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Match Preview: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool [Sat 15 Sept 2018, KO 12:30]

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Venue: Wembley Stadium

Date: Saturday 15 September 2018

Kick-off: 12.30 p.m. (Sky Sports)

Referee: Michael Oliver

Assistants: Stuart Burt, Simon Bennett

Fourth official: Kevin Friend

League Form (last six):


Chelsea (a) [L 0-1]; Brighton & Hove Albion (h) [W 4-0]; West Ham United (h) [W 4-0]; Crystal Palace (a) [W 2-0]; Brighton & Hove Albion (h) [W 1-0]; Leicester City (a) [W 2-1]


Newcastle United (h) [W 1-0]; Leicester City (h) [W 5-4]; Newcastle United (a) [W 2-1]; Fulham (h) [W 3-1]; Manchester United (a) [W 3-0]; Watford (a) [L 1-2]

Goalscorers 2018/19

Liverpool (9):
Mané (4), Salah (2), Firmino, Milner, Sturridge (1 each)

Tottenham (9):
Moura (3), Kane (2), Alli, Trippier, Vertonghen, O.G. (1 each)

Recent News
— Henderson signs new long-term contract
— Robertson named Scotland captain
So far, so good.

Even if a haul of 12 points from 12 to start the campaign is only keeping pace with what Liverpool took from their corresponding 2017/18 fixtures at home to West Ham United and Brighton and away to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, this is exactly how a club with League title ambitions needed to start the season. In doing so, Jürgen Klopp’s men have become the first Liverpool team in the Premier League era to win its first 4 league games. Not since the 1990/91 season, when Kenny Dalglish’s reigning champions went on to win 12 of their opening 13, have Liverpool found themsleves nursing a 100% record going into their fifth game. It’s a noteworthy milestone.

Having eased in relatively gently, it gets interesting from here. The first international break is upon us, with all of its usual potential to wreak havoc with the players’ fitness, and six Champions League fixtures are stacked on the horizon, with PSG, Napoli and Red Star almost certain to provide a far stiffer test than Spartak, Sevilla and Maribor did last season. Liverpool’s next 11 games are no joke, and include trips to Tottenham, Chelsea, Napoli, Arsenal and visits from PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City. Successfully navigating that treacherous early run of fixtures will set Liverpool up perfectly for the season ahead; conversely, a few bad results could leave them with a hole to climb out of in two competitions and eliminated from a third.

It’s a tightrope, one which the team will start to walk early next Saturday afternoon with a trip to north London and, as it turns out, a chance to rectify the calamity of Liverpool’s last visit to Wembley as opposed to the gatecrashing opportunity of a lifetime that was initially promised. But before we get to the game, a little historical context.

These two clubs have been ever-presents in the top division since Bill Shankly’s Liverpool were promoted to Division 1 ahead of the 1962/63 season. At that stage, Tottenham were just a year removed from their last League title rather than their current 57 and counting, and Liverpool were about to embark on a run of 13 in 27 years. This means that the clubs have played each other at least twice per season for the last 56 years. That should make for a lot of history, right?

Well, there’s history and then there’s history. Personally, I started supporting Liverpool during the 1986/87 season, which covers a period of about 32 years. So I should have seen these clubs play at least 64 times in my life, not including cup competitions, and experienced this particular fixture over 30 times. But honestly? Despite the presence of some wonderful talents on the opposite side like Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham and Luka Modrić over the years, I can barely remember anything of real significance happening, which is why the bits and pieces of discussion I’ve seen online in recent times about the Liverpool-Tottenham “rivalry” has been news to me.

Rivalries are typically borne out of proximity first and foremost. So Liverpool’s major rivals became, and remain, Everton (a park separates the two clubs) and Manchester United (only 30 miles between the cities). Likewise, with Arsenal being the nearest major club to Tottenham, they became each other’s biggest rivals. There are obviously many, many examples of this the world over — Celtic vs. Rangers and Boca Juniors vs. River Plate are a couple of good ones.

Now, rivalries based on proximity tend to be the most timeless and bitter, but they can be intensified yet further if the two clubs are competing for the same silverware on a regular basis, and especially if that competition for trophies is extended over a long period of time. Again, you won’t find many better examples of this than Liverpool vs. Manchester United, Celtic vs. Rangers and Boca vs. River. Rivalries can develop between clubs located far away from each other based similarly on the struggle for silverware, but they neither tend to last as long nor be quite as bitter, based as they often are on transient teams over finite periods of time.

Liverpool and Chelsea, for example, were at each other’s throats for a few years from 2004—2009, but it never matched the enmity of the Liverpool-United rivalry and was undoubtedly inflated by the sheer number and magnitude of games played in such a short period of time (i.e. 20 meetings in 5 years, which included 6 European Cup semi-final and 2 quarter-final matches, a League Cup final and an FA Cup semi-final). It has since diminished quite a bit as the number and importance of these meetings has lessened.

The most timeless rivalries not borne out of proximity are the ones based on regional divisions, many of which have political or cultural elements attached to them as well. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid is the obvious one, or perhaps PSG vs. Marseille, but then these rivalries are deepened further by the size and strength of those clubs relative to the rest of the teams in their respective leagues.

From a Liverpool perspective, Manchester United is clearly the one that ticks all the boxes — it’s nearby, it’s the only English club with anywhere near the same level of success, the two clubs have been involved in huge matches against each other going back many years involving many different players and managers, and a rivalry already existed between the two cities that traces its origins back to the 1800’s, one that the clubs themselves became emblems of over time as they took turns dominating English football for more than 40 years.

