Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
As far as win percentage goes, Mauricio Pochettino has every other modern-day Tottenham Hotspur boss beat. But, at the start of his fifth season in North London, the Argentinian appears no closer to breaking his silverware duck. Neither World Cup fatigue nor stadium strife have helped the 46-year-old’s cause. Errors of judgement and tactical inconsistency, however, have proven far more costly.
Take Tottenham’s opening four Premier League games for example, in which Pochettino started with four entirely different formations. Neither the 4-3-2-1 seen against Newcastle United nor the 3-4-2-1 that edged out Fulham looked entirely convincing, and the diamond designed to withstand Manchester United’s press was fortunate to exact a 3-0 victory.
Immediately prior to the international break, however, Pochettino’s luck ran out. The 3-1-4-2 he selected at Watford made sense on paper, ensuring a spare central defender against Javi Gracia’s two-pronged attack. But the centre-packing system lacked the width required to stretch the Hornets’ compact 4-4-2. And, by the time Harry Kane wasted his side’s only big chance, Watford had already sealed victory with two set-piece goals.
Faced with another big-six engagement after the break, Pochettino reverted to the diamond — the same diamond that dominated throughout a 2-2 draw at Anfield back in February. In hindsight, however, that dominance may have been somewhat illusory; Liverpool could afford to sit off following Eric Dier’s 3rd-minute gift to Mohamed Salah.
As also seen at Manchester United, Mousa Dembélé was again deployed at the base of a central-midfield four. Although not exactly blessed with natural number-six instincts, Dembélé is an accomplished ball-winner. And few central midfielders possess the Belgian’s eye-catching ability to dribble away from opposition pressure — the main reason Pochettino casts him in such a deep-lying role.
Evading Klopp’s counterpress, before playing quick balls in behind the Liverpool defence, was the name of Pochettino’s game here. And the decision to employ a diamond, with three passing options in close proximity to Dembélé, was integral to that plan. But the Argentinian didn’t count on a canny tactical tweak from his German counterpart, and his response — when it finally arrived — was woefully inadequate.
Unlike his opposite number, Klopp has been largely wedded to the same 4-3-3 system since he arrived on English shores three years ago. But the gegenpressing guru has shown a willingness to curb his heavy metal enthusiasm in recent times. The frequency with which Liverpool engage opponents high up the pitch has dropped in each of the last two seasons. Today’s tactical victory was simply a development of that trend.
In each of Klopp’s first two seasons, Liverpool permitted fewer than eight passes in the opposition half before attempting to win the ball back. Last season, that figure rose to just under 10, and here it doubled to almost 20. Happy to eschew a high-press and allow Tottenham’s defenders to pass the ball among themselves, Liverpool instead crammed all 10 of their outfield players into the middle-third.
Denied passage through the centre, Pochettino was left to rue setting his side up in such a narrow manner, and Liverpool duly reaped the knock-on benefits. Tottenham full-backs, Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose, felt compelled to detach themselves from their centre-backs to provide much-needed width — and switch-of-play options. Scenting blood, Liverpool’s task was simple: press aggressively as soon as Tottenham enter the middle-third, win the ball, and exploit the yawning gaps behind both Trippier and Rose.
Salah stayed forward in the defensive phase to make this happen, and only a plethora of poor final actions from both he and Mané prevented Liverpool from cashing in sooner. Salah was particularly culpable; the Egyptian missed a big chance to reprise his February opener, after Dier once again coughed up possession under pressure.
But when first blood was finally drawn by Gini Wijnaldum, it originated from a similar situation. Barred by Liverpool from playing through the middle, Toby Alderweireld instead attempted a switch-of-play that the typically effervescent Roberto Firmino shut down at source. Mané, free for the umpteenth time behind Trippier, then won the corner-kick at which Michel Vorm fatally flapped his arms. Vorm is dangerously diminutive by goalkeeping standards, but his manager’s narrow set-up and the exposure it visited upon his centre-backs hung the Dutchman out to dry.
Direct passes in behind Liverpool’s defence were integral to Tottenham’s 4-1 victory in the same fixture last season. And, taking their collective cue from that success, Tottenham’s defenders attempted a whopping 45 long passes between them here, as compared with Liverpool’s 25. And although Christian Eriksen occasionally ran rightward (off Wijnaldum) to collect them, Liverpool both closed them down better and defended them better. Up to half-time, neither Joe Gomez nor Virgil van Dijk were outfoxed once in the channels by Tottenham’s front-two. Grim memories of the horror show exhibited by Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren one year prior were well and truly banished.
Gomez did, however, struggle somewhat after Pochettino’s half-time switch to what looked like a 4-3-2-1 system — with Moura and Eriksen to the left and right of Kane respectively. Freed to play wider, Moura more regularly troubled the space to Gomez’s right, which the still-raw Trent Alexander-Arnold really should have been filling — particularly with his side already a goal to the good.
Moura rattled a post early in the second-half, after besting Gomez on the left-touchline — the only one of five attempted dribbles the Brazilian completed here. But any sense of shifting momentum was absent, as just moments earlier Mané had forced a vital save from Vorm. The origin of that chance was depressingly predictable for weary Spurs fans: Dembélé, devoid of passing options, pickpocketed on the edge of his own defensive-third. Configured in their prematurely festive Christmas Tree formation, Tottenham were still far too narrow. And Dier’s occasional drifts into right-sided centre-back positions, when his side had possession, failed to reduce Liverpool’s fearsome counterattacking threat by much either.
It took Pochettino until the hour-mark to rejig his side into the 4-2-3-1 in which they look most comfortable. But by that point Firmino had put the game beyond his hosts. Freedom afforded to both Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson finally paid a dividend for Liverpool, as the latter availed of a lack of pressure to play Mané in behind a flat-footed Trippier.
Naby Keita’s subsequent sitter then neatly summed up the ease with which Liverpool played through Pochettino’s high-press. Caught between both Gomez and Alexander-Arnold, Moura chose to press the former and got dribbled for his troubles. Gomez then played a straight pass to Firmino, who had dropped into his own half with Alderweireld in tow. Availing of the Belgian’s loose marking, Firmino then promptly spun and picked out Mané’s diagonal run, creating a 3-on-2 situation in Liverpool’s favour. It was devastatingly simple, and had the Senegalese picked out Salah rather than Keita, Liverpool’s margin of victory surely would have been greater.
But the Reds’ late wobble, up against Spurs’ Moura-Kane-Lamela-Son frontline, suggests that all is not yet entirely well in the Anfield camp. Prior to Lamela’s late set-piece consolation, Liverpool offered up two excellent scoring chances that a side more adept at sitting deep would likely not have allowed. Both Kane and Eriksen may have fluffed Lamela’s byline cross on 66 minutes, but the ease with which Tottenham released the Argentinian in behind Robertson should worry Liverpool fans. As will the late chance Son fashioned for Lamela, when both wide players filled the empty spaces either side of Jordan Henderson, and Henderson himself failed to close down Lamela’s resultant strike.
Since that infamous October thrashing at Tottenham’s hands, Liverpool’s defensive record has undoubtedly been impeccable — superior to any other side in the division, in fact. But there remains a nagging sense, fueled also by their shaky finish at Leicester a fortnight ago, that this side still doesn’t really know how to shut up shop. Time, and imminent engagements against Chelsea and Manchester City, will tell. But with five wins out of five and a coherent Plan-‘A’ that his players completely comprehend, Klopp is firmly ahead of Pochettino in the chasing pack pecking-order. Time, for the underachieving Argentinian, may soon start to run out.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112