This was a thrilling game of champions versus contenders that could have gone either way.
Liverpool underlined why Anfield is a fortress even with only 2,000 fans. Jurgen Klopp’s men were typically intense, but it is remarkable how a team can begin a game with draining levels of aggression, collective heart and desire, and still summon the energy to conjure a winner in the dying embers of the game. It has happened so often now it almost feels like a deliberate feature of their game, to lure teams into a false sense of safety before delivering the fatal blow. Tottenham were left stunned – they had been defensively brilliant but ultimately paid the price for a lack of adventure in the first half.
There was a lot of tension amongst Liverpool fans going into this game. Few managers evoke the emotions in them that Jose Mourinho does and with an impressive home record at stake, there was a sense that Mourinho was going to park the entire bus station and break the record. Memories of 2013/14 are never too far away even if the Reds have finally won the league title since then. And with Joel Matip injured, there was a fear as to what the Kane-Son combination could do. Games against Tottenham recently have been intriguing not least that despite Liverpool boasting an emphatic record of just one league defeat since Klopp took over, there was always the feeling of mere hairlines separating the teams in their games.
This was also a defining test for Jose Mourinho’s side. They have begun the season with a careful, guarded modesty in ambition that almost mirrors their approach on the pitch. But after seven points against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, as well a sensational 6-1 win at Manchester United, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore their presence in the title race, as much as it is tempting for some to conclude that they won’t win it because they are Spurs.
They might be Spurs, but he is still Mourinho, and on the evidence of this season, and in fact this match itself, still clearly capable of organising a team to stunt the attacking prowess of an opposition. Tottenham were overwhelmed in the first half by the home side’s ferocious application in ball recovery but despite being pinned back deep in their half, were able to stem the damage long enough for an equaliser that was a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky. After that, Mourinho’s side took control of the game and though Liverpool dominated the ball it was on the visitors’ terms.
Mourinho claimed afterward that the better team lost and one can almost see why he argued this: Spurs’ game-plan was to frustrate Liverpool and create on the counter. They had clear chances on the break but were undone by wasteful finishing. They lost to a deflected goal and a set-piece. Whereas other big teams, such as Guardiola’s Man City, have come to Anfield and drowned in the tide of pressure, Mourinho’s players dug their heels in and would have clawed a draw they were more than entitled to until that late, late, rocketing header from Roberto Firmino.
Liverpool were relentless with rampant waves of pressure embodied by Andrew Robertson and dominated with a staggering 74% possession and eleven shots on target to Tottenham’s two. But for a long time the game resembled red waves crashing upon an unbreakable white rock, until the very end. This was an immensely intriguing and tense affair set up deliciously by one side intent to play with the ball and the other relishing opportunities for the counter.
First Half – Gegenpress overwhelms Tottenham for thirty minutes
Curtis Jones justified his inclusion in the starting XI with a display of maturity in possession and impressive defensive coverage. He recycled the ball calmly without ever slowing Liverpool’s famous swift attacking play and ran with the ball with authority – the importance cannot be understated as there isn’t really another reliable Liverpool midfielder who can do this. In fact, it was his surge into Tottenham’s defence with the ball that created the first goal. Fabinho’s relocate to the defence has forced Klopp to change his midfield from one of just functionality and incredible hard-work to one with more attacking thrust.
The other positivity for the Reds was Rhys Williams mimicking Virgil Van Dijk’s immaculate long passing. The two youngsters have fitted in seamlessly, no doubt helped by experienced leadership in Jordan Henderson and Fabinho.
There has been a river of tributes recently from Liverpool fans for Gini Wijnaldum, possibly because they are aware he is certain to leave at the end of the season. Both he and Henderson today demonstrated why their selfless tactical discipline is instrumental to this Liverpool side. Tottenham defended in a very low block and it meant that when Liverpool’s defence received possession, Kane and Son were often in the midfield zone in front of a very compact 4-4-2 off-ball shape that restricted space for the Reds in the middle.