A relative newcomer to success like Manchester City, for example, despite a similar level of proximity to Liverpool, ticks only a couple of those boxes at best. And Tottenham ticks even less. In over 30 years supporting the club I remember only one truly significant game against them, the 1994/95 FA Cup quarter-final at Anfield, and the fact that they subsequently lost the semi-final 4-1 to Everton reduces its significance accordingly. We’ve had 4 historically memorable games with City since 2014 alone — the 3-2 in April 2014, the 2016 League Cup final and the Champions League quarter-final tie last season.

I mean, what else is there? I suppose there’s a rich history of players representing both clubs. They used to have a habit of taking players off our hands that we no longer wanted (e.g. Ray Clemence, Paul Walsh, Ronny Rosenthal, John Scales, Oyvind Leonhardsen, Christian Ziege, Jamie Redknapp) and, later, gazumping us for a couple that we did (e.g. Willian, Gylfi Sigurðsson), and Liverpool took a few from them in return that didn’t exactly set the world alight (i.e. Paul Stewart, Neil Ruddock, Robbie Keane). However, judging by their respective transfer business this summer, the days of these two clubs shopping in the same supermarket aisles are over for now.

They’ve also started consistently competing in the same part of the League table as Liverpool over the past decade or so, and have even finished above us in eight of the last nine seasons. Perhaps that’s where the talk of a rivalry comes from, although in establishing the value of that particular record it should be noted that Liverpool finished outside the top-5 for six of those nine seasons and that these are the only eight occasions in the last 47 years where Tottenham have managed it.

And that’s about it, really. Of all the top-6 intra-rivalries, this one has to be the most vanilla. Having said that, in over three decades of watching the Liverpool-Spurs “rivalry”, I think the most irritated I’ve been was when the theatrics of Harry Kane and Erik Lamela stole a point from Anfield in the last game between the sides in February (yes, they played well, but were nonetheless on their way to a 1-2 defeat), so I suppose it could be about to ignite into something more — after all, in Kane, Dele Alli and Lamela, they have three of the most infuriating cheats in the League on their books and a manager who dismisses their behaviour as a “minimal detail”.

But until that day arrives, there is no rivalry with Tottenham. None. Others may feel differently, but to me all that’s at stake on Sunday is 3 points, same as there was against West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Leicester City, albeit against a definite top-4/potential title contender which does admittedly raise the stakes accordingly. I look forward to ignoring them as best I can once again after that, and I heartily encourage everyone else (on both sides, in fact) to do the same with this rivalry.

Recent Meetings
Mauricio Pochettino took over at White Hart Lane prior to the 2014/15 season. His early meetings with Liverpool did not go well, and even included Mario Balotelli’s only Premier League goal for the Reds:

31/08/2014   Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool (Sterling, Gerrard pen, Moreno)
10/02/2015   Liverpool 3-2 Tottenham (Marković, Gerrard pen, Balotelli; Kane; Dembélé)

Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield in the early months of the 2015/16 season. The spoils have largely been shared since then:

17/10/2015   Tottenham 0-0 Liverpool
02/04/2016   Liverpool 1-1 Tottenham (Coutinho; Kane)
27/08/2016   Tottenham 1-1 Liverpool (Milner pen; Rose)
25/10/2016   Liverpool 2-1 Tottenham (Sturridge x2; Janssen pen) — EFL Cup
11/02/2017   Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham (Mané x2)
22/10/2017   Tottenham 4-1 Liverpool (Salah; Kane x2, Son, Alli)
04/02/2018   Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham (Salah x2; Wanyama, Kane pen)

Played: 9, Liverpool wins: 4, Tottenham wins: 1, Draws: 4, 26 goals (avg. 2.8 goals per game).

“We are creating what we believe to be the finest stadium anywhere in the world for spectators, visitors and the wider community, delivering a major new landmark for Tottenham and London.”

As mentioned, due to the fact that our opponents’ new stadium, a development they hope will eventually elevate Tottenham Hotspur to the status of one of the world’s biggest clubs, has fallen behind both schedule and budget, a return to “the home of football” beckons on Saturday. And it feels fitting to begin any preview of this game by talking about the new White Hart Lane because, while I’m no expert on Spurs, it seems to me that the stadium issue dominates everything about that club right now.

While Liverpool have been able in the last couple of years to quietly raise the capacity of Anfield to 54,000 for something in the region of £115m, the cost of Tottenham’s new stadium is rumoured to have ballooned to over £1bn for what will be a 62,000-seater ground, albeit one that will no doubt be stuffed to its toilet seat-shaped roof with corporate hospitality (and perhaps more importantly, include a micro-brewery and a cheese room).

The short-term consequences of that development, unless you’re a big believer in coincidences, have been obvious: while Liverpool have been free to sink massive amounts of money into improving Jürgen Klopp’s squad since the summer of 2017, bringing in the likes of Mo Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, Virgil Van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson for somewhere in excess of £300m and reaching a Champions League final in the process (which of course helped to pay for some of that outlay, as did the club losing its most valuable player at the time, Coutinho), Tottenham recently became the first Premier League club since the transfer window was instituted in 2003 not to make a single signing during the summer.

