Liverpool versus Tottenham has come at the perfect time, for neutrals at least. The hosts cannot afford to drop points so soon after last weekend’s draw at Old Trafford so will go for broke, while Spurs – desperate to end their poor run of form – believe playing attacking football is the best way to tackle Jurgen Klopp’s side.
But what really makes this exciting is Liverpool and Spurs scored nine goals between them in the Champions League in midweek. This was always likely to be a stretched contest with plenty of chances; now both sides’ forwards are on song, we are almost guaranteed goals.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Sunday’s game:
1) Will Poch’s choice of formation decide the outcome?
Pochettino has tried just about everything to end the malaise: 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-4-2-1. Eventually he got a good performance out of his side against Red Star in a 4-2-3-1 on Wednesday, although it may be abandoned this weekend. There is a serious danger this formation doesn’t have enough numbers in central midfield to prevent Roberto Firmino from running the game (more on that later).
Spurs’ most common formation this season has been a diamond 4-4-2, in which Heung-min Son splits out to the left to make a lopsided attacking shape, but surely Pochettino won’t plump for such a narrow system against Liverpool. Arsenal made that mistake and were absolutely hammered down the flanks by Liverpool’s full-backs. Even Poch’s 4-3-3 looks too narrow.
Perhaps his best bet is 3-4-2-1, the formation that didn’t work at all in the first half against Watford last weekend; Spurs switched to 4-3-3 after the break and significantly improved. If they aren’t too scarred from that, Tottenham will find joy in repeating the tactical set-up deployed by Sheffield United and Manchester United this month.
Using wing-backs means they can push on and get tight to the Liverpool full-backs, restricting their influence. Two deep central midfielders and a spare centre-back can track Firmino. Three bunched-together forwards can counter in the big spaces behind the Liverpool defence.
However, when the sides last met Spurs began in a 3-5-2 and their wing-backs ended up pinned into a 5-3-2, giving Andrew Robertson space to cross menacingly. There is no easy solution.
2) Will Keita and Ndombele help produce a stretched, entertaining game?
Naby Keita looked lively in a brief cameo at Old Trafford before excelling in midweek at Genk, providing Liverpool with just the line-breaking energy they have needed after some stale midfield performances this month. Here was the Keita Liverpool thought they had signed 12 months ago: aggressive, courageous, and capable of weaving through congested central areas like a winger.
Doing so helps Liverpool pull the opposition out of their defensive shape, potentially ending their gradual descent into sideways passing from midfield. In his own third, Keita’s dribbles and quickness of thought will help evade the counter-press and get Liverpool moving. Alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he can give them a shot in the arm on Sunday.
The same can be said of Tanguy Ndombele, whose powerful dribbling within his own half is just what Spurs need to work their way around Liverpool’s high press. Liverpool might have won 4-1 on Wednesday, but Genk failed to score from three clear-cut chances; on a pitch full of direct central midfielders, and with Spurs unlikely to sit deep, this should be an end-to-end game.
3) Does Alexander-Arnold versus Son hand Spurs the advantage?
Irrespective of what formation Pochettino picks, Son will peel out to the left flank and look to terrorise Liverpool’s right-back. Son was electric against Red Star and has arguably been the only Spurs player to maintain his high standards throughout their poor run.
Assuming Trent Alexander-Arnold is able to start this weekend, the England defender will no doubt leave big patches of grass behind him for Son to sneak into. Their head-to-head will be intriguing in a positional sense, because TAA needs to bomb forward for Liverpool’s tactics to work, yet that means leaving Son free to counter.
It’s been a while since Alexander-Arnold’s positioning has caused Liverpool problems, but that’s largely because it’s been a while since anyone came to Anfield with attacking intent. If the pitch does get elongated and we get an end-to-end match, Liverpool’s right-back may struggle to get up and down, particularly having only just recovered from illness.
4) Will Mane and Salah expose Spurs’ weak full-backs?
Tottenham’s difficulties in the full-back positions are well-documented. In attack, it is a lack of penetrative quality from Danny Rose and Serge Aurier that has seen Pochettino’s football lose its verve (aggressive full-backs are a vital counterpoint to narrow attacking lines). But it’s in defence where their most alarming weakness lies. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah ought to completely dominate.
Danny Rose was beaten softly ahead of Watford’s opener last weekend, yet it is the other side that should engender Spurs panic. Aurier was at fault for two of Brighton’s goals in the 3-0 defeat, first failing to close down a cross and then getting caught ahead of the ball for Aaron Connolly’s second. In the 7-2 defeat to Bayern – the last time Spurs played a top team – Aurier was arguably at fault for four of the goals.
He is far too frequently caught high up the pitch, getting beaten by long balls over the top or simply gifting possession to the opposition. It just so happens Mane is Liverpool’s best player at the moment. Unless Pochettino goes for a 3-4-2-1, Aurier will have a torrid time.
5) How do Spurs prevent Firmino from running the game?
It’s a question both Sheffield United and Man Utd were able to answer but, again, this match won’t follow the same territorial pattern as those two games. Keeping Firmino quiet is easier when the central midfielders consistently sit just in front of the back four, squeezing out the No. 10 space, but in a more open contest the Brazilian is virtually guaranteed to drop off the front line, ghost into gaps, and link up with Liverpool’s other two forwards.
One possible solution is to play three at the back and instruct one of them to get tight to Firmino even when that means stepping out from the defensive line – although that will probably be deemed too risky an option. A safer bet would be to instruct either Harry Winks or Eric Dier to man-mark Firmino out of the game, yet Pochettino might simply trust the system. Which means relying on Moussa Sissoko to keep an eye on arguably the league’s most influential player.
Good luck with that.
Alex Keble is on Twitter