Liverpool’s 100% start to the new Premier League season might have proved they are the most likely to challenge Manchester City for the title, but critics are right to point out they haven’t really been tested yet. By the time the 3pm Saturday games get underway we will know whether Liverpool are the real deal or whether we’ve been getting carried away by a couple of scrappy wins against relegation candidates.
These are the sorts of matches Liverpool couldn’t win last season. They picked up just one point away from home against fellow top-six opposition in 2017/18, the worst result arguably their 4-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in October. Jurgen Klopp will demand an improvement on that performance – and he’ll surely get it. That day Liverpool had Simon Mignolet in goal and a back four (from right to left) of Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno. Things are changing pretty fast at Liverpool.
For Tottenham, defeat at Vicarage Road a fortnight ago brought them back down to earth after a winning – if strangely unsatisfying – first three games. They’ve looked jaded so far this season (which is reflected in the stats), but after a two-week international break Mauricio Pochettino’s men may finally kick into gear.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Tottenham v Liverpool:
1) Will Klopp versus Pochettino bring another end-to-end contest?
There were nine goals in the two league matches between these sides last season, primarily because Pochettino against Klopp is the ideal tactical clash to create an open contest. Liverpool’s directness, and willingness to play on the counter away from home, is the perfect antidote to Tottenham’s more measured possession game, while the attacking instincts of both sets of full-backs ensures the game doesn’t get bogged down in a compact midfield battle.
There are flaws in both sides, and the two managers know exactly how to exploit them; that’s what happens when two coaches committed to attacking football (and studying the opposition) remain at the same clubs for such a long time.
Spurs can be too predictable in their attacking lines under Pochettino, which leaves them open to Liverpool’s carefully crafted pressing traps (Mousa Dembele’s waning form makes him particularly vulnerable, although the flat-footed Eric Dier will also be pincered). However, Pochettino will be confident of passing around the press before hitting the flanks, where the full-backs can isolate their opposite numbers against such a narrow, top-heavy 4-3-3. It’s unlikely to end 0-0.
Premier League games that produce highest number of goals, including Tottenham v Liverpool, Arsenal v Chelsea and Everton v Manchester United
— Footy Headlines (@footyhlines) September 13, 2018
2) Will Lucas-led counters finally test Liverpool’s high line?
There is one Spurs player that Klopp hasn’t faced before. Lucas Moura, playing alongside Harry Kane, has been a crucial part of the Tottenham attack so far this season and will fancy his chances of breaking the Liverpool offside trap: it’s about time someone puts Klopp’s defence under serious pressure.
Tottenham signing a very exciting but equally frustrating player in Lucas Moura. Great pace and skill but end product lacking far too often. To call him 'the Brazilian Walcott' would be harsh. But only a bit #THFC #PSG
— Matt Spiro (@mattspiro) January 29, 2018
Liverpool have been rightly praised for their defensive record, but rather than improving at the back it is in fact their brilliant front three that have made the difference. Opponents are increasingly fearful of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, dropping deeper than in 2017/18 to absorb pressure and avoid leaving space for the counter-press. As a knock-on effect, Liverpool are finding it much easier to keep teams penned in and consequently aren’t facing the same threat on the counter.
Spurs are the first team this season that will truly test the Liverpool defence. Keep an eye out for Lucas’s runs on the shoulder of the last defender and the speed with which Christian Eriksen looks to release him. It is important to note that Lucas, starting from the centre-right, will avoid a foot race with right-sided centre-back Joe Gomez.
3) Can Liverpool take advantage of Spurs’ weakness in the air?
All four goals Spurs have conceded so far this season have been headers, a statistic that highlights their inability to adequately defend the flanks. Whether conceding set-pieces in dangerous areas or struggling to close down deliveries from open play, this is becoming a serious concern for Pochettino.
Mauricio Pochettino demands more from his Tottenham Hotspur side and discusses if Spurs need to also work on defending set-pieces:
— Last Word On Spurs🎙 (@LastWordOnSpurs) September 2, 2018
Liverpool, by contrast, scored 12 headed goals last season, the third most in the division. They also just happen to have arguably the two best full-backs in the division at crossing a ball and two commanding centre-backs to come up for corners. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have become increasingly important tactical weapons for Klopp as opponents draw narrower (in fear of the front three), with both players now regularly fizzing balls into the box from the corner of the D.
Tottenham’s system, whether 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1, is extremely narrow off-the-ball and offers little cover for the full-backs. Consequently if Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier are sucked infield by the likes of Salah and Mane making runs in the half-spaces then Liverpool’s full-backs will find the space they need.
Then again, it’s a similar story at the other end. Liverpool’s front three rarely track back, which could leave them light as Rose and Trippier bomb forward. The one-on-ones on the flanks could be decisive at Wembley.
4) Can Dier and Dembele control Liverpool’s front three as they drop into the no. 10 space?
With Spurs fans growing concerned about the mobility of their two most defensive midfielders, now is perhaps not the best time to be facing such unorthodox opponents. Liverpool do not play an out-and-out number ten, but rather all three strikers alternate dropping into this space, creating a complex system that can only be nullified by the most diligent (and intelligent) holding midfielders.
Consequently Pochettino may elect to play three at the back, allowing one of his centre-backs to follow the strikers as they drop off and remain tight. It is unlikely the gap between Spurs’ defence and midfield will be large enough to note as a serious tactical flaw, but since both sides like to filter attacks through the centre of the pitch (working the ball out wide via the number ten zone) the smallest chink in the Spurs armour could make all the difference.
5) Can Spurs gain an advantage by piling early pressure on Allison?
There is no question Liverpool’s new goalkeeper will continue to play in the way he always has despite his recent mistakes against Leicester City and Brighton; the Cruyff turn has been a potent weapon in Alisson Becker’s arsenal throughout his career. However, in a new country and under intense media scrutiny, the Brazilian may be feeling the heat – at least for the first 20 minutes or so.
Spurs will no doubt press high from goal-kicks, looking to hassle the goalkeeper and man-mark the Liverpool centre-backs during the first half. Here is an opportunity for the hosts to unsettle Klopp’s side, force a couple of errors, and grab control of the game. How Alisson copes could determine the nervousness and performance levels of the entire Liverpool team.
Even if that mistake costs Liverpool points today, why spend £70 million on a keeper if you want to restrict his play to your average PL keeper? You buy Alisson because he is capable of the Cruyff turn and setting up attacks down the opposition’s weak side, not to inhibit him.
— David Preece (@davidpreece12) September 1, 2018