As a result, while the visiting team on Saturday will look very different from the one that took to the field against Mauricio Pochettino’s men for Klopp’s first game in charge of Liverpool in October 2015, and even from the one that lost 1-4 there less than a year ago, their hosts will look eerily similar. As in 2015, Tottenham are almost certain to start with Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane. Michel Vorm, Moussa Dembélé, Danny Trippier, Ben Davies, Harry Winks and Toby Alderweireld will also once again feature in Pochettino’s matchday squad. Son Heung-min and Eric Dier were there in 2015 but didn’t play, and both Danny Rose and Erik Lamela are still knocking around the club as well.

In other words, the only major changes seen at Tottenham in the intervening 3 years or so have been to their stadium — Pochettino’s squad is strikingly similar, and it’s hard to believe that’s been by choice.

The 0-0 result at White Hart Lane in Klopp’s first game left the clubs a point apart, in 7th and 10th respectively. Since then, Liverpool have drastically outspent their opponents and been to three cup finals, including the Champions League in May; in the same period, Serge Aurier, Vincent Janssen, Fernando Llorente, Lucas Moura, Davinson Sánchez, Moussa Sissoko and Victor Wanyama (quality-wise, a mixed enough bunch) are the only names of significance added to Tottenham’s ranks and, coincidentally or not, they’ve been to none, a couple of FA Cup semi-finals the closest they’ve come. And having only finished 2 points ahead of their rivals last season, they’ve now been outspent by them to the tune of over £100m this summer.

Regardless of positive, noteworthy results last season against the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Saturday’s opponents, regardless of finishing in the top-3 (and above Klopp’s Liverpool, of course) in each of the last three seasons, a run of consistency that Spurs haven’t managed since the early-1960’s, these are facts and it makes the job Pochettino has done there so far all the more impressive. In fact, to put this in terms that a Liverpool supporter would readily understand, I dare say it’s Benítez-esque in some ways, obviously leaving aside the silverware and relentless success in Europe that Pochettino has yet to achieve.

I’m thinking in particular of the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, when Liverpool’s handful of world-class talents (Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina) anchored a tough, streetwise team that was good enough to lose only 6 games out of 76 in the League across successive campaigns but, unfortunately, not to win a trophy. Not only does Pochettino’s best points total (so far, at least) equals Rafa’s (86), over the last three seasons (between 2015/16 and 2017/18) Tottenham have lost 17 games and gained 233 points — in the three seasons between 2006/07 and 2008/09, Liverpool lost a virtually identical 16 and gained 230 points, and the Achilles heel of both teams was the same (too many draws — 32 for Liverpool over three seasons vs. 27 for Spurs). Neither team won a trophy over those respective periods.

The club was, of course, well on its way to the verge of administration by the time that team began to break up, so we should be no strangers ourselves to a manager having one hand tied behind his back by a lack of funds. However, given the circumstances, Pochettino’s situation perhaps bears a more obvious comparison with the job Arséne Wenger was obliged to do across north London when the Emirates Stadium was being financed and built. Some of our resident Arsenal supporters can correct me on the details if I’m wrong, but to me it’s as good an example as you’ll ever see of a football manager acting as custodian for an entire organisation.

In January 2004, Arsenal announced that they had signed José Antonio Reyes for what would eventually become a fee of £17.5m. It was the summer of 2013, with the arrival of Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for £42.5m, before they would spend as much on a player again, a period of almost 10 years during which time Wenger, under huge and incessant pressure to spend, expertly guided Arsenal through one of the most delicate periods in that club’s history.

He may have won nothing between 2005 and 2014, but he came damn close to winning both the Premier League (5 points off the top in 2007/08) and the Champions League (runners-up in 2006) and was able to maintain an unbroken record of Champions League qualification during those years which helped to pay for the new stadium, despite regularly losing his best players (e.g. Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas) and being obliged to promote youth players and sell in order to buy.

Wenger himself tells it like this:

(From a 2016 Four Four Two article):

--- Quote ---When we built the stadium the banks demanded that I signed for five years. I did it. Do you want me to tell you how many clubs I turned down during that period? The banks wanted the technical consistency to guarantee that we have a chance to pay [them] back. I did commit and I stayed under very difficult circumstances.
--- End quote ---

(From a 2017 Dominic King article in the Guardian):

--- Quote ---When we built the stadium, we had five to seven difficult financial years where we had to pay the money back; we had to be three years in the Champions League out of five and have an average of 54,000 people, and we didn’t know we would be capable of that. We had to sell our best players every year to survive, but we didn’t do three years out of five in the Champions League. We did five out of five.
--- End quote ---

Will Pochettino still be around to tell his story a few years down the line? Tottenham supporters will certainly be hoping so — he is a superb manager. Again, I’m no expert on Arsenal, but it seems to me that whatever else Wenger may have become, he was both loyal and smart during those years. Now Tottenham find themselves in a very similar position as their north London neighbours did just over a decade ago, and the same two crucial objectives must surely apply: keep their manager, and stay in the Champions League.

While it remains to be seen how loyal Pochettino remains (other big clubs with larger budgets will no doubt court him if they haven’t already, although the idea of staying and having control may appeal to him), the latter aim is already a bigger task for him than it was for Wenger.

Aside from brief, single-season challenges by Everton (in 2004/05) and Tottenham (2005/06), the top-4 was a closed shop for most of Arsenal’s critical, stadium-related years, up until the twin arrivals of Manchester City and Spurs as contenders in 2009/10 by which time another rival (Liverpool) was in financial distress. The task facing the Argentine now is to keep Tottenham in the top-4 season after season in a League where there are 5 other strong contenders punching their weight, all of whom have talented managers spending more than him. Even Wenger couldn’t keep the run going forever under the circumstances.

