examples were also played out at a gentle pace.
Anyone who attempted the exercise was left reaching only one conclusion: assistant referees are brilliant. Watch Tottenham’s first goal again, at full speed. Kane is four or five inches onside, running one way while Gomez steps up. It is a remarkable decision. You only ever notice them when they get it wrong.
* Having been found guilty as part of a group for Tottenham’s first goal, Lovren made it all about him eight minutes later. The central defender cannot blame Storm Brian for his inability to judge Lloris’ throw correctly, instead letting the ball sail over his head. Again, that set Kane on his way.
This time, magnificent goalscorer became assist provider with the type of curled low cross that would make Kevin de Bruyne proud. Son didn’t even have to break stride to fire his shot low past Mignolet.
* Yet Lovren’s greatest embarrassment was saved for the 31st minute, when he was substituted by his manager and replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain. Klopp chose to switch Emre Can to right-back and move Joe Gomez into central defence, pushing Coutinho deeper and using Oxlade-Chamberlain in his position as a wide forward.
As Lovren left the pitch, neither player nor manager wanted to catch the other’s eye. Nobody on the Liverpool bench could talk to the Croatian, because what could they say? “Good game, champ.”
You can understand why Klopp wanted to make a change, and it is not his responsibility to play nice with under-performing players, but you do have to wonder about the lasting damage to Lovren’s confidence. He cannot start Lovren in Liverpool’s next game after such a calamitous performance, and yet there is only Ragnar Klavan and Gomez to replace him. If only they had just had a whole summer to buy a central defender.
* At that point, the game almost became difficult to watch as a neutral. The play was so one-sided and Liverpool so utterly helpless to keep a surging Spurs at bay, it made you wince and cringe like watching someone fall over on their way up to a stage. Son hit the bar with a dipping volley, while Mignolet looked like a small child left at the school gates in the pouring rain by an absent father.
It shouldn’t be this way. Tottenham are a wonderful team, but they have been well-drilled and mentally prepared by an exceptional coach. After two years in the job, Klopp should not necessarily be matching Spurs’ achievement, but they should at least be able to compete on the same general level. Had this been a boxing bout, the referee would have called a halt before Liverpool took a blow that might cause significant damage. It might already have been too late.
* Yet for all their woeful defending – have I mentioned that yet? – Liverpool do have one of the best wide forwards in the division, and surely the quickest. Salah is far from the perfect player, for there are too many failures in front of goal and too many times his feet move quicker than his brain, but he has the speed to cause any defender problems. The way he sprinted onto Jordan Henderson’s lofted through ball and left Vertonghen in his wake shows why Liverpool are such an effective counter-attacking team.
The finish was far less assured, scuffed past Lloris with his right foot but into the goal via the far post. It was a shot to vindicate the old Andy Townsend cliche; you really can hit it too well.
* I’m sorry, and I’ll be brief, but the one overwhelming thought as you watched the first half unfold did not concern Liverpool or Tottenham, but Manchester United. Or, more exactly, a question for Manchester United: watching Liverpool defend like that, do you still feel that playing for a point at Anfield was the right call?
It’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Because it bloody well wasn’t the right call.
* If Liverpool supporters believed their defensive incompetence would end with the removal of Lovren, they either suffer from short and long-term memory loss or have not watched their side enough over the last two three four five years.
It must be nice for Lovren to have team-mates like Can, friends who are prepared to stand up and make themselves also look stupid just to make you feel happier about life. Either that, or he’s another player not capable of playing in defence without cocking things up spectacularly.
Firstly, the German lost possession in central midfield, robbed by the omnipresent Kane. Can then followed up that mistake by hacking into Kane from behind, aware of his mistake and aware too that he needed to commit a foul and accept his punishment.
That’s all very well, and a perfectly reasonable tactic after such a mistake. But there isn’t much point cynically breaking up a counter-attack if you’re then going to defend the subsequent free-kick appallingly. As the cross came in and was cleared high into the air, five Liverpool players stood and watched as Alli first set himself and then volleyed low into the corner of Mignolet’s goal.
In the final moments of the first half, Liverpool had given up any impetus they had gained. This is a team committed to shooting themselves in the feet using a variety of weapons and techniques. There’s more bullet holes than skin by now.
* Any hope of a second-half Liverpool comeback were – shock horror – eradicated by an individual defensive mistake. Given all the mess in front of him, it’s easy to forget that Mignolet is not a good enough goalkeeper for a team with aspirations of playing in the Champions League on a regular basis. They bought him from Sunderland, and he’s got worse since.
We had managed without a Mignolet gaffe for a couple of weeks, but his decision to come for a cross that he had little hope of winning, only succeeding in palming it to a Tottenham player, was right out of the Belgian’s playbook. Vertonghen had a shot blocked on the line, but Kane was there to score his 38th Tottenham goal of 2017. Yes, that is bloody ridiculous.
For all the reaction to Lovren’s early substitution, how close are we to a return of the Loris Karius experiment? Nobody quite improves their reputation in absentia like a reserve Liverpool goalkeeper. Someone summon back Adam Bogdan.
* If we quite reasonably assess that David de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world, does the Premier League have the second best too? No, not you Simon. Sorry fella.
Tottenham were rarely in trouble during the second half, particularly after Kane’s second goal, but Lloris still improved his reputation further with at least three fine saves and one exceptional stop from Coutinho. The Frenchman actually might have gone with the wrong hand, but pawed Coutinho’s shot onto the bar and then collapsed onto the rebounded ball.
One of my niche football fetishes is when a save provokes a standing ovation from the home fans. Importantly, this applause never becomes a cheer, for that would be too gauche, and is never accompanied by chanting. Merely a period of standing applause for a goalkeeper doing something that we could only dream of pulling off. With a Premier League record 80,327 in Wembley Stadium in attendance, this was a belter.
* It was a toss-up between Son, Kane and Alli for the honour of being the game’s best player, but I’ve gone with the latter of the trio primarily because Alli has struggled this season and was asked to carry out a slightly unfamiliar deeper role. It hardly stopped him pushing on, and no player on the pitch created more chances.
Yet the most promising aspect for Alli was not his numbers, but his style. There was a backheel flick in his own corner to get Tottenham out of trouble, a surging run past two Liverpool midfielders and two or three reverse passes to team-mates. These are the signs that Alli is getting his mojo back.
The frightening thing about Tottenham is that they are level on points with second place without their second best attacking player from last season firing. Nobody stays out of form for long under Pochettino’s gaze.