A common feature of the home side’s play was for Henderson and Wijnaldum to occupy the full-back spots to receive the pass and then allow both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to push higher and link play with Liverpool’s front three. This happened regularly in the first half, particularly with Robertson as he was able to outnumber Sergio Aurier with Mane by Winjaldum offering cover at the back. Liverpool created a good opening through this when Robertson charged in at the back and slid a ball across the Spurs’ box for Salah who unfortunately stroked the ball straight into Lloris.
The first half was essentially shaped by whether Spurs would be able to live with Liverpool’s intensity. The English champions were predictably compact and aggressive in their pressing, particularly in the channels. This prevented a lot of Tottenham counterattacks from unfolding simply by having their players herded into tight spaces and forced into clearances rather than being able to search for a pass out. Until they scored, Tottenham struggled for a foothold and were repeatedly pinned back by Liverpool’s hounding pressure, almost as if the home side relished losing the ball because they were planting traps for Tottenham.
This was gegenpress in a polished form wielded by the best team in England and possibly Europe. It was remarkable that Tottenham endured as well as they did.
There were however two issues here for Spurs. They were sitting so deep and were exhausted by the defensive work that their wingers did not have the energy to make counterattacking surges from deep. Spurs’ attack petered out as their fullbacks were predictably cautious in attacking forays while the midfield preferred to sit. Secondly, Rhys Williams might not be Van Dijk but he is still incredibly tall. The long-ball approach that teams employ against Liverpool has been less effective because the Reds’ defence is usually able to win duels in the air, and even when they don’t, are incredibly compact and able to pounce upon the second ball.
This would change in the second half.
Second half – Tottenham step forward and control the game
The tension ramped up considerably in the second half because Mourinho realised it was unsustainable to continue sitting deep. As Klopp once said, a low-block defence was essentially hoping for a lottery ticket. Now, Spurs stepped forward and pressed higher, and Liverpool were considerably more uncomfortable without Van Dijk and Gomez at the back.
Mourinho was right to say that Spurs created the better openings in the second half. Spurs didn’t exactly contest for the ball but simply pressured higher and found more openings with long-balls this time. Two chances fell to Bergwijn because suddenly Liverpool’s defence was having to deal with actual Spurs players make runs in behind Kane and Son. This created a nervy half for Liverpool in which there was a palpable tension in losing possession. There were also signs that Rhys Williams had grown fatigued and this time Tottenham were able to target him more effectively. In both Bergwijn’s decent chances, Williams failed in the air.
Mourinho often speaks about football being about forcing the team with the ball into mistakes, and Klopp’s men were aware of this. Henderson and Wijnaldum were typically omnipresent on the pitch to plug the holes left by Robertson and Alexander-Arnold pouring forward, but Spurs decision to both push higher and refuse Liverpool the time to build attacks deeply unsettled the champions.
Liverpool lacked a spark and although Firmino was dropping deep he wasn’t always finding space between the lines of a very compact Spurs team. Salah flickered with menace as he probed with darts of speed and quick exchanges, but Spurs crowded out the space he often liked to come into whenever Alexander-Arnold came forward. At the other side, Spurs brilliantly marshalled Mane out of the game, refusing him time to turn and run with the ball. It’s difficult to imagine a moment in the game when he was able to turn and actually run with speed at Aurier.
Although Liverpool had failed to create clear chances there was a sense that with their missed opportunities, Tottenham would pay, as they looked physically shattered by the end while Liverpool simply grew in the closing moments. They probed and pressured seemingly towards a draw until vitally at the end Firmino scored the decisive goal. Perhaps Klopp might enjoy the irony that it was a set-piece goal which defeated Mourinho, but one suspects he is far too above that sort of thing.
Was it deserved? This really boils down to one’s philosophy on football. Spurs carried out their game plan far better than Liverpool did but equally, it is difficult to deny how impressive the Reds were in the first thirty minutes, and how admirably resilient they were to yet again sneak out a last-minute winner when a draw seemed likely. The game proved that Mourinho has imbued Spurs with the sort of maturity and discipline that was absent previously but the bar is still, as ever, being set by Jurgen Klopp and his team of “mentality monsters.”