It’s hard not to admire the ambition that Tottenham’s new stadium represents; it’s equally as hard to envisage them adding much to a haul of two trophies in 27 years while they’re paying for it. The truth is that Daniel Levy would no doubt snap your hand, your arm, maybe even your shoulder off if you handed him a deal right now of 20 years’ straight Champions League qualification and 14 years of knockout stage exits (as Wenger achieved) in exchange for the Tottenham trophy cabinet staying empty for the next 10 years, and everything is now likely to be geared that way for quite some time.

Levy’s argument would no doubt be that those revenues would secure a bright future for the club. There is obvious truth in that, but I can imagine it’s a hard pill for the supporters to swallow. Will Harry Kane (25) or Christian Eriksen (26) be happy to sink their prime years into an uphill struggle? It remains to be seen, because as good as Spurs are, a Premier League title or even a Champions League final would represent stunning over-achievements as things stand. I don’t know if their Arsenal counterparts ever really made peace with the same scenario while the Emirates was being built and paid for, but it’s a reality that Spurs fans may have to get used to. The silver lining is twofold: (a) they haven’t lost anyone yet, as the Gunners regularly did during their fallow years, and (b) Arsenal supporters had recent glories to torment them, something Tottenham fans won’t have to worry about.

Team news:
Moving on to Saturday’s game: with no new additions in the summer the personnel at Pochettino’s disposal should be well known to Klopp by now, but the Tottenham manager still has a number of ways he can go to keep his opposite number guessing.

The only 5 ever-presents for Spurs so far are Veronghen, Eriksen, Alli, Moura and Kane, but Alderweireld, Davies, Dier, Sánchez and Trippier have all started three apiece and Lloris only missed the Watford game through injury. That’s the spine of this team, and it’s a very good one — Son, whose recent success at the Asian Games with Korea might be the best thing that’s happened to Tottenham this season given that it spares him 21 months’ military service, has only made a single substitute appearance so far and has scarcely been missed, loss to Watford aside. Elsewhere, the Argentine has made excellent use of his squad, with Dembélé starting two, Aurier, Rose, Sissoko and Vorm one each, and substitute appearances for Lamela, Llorente and Winks. Wanyama has yet to feature but was on the bench at Vicarage Road.

Tottenham’s starting XI vs. Liverpool will also be dictated by what formation Pochettino electes to start and this, perhaps, is the most intriguing unknown in terms of Spurs. Against Newcastle and Manchester United, they went with a back-four; against Fulham, Watford and in this fixture last season, it was a back-three. They appear equally comfortable with either, but given that Liverpool’s formation is, on the surface at least, identical to their last Wembley visit, and given that it worked so spectacularly well for Spurs that day, we can probably expect a back-three, in which case Alderweireld and Sánchez will start alongside the ever-present Vertonghen.

As regards the full-back positions, Trippier’s impressive form, which he’s carried with him from England’s successful World Cup campaign, and major threat from free-kicks should see him preferred to Aurier regardless of the formation chosen. On the other side, Danny Rose appears to be back on Pochettino’s Christmas card list, but he was defensively suspect on his first start of the season at Old Trafford and Davies is probably the safer bet to help marshal Liverpool’s explosive right-hand side. Therefore, barring any unforeseen knocks picked up on international duty, I think we can expect to see something very similar on Saturday to Tottenham’s starting line-up against Fulham, their only other home game of the season.

Tottenham (probable): Lloris; Alderweireld, Sánchez, Vertonghen; Trippier, Davies; Dier, Alli, Eriksen; Moura, Kane.

For their opponents on Saturday, expectations are rather different. Despite valiant attempts by many to heap as much pressure as possible onto Jürgen Klopp’s shoulders, we all know it remains a realistic possibility that the League title may once again elude Liverpool. Despite the money spent and the quality of his squad, as long as Pep Guardiola’s (even more expensively-assembled, remember) Manchester City remain historically, record-breakingly consistent, even hitting the 90-point mark for the first time in the Premier League era would guarantee Liverpool nothing.

A title challenge, however, is a must. That’s what it’s all about now. While a couple of seasons out of the top-4 could be devastating for Spurs based on the loss of Champions League revenues in the context of their stadium repayments, a similar scenario would be devastating for Liverpool primarily in so far as it would affect the club’s ability to win the damn thing. The visitors to Wembley on Saturday are looking beyond top-4 consolidation: they’re looking to right the wrongs of Kiev, they’re looking to win a first League title in 29 years, they’re looking to pick up their first silverware since 2012. They’re looking to win — period — and whether they ultimately do or not, everything is now geared towards that objective for what may be the first time since the Premier League kicked off in August 1992.

As mentioned, Saturday will mark the first occasion this campaign that Klopp’s men have faced a fellow top-4 contender. Last season, Manchester City demonstrated the importance in this League of being a flat-track bully when the occasion demands it. They won 23 out of 28 against the division’s bottom-14 teams for a haul of 74 points, only a single point shy of Liverpool’s overall total.

However, despite a few dire results here and there (for example, winning only 2 of 6 against the bottom-3), Liverpool weren’t miles behind City in this context. Guardiola’s men dropped 10 against the bottom-14 while Liverpool dropped 19, but that total was complicated by the matter of two Merseyside derbies. And the Reds have started this season pretty well on that score too, with a 100% return from fixtures so far against teams that finished 9th, 11th, 13th and 15th last time around. The fact is that, had the 2017/18 Premier League been decided solely on the 28 games against the bottom-14, the Reds would have been within single digits of City.

