Spurs looked to take revenge on Liverpool for their 5-0 and 4-0 routs last season, and this was the new look starting line up that Mauricio Pochettino went with, who had a fantastic run-out the week before against QPR:
Rodgers had already found the recipe for defeating Pochettino by going with the diamond away from home against Southampton last season. In that game Coutinho through the middle hadn’t worked, and Sterling was brought on at the tip of the diamond to score with his first touch. They decided at that time that the possession game was not going to work (as they found out at Anfield), instead choosing to tighten up the central areas to block their possession, and beat them on the transition upon winning the ball.
This was arguably Liverpool’s strongest possible line-up, with Sterling playing centrally in his most dangerous position behind Balotelli and Sturridge, while injuries to Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson only worked as blessings in disguise. Javi Manquillo was unfortunate to lose his place against Manchester City on Monday and returned to the starting XI, while Sakho was able to make his first start of the season alongside Dejan Lovren, who shifted over to the right of centre to make way for him.
These are Liverpool’s two strongest centre-backs, both with the ball at their feet, and positionally (despite both having a shaky start). Both made errors in the game, but were able to clear up effectively enough. For Lovren there were a few misplaced steps out of the back line, while Sakho despite being the top passer in Liverpool’s squad last season (94%) made a glaring error by giving the ball away for a Spurs counter. Their partnership earned Liverpool a rare clean sheet, and interestingly enough – they have kept 9 clean sheets out of 15 under Rodgers when Martin Skrtel hasn’t featured.
Transition, transition, transition
Just how much Liverpool’s success was based around their work without the ball was evident in their statistics with it. The midfield three of Henderson, Allen and Gerrard – who are all capable of completing 100 passes in a dominant possession performance – only completed 98 passes between them. All three however were excellent. The attacking three of Sterling, Balotelli and Sturridge had pass completion rates of only 70%, 50% and 83% respectively. They too were ruthlessly efficient and had 13 shots between them.
This is where it is massively important to account for the execution of transitions in games. It is difficult to quantify and is therefore frequently lost in statistical analysis. If all you had to go by were the statistics above, you could easily be led to believe that Liverpool had a poor game and were not good with the ball, however that simply was not the case. Instead of dominating possession, they allowed Spurs to have the ball in safe areas and held their shape immaculately. Upon winning the ball they were explosive, broke into dangerous spaces behind the defence, reacted quicker, were far more direct and took greater risks (hence the ‘poor’ statistics).
Here are some of the shapes they took up throughout the game using Rodgers’ system:
This was the basic shape, with Henderson holding right and closing in centrally to create less room for Spurs to play in. Allen did the same on the left, while Gerrard sat in his deep role, able to drop between the centre-backs if Liverpool won possession. Sterling stayed at the tip, and from here he could move between the Spurs midfield line and defensive line to pick the ball up. Failing that he could drop deeper to receive in front of them and tempt one out of position to play in behind them.
Next you have the defensive shape, where the diamond flattens at the bottom. Sterling is pushed higher up to pressure the first pass along with Balotelli and Sturridge. The other three drop into a defensive block to screen the second pass. The closer the ball comes to them, the tighter Henderson, Gerrard and Allen get to each other, while a shift from one flank to the other sees them drift across the field together, almost synchronised.
This more attacking shape is a combination of Sterling dropping deep to receive in front of the midfield and pull strings from there, and Henderson and Allen using the possession spell to get themselves higher up the field. Gerrard drops between Sakho and Lovren, allowing Manquillo and Moreno to bomb forwards, and all three of the attacking midfielders will look to break the Spurs lines with a penetrating run.
Spurs Development Issues
There is no doubt that Spurs will go on to be a massively improved side under Mauricio Pochettino. He has already improved their organisation and ability to press without the ball, while they are also likely to enjoy a far greater possession and a surge in goals. The only problem for them in this fixture, was that they came up against a side who are two years ahead of them in their development, and if Liverpool can tighten up defensively they will prove very difficult for anyone to stop this season.
As for the shape of the side, Pochettino may be keen to provide more definition to his midfield by making the roles of each player clearer, or by bringing in new faces over the coming windows. In Paulinho, Capoue, Dembele, Bentaleb and Chadli he has five midfielders who are obviously not the same player, but do not have distinctively outstanding qualities which supersede their peers and make them indispensable. So in that regard, they are too similar.
To elaborate on this – Chelsea’s midfield three for example, may consist of Matic, Fabregas and Oscar. The first being a player who’s outstanding quality is his robustness, technical ability and reliability in a protective role, with the added bonus of being able to get forward and be a threat. The second is a player who’s outstanding quality is his through balls, and constant attacking threat despite being well-drilled and defensively sound. The third is a player with endless energy and creativity. If you chose one of them to play the role of the other, they would not be able to do it.
The same goes for Liverpool. They have the correct blend of midfielders, all suited to different systems, tactics, game situations, and Rodgers can select appropriately. Looking at the Spurs midfield you would struggle to see the same definition and I certainly feel this is something that Pochettino will try to address.
Breaking Liverpool Down
Without playing well, Spurs saw a lot of the ball. Despite Liverpool’s jugular being in the wide areas, they probed around the centre looking for a ball in behind, but this was difficult to come by. The two instances they had success were with balls over the top of Sakho and Lovren, where Adebayor looped over, and Chadli blasted at Mignolet. The only through ball on the floor that came off for them resulted in an offside and a last ditch challenge from Sakho anyway.
Here you can see just how difficult they were finding it to break Liverpool down on the edge of the box. They had three players surrounded by eight Liverpool bodies who pressed them aggressively any time they got near the area, and the Reds were able to comfortably close out the game.
This was an enjoyable game to watch, and the outstanding feature was Liverpool’s ability to press and counter with such fluidity. They had all the Brendan Rodgers trademarks of a quick start and a strong finish, with great shape from the midfield, and he will be delighted with the teams response to the Manchester City defeat.
Mauricio Pochettino will not be too downhearted after this defeat. His Spurs revolution is very much in its early stages, and he deserves plenty of time to pick up his squad and get them up to speed with the top four challengers. Sterling was the stand-out performer again, a 19 year-old who gets better with every performance and is now easily Liverpool’s most ‘important’ player. Jordan Henderson also stood out, as well as Alberto Moreno who rose above his mistake on Monday to deliver a first class performance rounded off with a brilliant goal.