Instead, they finished 25 points adrift, suggesting that the major problem was elsewhere. Indeed, if Liverpool are going to achieve what we all want them to this season, significant improvement will be required against the other members of the top-6: whereas City won 8 out of 10 against those teams on their way to claiming the League title in May with 100 points, Liverpool won only 2 out of 10, and none away from home.

This was all the more surprising because during his first two seasons in charge, Klopp maintained a superb record against the other members of what has now become a permanent top-6. Up to and including the 4-0 win over Arsenal at Anfield in August 2017, his record in all competitions against these sides was 1 loss in 22, including 11 wins; since then, even including the Champions League tie against City, it’s been 3 wins from 11 (all against Guardiola’s men, funnily enough), and only 7 points from 27 in the League. Saturday represents the first chance to start putting that right.

Team news:
While his opposite number has shuffled his deck somewhat in the opening 4 games of the season, Klopp has made very few changes to his starting line-ups so far (only Henderson for Keita at Leicester), and the likes of Sturridge, Shaqiri, Lallana and Fabinho have been used sparingly (exceedingly sparingly in the case of the Brazilian).

Given results so far, that’s likely to be the case again, although the same proviso about unforeseen knocks and fatigue suffered on the international break applies here too. In particular, while Manchester City’s Brazilian contingent were spared the trip, Alisson and Roberto Firmino will be kicking off in Washington against El Salvador at 1.30 a.m. on Wednesday morning British time, as part of something called the “Chevrolet Brasil Global Tour”...ridiculous. While Liverpool’s goalkeeper should be fine, there may be a chance for Sturridge to start his first game of the season instead of Firmino if the latter returns fatigued from Brazil’s global adventures, especially with PSG coming up the following Tuesday.

If the home side will be more or less identical personnel-wise to the one that dismantled Liverpool 4-1 last season (Dier and Moura for Winks and Son likely to be the only changes) but liable to spring a surprise with its formation, the opposite is true of Liverpool — the formation is similar to what it always is, but the personnel is what I’m hoping will shock Tottenham a little bit.

Of the 12 players who have started games for Liverpool this season, only Gomez, Henderson, Milner, Firmino and Salah were in the starting XI last October. Liverpool’s hopes of a better result this time around will, to a large extent, rest with those other members of the squad in the frame to start at Wembley, beginning with the club’s leading scorer so far, Sadio Mané, who was suspended last October.

The biggest difference that Kane, Eriksen, et al. will find on Saturday is, of course, in the area of the pitch where they wreaked the most havoc on Liverpool’s last trip to Wembley, and I’m hopeful this will play a huge part in deciding the game. Only Gomez, phenomenal for Liverpool this season as a centre-back but playing at right-back that day, survives from the beleaguered back-five of Mignolet, Gomez, Lovren, Matip and Moreno. The upgrades represented by Alisson, Van Dijk and Robertson in particular are immense, while Gomez has excelled in the opening four games after waiting so long to be given a chance in the centre.

Lovren’s early meltdown was obviously key in this fixture last season — his lack of awareness and decision to allow a reachable pass to go over his head led directly to Tottenham’s first (see below), and the Croatian’s performance was sufficiently erratic that the manager took the unusual step of substituting him after only 30 minutes.

However, a quick look at Tottenham’s other goals that day paints a picture of an entire back-8 that was bereft of organisation and leadership in general, and entirely at the mercy of one of the most effective counter-attacking teams in the League as a result.

For Tottenham’s second, Milner was the closest to Son as he finished Kane’s pass, with Lovren and Gomez out of the picture a good 15 to 20 yards up the pitch.

For their third, a relatively harmless free-kick into the middle of 4 Liverpool defenders saw Matip head the ball directly to Alli, who for some reason has been left in yards of space on the edge of the penalty area.

And for the fourth, another free-kick, this time one that Mignolet flapped at and Liverpool hopelessly failed to clear during the ensuing melee, while also managing to leave Tottenham’s most prolific goalscorer unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box.

Perhaps this should have come as no surprise: Liverpool had started the 2017/18 season with massive question marks over its defence in general and went into the Spurs game having kept only 3 clean sheets in their first 8 games, conceding multiple goals against Watford, Manchester City and Leicester in the process. When things went well for Liverpool in the early weeks of last season, it was inevitably down to the front-3. When the team was obliged to lean on its defence and goalkeeper in any notable respect (e.g. to see out a win at Watford, when Mané was sent off at the Etihad), they folded like 5 bockety deckchairs. The 4-1 defeat to Tottenham represented rock-bottom — Liverpool would concede more than once only 5 more times in their remaining 29 League games, and only 3 of those with Van Dijk anchoring the defence.

But while their first four opponents this time around aren’t exactly freescoring teams, there has been a very different feel about Liverpool’s defence in the opening weeks of the 2018/19 season.

I’m no tactical expert but, to me, a key theme of Klopp’s Liverpool since his arrival in October 2015 has been the struggle for, and trend towards, control. As it probably should be with any team that’s aiming for consistent, major success.

During the manager’s first season in charge (2015/16), Liverpool mixed the sublime (mostly the Europa League run, but also the 4-1 win at Manchester City) with the ridiculous: they lost 2-0 leads at home to Sunderland, Newcastle and away to Southampton, lost the lead twice at home to Arsenal (1-0 and 2-1), won 5-4 at Norwich after being 1-3 behind, and so on. These were wildly fluctuating games where you got the impression that Liverpool were simply reacting to circumstances outside of their control rather than being able to exert any real influence on proceedings (beyond scoring the next goal, obviously).

The following season (2016/17) began in a similar vein, with Klopp’s team going 4-1 up at the Emirates before having to hang on at the end for 4-3. Later in the season, they would go on to lose the lead twice at Crystal Palace (pegged back at 1-0 and 2-1 before winning 4-2) and lose a 3-1 lead on their way to a 3-4 defeat at Bournemouth. And last season (2017/18) saw the same tendency towards chaos exhibited again all too often, most notably in losing a 3-0 half-time lead in Seville but also in failing to see out a win after getting themselves 3-2 in front of Watford in the season’s crazy opener, losing 2-0 leads at Arsenal and West Brom, and allowing Manchester City back to 4-3 at Anfield in January after going 4-1 up.

Most of all, when Roberto Firmino’s second of the evening hit Alisson’s net in the 68th minute to make it Liverpool 5-0 Roma in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final last April, the Italians had absolutely no business getting themselves to within an aggregate goal of Liverpool by the end of the second leg a week later. From 5-0, Liverpool were outscored 2-6 over the remaining 120 minutes or so of the tie. And while the argument could certainly be made that Roma were gifted a couple of penalties for phantom offences or that fatigue and injuries played a part (they did), a fundamental absence of game intelligence was also a major reason for what transpired.

It happened again vs. Real Madrid in the final once Salah left the pitch (other factors were undoubtedly more influential in the outcome of the game, of course, but Liverpool did retreat into their shell after a promising start rather than implementing an effective plan b), against Manchester City when Mané was sent off (1-0 and in the game to 5-0 and embarrassed) and against Tottenham, where Liverpool were still in contention at 1-2 despite Lovren’s disastrous start but allowed the wheels to come off once again in a 1-4 rout.

It’s difficult in the moment, in the throes of control being lost, for a manager to influence any of this from the sideline. All he can do is make a substitution or two, but what if the players he has to choose from are likely to fare no better? Key attributes in preventing such collapses, such as composure, anticipation and decision-making, are very difficult to teach or learn, dependent as they are on so many other factors. For example, you might expect someone like Virgil Van Dijk, with all of his varied physical and technical qualities, to show quite a bit more composure than a player who’s a bit shorter, a bit slower either physically or mentally, perhaps with a less confident temperament, with a heavier touch or a slighter build. And even if you could effectively coach individuals to improve in these crucial areas of the game, this is a team sport — just one player out of step with his teammates, maybe someone naturally given to panic or confusion a little bit more than the others, is like pulling a thread from a seam.

Uncertainty spreads throughout a team faster than just about any other emotion, and that’s why qualities like mentality and technical ability are so important in a squad, both individually and collectively. You can have a couple of freescoring centre-forwards, one of them a candidate for the most talented to ever set foot into your club, a couple of young magicians behind them and an experienced leader, arguably the best player to ever play for your club, anchoring it all from midfield, but if you don’t know how to navigate your way to a 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea’s reserve team and not lose a 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace, then you’ll win nothing (and in 2013/14, Liverpool, as good as they were, won nothing). Composure, anticipation and decision-making; mentality and technical ability. These are the qualities that give you control, and the manager, together with Michael Edwards, has been gradually adding these ingredients to his team over the past couple of years.

Control is the most important thing you can have in football, at least if you want to be consistently successful, and it comes in many different forms. What it essentially means is that you make the game go in the directions you want it to go. So, for example, Guardiola’s possession-based “tiki-taka” and Mourinho’s more defensive, counter-attacking style have seen both men earn multiple league titles across multiple countries and the same number of Champions Leagues in their managerial careers. Barcelona circa 2011 would have appeared to have more control of games with the sheer percentage of possession they typically enjoyed, but Inter the previous year had just as much control without the ball (that team remains one of the most impressive results-machines I’ve ever seen). Both were putting the opposition in positions where they could hurt them and were equally successful, but in very different ways.

Klopp spoke explicitly about control after the 3-0 win over Manchester City in the first leg of last season’s Champions League quarter-final, a game where the wheels didn’t come off but where a similar pattern formed during the second-half. “The result is not what we expected but we needed to play more football in the second half. They did not have a lot of chances but we didn’t play much football ourselves…If we could control the game better against a team like Man City and not give the ball away we would be closer to them in the league.”

Well, that’s about as explicit a call as you’ll ever hear a manager make in public about his team’s shortcomings. But, of course, Liverpool had absolutely controlled the game in the first half, not by bossing possession necessarily (difficult to do that against City) but by putting their opponents exactly where they wanted them. The first came from Manchester City losing possession deep in Liverpool’s half, with Mo Salah given the freedom of Anfield down the other end of the pitch to latch onto Milner’s long pass; the second and third similarly came from interceptions, this time deep in City’s half. If there’s a reason why Klopp has a good record against Guardiola since his arrival in England (4 wins out of 6), it’s that he has regularly found a way to turn the greatest virtue of the Spaniard’s team (the ability to monopolise possession of the football) against it: a way to control the game.

It is not, however, possible to press high and play full-throttle “heavy metal” football for 90 minutes every game. And so City came back in the second-half of that game in April, and Roma did the same later the same month. And when they did, Liverpool faltered.

Fatigue was absolutely an issue in both legs against the Italians — with Oxlade-Chamberlain gone for the season after the first leg, Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum were the only three specialist midfielders left in the squad. As a way of resting tired bodies during Liverpool’s twin-assault on a sixth European Cup and securing a top-4 finish in the league, Klopp was forced to be creative e.g. by playing Gini in an unfamiliar no. 6 role and drafting Alexander-Arnold into the midfield away to Chelsea. Elsewhere, the front-3 barely got a break and when they did the results tended to suffer accordingly, with the likes of Solanke and Ings of nowhere near the same quality. So fatigue was definitely a factor. That doesn’t explain why the second-half against Leicester at the weekend, only 4 weeks into the season, exhibited many of the same worrying signs as so many other games over the years where the results have simply gotten away from Liverpool sides that seemed powerless to do anything about it.

There clearly remains something of an issue there, which I suspect is less tactical than it is personnel-related. The good news is that this problem has improved immeasurably over the past couple of seasons as the manager has addressed glaring weaknesses in his squad, and it’s evidently getting better all the time. For those fretting about how “ugly” the win over Leicester was, it’s actually a wonderful thing that Liverpool won in the manner they did because it offers proof (not definitive by any means) that this team is heading very much in the right direction.

For example, while I accept that Leicester are a much-diminished prospect without Vardy and Mahrez, I would bet good money that the team Klopp picked for his first game as Liverpool boss in October 2015 — Mignolet, Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Milner, Lallana (Allen), Coutinho (Ibe), Origi — would have lost that game. No doubt in my mind. And I also have no doubt that the team which started last season with that 3-3 draw at Watford — Mignolet, Alexander-Arnold (Gomez), Lovren, Matip, Moreno, Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Salah (Milner), Firmino (Origi), Mané — would have struggled as well once the pressure came on in the second half.

It isn’t fair to place all of those aforementioned collapses over the years solely at the feet of Liverpool rearguards — these were collective failures, from back to front — but what I will say is that Liverpool’s defence this season has, for the first time in a long time, stepped up and won their team points over a number of games. When the game changed in the second half against both Palace and Leicester, their resistance stiffened. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence here and act like Christian Benteke or Kelechi Iheanacho provided the kind of test that Harry Kane will next Saturday, but come on, we’ve been here enough times over the years to know that James Maddison had “Danny Cadamarteri” written all over him (i.e. a player destined for little more in his career than to torment Liverpool over the course of a single afternoon). But when his chance came, Joe Gomez was there to snuff it out.

Across 90 minutes, a good 25 of which were spent giving that Liverpool defence a thorough examination in the second half, they created nothing beyond that Maddison chance. There was one individual mistake and they scored from it; otherwise the back line was impeccable, as it has been all season. Composure, anticipation and decision-making; mentality and technical ability (and 3 current international captains). An area that has been the root cause of so many problems for multiple Liverpool teams, now an apparent strength. This has been underlined by 3 clean sheets out of 4, the only goal conceded being a bizarre misjudgement by the goalkeeper, and man of the match awards for Van Dijk (vs. Palace) and Gomez (vs. Leicester). Alisson, meanwhile, although he made a huge error, is not an error-prone goalkeeper. It’s been a long time since we could say that about the man between the posts for Liverpool.

For the first time under Klopp, it feels like there’s a real unit back there that can pull its weight in terms of winning points. It would, therefore, surely count as a massive surprise if Tottenham ran riot again. And given that the front-3 can share 7 goals (same as the first 4 games last season) even when they’re feeling their way into the season and still quite a bit away from the heights they hit in 2017/18, that appears to leave one area of the team where issues remain.

The Heart of the Matter
The only sure-fire way for a manager to regain some semblance of control from the kind of chaos that engulfed Liverpool in the second-half against Leicester is by making substitutions. Klopp made three, but Matip’s introduction was too late to materially affect the outcome (89 minutes). It was the other two, on 71 minutes, that represented the manager’s key intervention, and they changed the course of the game almost immediately. Of course, fresh legs coming on will always have an impact in and of itself, and by the same token the home side had expended a lot of energy chasing a 0-2 deficit in the second half. But the poise and intelligence their introductions brought to the team was obvious and in marked contrast to what we had seen for the first 26 minutes of the half.

Shaqiri’s influence was clear — while Salah had found himself isolated as the most advanced Liverpool player in front of a struggling midfield and lost possession more than once by doing what came naturally to him and trying to make something happen, Shaqiri had clearly been instructed to hold the ball up, gain his team some territory and generally eat the clock up. And that he did, superbly. Keita’s influence was less directly obvious. Like Salah, he’s an explosive player whose dribbling in particular can make for spectacular contributions. That wasn’t the case here, but his introduction allowed Wijnaldum to drop into the departed Henderson’s no. 6 position and his athleticism allowed Liverpool to resume a higher press where they had been sitting ducks for Leicester’s own pressure on the ball. To be able to spring players of this quality from the bench in order to see out a Premier League win is further testament to how far Liverpool have come under Klopp — his first substitutes’ bench as manager comprised Bogdan, Touré, Allen, Ibe, Randall, Teixeira and Sinclair.

Going back to the game last October: it’s clear that one of the factors which benefitted Spurs was that the midfield trio of Can, Henderson and Milner collectively carried far too little in the way of technical ability to gain their team a foothold in the game, although Henderson’s pass to set up Salah’s goal that day was sublime. The back-4, as shambolic as it was at times, was offered little in the way of protection by those in front, particularly during a first half where the home side scored 3 goals. Somehow, they also managed to leave the front-3 of Coutinho, Firmino and Salah isolated for large periods of the game. Even the goal came with Salah the only Liverpool player ahead of the ball, vs. 7 of Tottenham’s outfield players:

The first 25 minutes of the second half against Leicester was déjà vu. Luckily Liverpool weren’t dealing with the likes of Kane, Son, Eriksen and Alli, but it’s a reminder again of how a game can go if the balance in the middle isn’t right. That front-3 of ours is magnificent, that defence and goalkeeper have been superb, but the strain on those 8 players will be immense at Wembley if the midfield is that rudderless and ineffective again.

Under the circumstances, I would be amazed (and a little terrified, if I’m being honest) if Keita and Wijnaldum didn’t start this one, even if Gini himself has had better days at the office than he did against Leicester. When Liverpool’s high press is in full effect, Jordan Henderson is in his fucking element. He was monumental during the first 45 and 70 minutes respectively of those Champions League first-legs against Manchester City and Roma. But when the nature of those games changed, whether out of fatigue or otherwise, when the team needed to find a foothold that didn’t revolve around full-throttle attack, his influence withered away to nothing and suddenly Roma, battered and humiliated for the guts of 70 minutes, were scoring two and looking a good bet to score more had the game continued for another 10 minutes.

There’s no point in blaming Henderson for that — he’s a phenomenal lad by all accounts and generally strikes me as a fine captain, and his performances in certain games and in certain scenarios are routinely of a good standard. And the manager clearly rates him, not so highly that he started him in first three games of the season and certainly not so highly that he didn’t spend £40m+ on competition for his position, but he obviously appreciates what he brings to the team. But he has weaknesses in his game, and they were glaring in the clumsy, hurried passes to Gomez and Van Dijk in quick succession that prefigured Leicester’s goal last Saturday. Henderson is only one part of a unit, but controlling a game isn’t necessarily his strong suit, and regaining it when it's been lost certainly isn't. Likewise, nor is it Milner’s (on the wing, maybe, but not in the centre) nor was it Can’s. These are all good players, but when too many of them line up alongside each other it often leads to the footballing equivalent of contagion we used to see in Liverpool's defence, where similar strengths and weaknesses amongst players in a particular area of the pitch create obvious opportunities for opponents to exploit and self-fulfilling negative consequences for Liverpool.

It seems that Fabinho was drafted in to address this very issue and I wish he was ready for this one, but it seems unlikely given that he has yet to feature this season. But Keita and Wijnaldum will bring a little bit of everything to Liverpool’s engine room, most critically comfort in possession under pressure and, certainly in Naby’s case, the ability to carry the ball forward, and will therefore present a more nuanced set of problems for Spurs to solve than Can, Henderson and Milner did last October. And the question of who lines up alongside them is proof of the technical and tactical flexibility they offer — if Gini, who can more or less play anywhere across the midfield, is selected in the “6”, you’re probably looking at Milner, but if he lines up elsewhere, it will be captain Henderson’s second start of the season. Personally, I think it has to be Gini back in the holding role, especially with Milner in the form he's in. If it's the same midfield we saw at Leicester, consider me worried.

Liverpool (probable): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Wijnaldum, Keita, Milner; Mané, Firmino, Salah.

Overall, this Liverpool side is a different animal to any that has visited Tottenham under Klopp, a fixture the club hasn’t won since that 3-0 win back in August 2014 during the early weeks of Pochettino’s reign. We’ve already seen that the home side’s personnel is very similar to that first meeting in October 2015; by contrast, Klopp’s matchday squad of 18 on Saturday is likely to only include Milner, Lallana and Clyne from 3 years ago (although, to be fair, Firmino, Lovren and Henderson were also at the club and unavailable for selection that day).

Tottenham are excellent, however it seems to me that these are two clubs going in different directions and I’m hopeful that Saturday will bear that out. One is desperate to ascend to the top of the pile, the other seems quite happy to stay where it is for now. Hey, many of us will know the feeling only too well of having to put our lives on hold financially while we get the house sorted. But as far as I’m concerned, this effectively means that Liverpool are already in the process of passing them — if you finish one place and 2 points ahead of an opponent that subsequently replenishes itself with the world’s most expensive (temporarily) goalkeeper and a new midfield while you spend nothing, then what exactly should you expect?

They remain a quality team with a quality manager and will be dangerous opponents, but I’m confident that Liverpool will be better. Whether that’s down to a front-3 which has already notched 7 goals in 4 games so far without getting anywhere near top gear, or a defence that has already ground out three results in a row while the team has been feeling its way into the season, Liverpool now have a number of different ways to win at their disposal. All that remains is for the midfield to finally step up with a controlled performance from start to finish, and wouldn’t this be just the perfect game to do it?

Discussion points
— Which 3 should get the nod in midfield?

— Given the quality of the opposition, is there any way that Fabinho features in the manager’s thinking for the first time this season?

— Should Bobby get a rest given his exertions with Brazil and with PSG to come on Tuesday? If so, will Sturridge take his opportunity to impress?

— Should anyone else be rested with PSG in mind? Or is it too early in the season to be giving players a breather?

Titi Camara:
Fucking hell! More content there than in most Sunday supplements. Nice one buddy :wave

Uncle Ronnie:
Can't believe <insert player name> got injured on international duty for us / them

Clint Eastwood:
That was a quality pass by Hendo for Mo's goal that Xabi would have been chuffed with. The freeze-frame shows how many bodies he has to beat.

Anyway, don't think this will be an easy game. They're a very well-drilled side. Two good attacks, two good defences, a lot of energy and a lot of pressing. Will be won or lost in midfield I feel.

"Must win"  ;D

I think it'll be a tough match and neither side is going to thrash the other. I think a narrow 2-1 win (for us, hopefully) or a score draw is most likely.


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