After 13 games played, and a narrow win over title challengers Tottenham, Liverpool finally moved into first place in the Premier League. This season, Tottenham have been comfortable with sitting back and defending, with a focus on counter-attacking with few, quality chances. However, with counter attacks coming so sparingly against Liverpool, Spurs were required to defend with high intensity for most of the game. In this tactical rather than pulsating spectacle, we analyse the defensive set-up Spurs deployed, and how Klopp’s Liverpool side managed to grind out a win.
Liverpool lined up with the strongest team they could put together. Rhys Williams stepped in for the injured Matip, while Curtis Jones replaced Thiago Alcantara. Fabinho once again filled in for the injured Virgil van Dijk. In terms of general strategy, Liverpool sought to dominate from the off with Trent particularly aggressive in his positioning thus giving Salah the freedom to roam. Such was their dominance on the ball, Liverpool would complete 719 passes to Spurs' meagre 156 although ultimately they trailed in xG (1.09 vs 1.40) indicating they found it hard to be productive with their large swathes in possession.
Spurs lined up in 4-4-2, but when Liverpool entered their final third of the pitch, it would shift into a 6-2-2, with Sissoko tracking the overlapping runs of Robertson, and Steven Bergwijn tracking Alexander-Arnold. Giovani Lo Celso and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg were tasked with marking or shielding the Liverpool central midfielders, while Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min were tasked with stopping Liverpool from playing vertical passes into midfield from defense. Serge Auerier in particular put in a monstrous display, successfully making 10/11 tackles.
In our first example below, we see Robertson receive a pass from Henderson. Son shields Henderson from receiving a return pass from Robertson, while Sissoko leaves his starting position as a right-midfielder to press Robertson immediately. When Sissoko leaves his position, Giovani Lo Celso moves to the right-midfielder spot to cover Georginio Wijnaldum. Now, Robertson will be man-marked by Sissoko if he moves further into the Spurs half of the pitch.
Henderson could be seen for most of the game dropping into the backline, acting as a third center-back. This allowed Liverpool to push both of their full-backs up and into midfield, or into the final third of the pitch, while the front three attackers stayed narrow. On top of this, it allowed a smooth build up from Liverpool defense to midfield, as it created a three versus two advantage against the Spurs front two.
On the ball below is Curtis Jones (Liverpool's main conductor on the night with 105/112 completed passes). Here he has no forward midfield passing options because Lo Celso Pierre-Emile Højbjerg remain central, with the responsibility of man-marking Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah, all of which took turns dropping from the forward line into midfield to help with the build up.
Jones has no options, so he chooses to pass the ball to Robertson, however Spurs are prepared for this. Serge Aurier doesn’t have the responsibility of tracking the run of Robertson because Sissoko is still man-marking him. In doing this, it freed Aurier to mark one of Liverpool’s front three players. If play switched to the right side of the pitch, occupied by Alexander-Arnold, Bergwijn was given the same man-marking responsibility.
The benefits of having world class full-backs on both flanks are endless. While Robertson was effective on the left side, creating 5 chances and earning an assist, Liverpool also used Alexander-Arnold. However, he wasn’t as effective. Below we see Salah on the ball. Alexander-Arnold looks to make an overlapping run into space to either receive the ball and cross it, or drag his would-be man-marker, Ben Davies, out of position and create space.
Spurs react to the Alexander-Arnold run by allowing Davies to follow Alexander-Arold, while Sissoko and Højbjerg look to fill in the space between the Spurs backline. Bergwin tracks Wijnaldum into midfield. Salah is now presented with a packed Spurs penalty area, with Robertson and Jones as his passing options. Spurs are happy to offer Liverpool sideways passing options outside of the box, as long as it means that Liverpool stay out of the box.
As the game went on, space on the right hand side continued to open up. On the ball is Jones, pressed by Højbjerg. Substitute Lucas Moura covers Robertson and Sissoko covers Wijnaldum. With this set up, Moura almost acts as a right wingback considering how narrow the Spurs backline is. In doing this, it freed up space for Salah to drop into as Bergwijn is caught between him and Alexander-Arnold. Liverpool now had more options to attack with although ultimately they favoured the left side of the pitch with 44% of their attacks coming from this side.
Tottenham were able to execute the same defensive tactic in the middle and their own final third of the pitch, no matter how far Liverpool pushed them back. Here’s how they did it. In our first example, Lo Celso tracked the run of Robertson, while Jones looked for a passing option. Before Robertson had entered Spurs’ final third of the pitch, Aurier shifted to his right to prevent Jones from dribbling forward, while Højbjerg began to move into the Spurs backline taking Aurier’s place.
In the example below, Robertson is closed down by Moura, who rarely left his side. Aurier moves out of the Spurs backline to track Mané, while Sissoko moves into the right full-back position, making up a back four and allowing Moura and Aurier to press the wide spaces, and potentially create a turnover of the ball. What is also noticable is that Spurs are in a 4-4-1-1 shape here, with 10 men behind the ball and 80 minutes on the clock. A very defensive mindset, and difficult to break out of it, thus inviting copious amounts of pressure. Spurs have had a habit of throwing away games in the second half.
One of the interesting developments this season has been the rapid ascent of Reece James who has arguably been the best right back in the EPL. Whilst he isn't as technically as refined as Trent Alexander-Arnold at crossing the ball, or long passing.. he is not that far behind and in other areas he is demonstrably superior, for example in the air (75% success v 20% success in favour of James in aerial duels) and his general defensive positioning, with a better balance between defence and attack.
With Matip out, Jose targeted the half space between Trent and the inexperienced Williams as his key route to goal. We talked about it before the game and it proved to be the defining area of the pitch for the 90 minutes, with all of Spurs' major chances coming through this avenue. First of all we had the Son goal, where Trent was in the opponents half and instead of sprinting back to his position to catch up to Son, he decided to hound the man in possession Lo Celso. This should be a midfielder's job and by performing this action, he left his defence dangerously exposed.
As we can see from the below image, Trent is by the centre circle whilst Tottenham's most dangerous player is unmarked and ready to be unleashed against the most inexperienced defender on the pitch, Rhys Williams. It was only ever going to end up in a goal. This was shocking management by Klopp because Fabinho should have played down the right hand side, as he knows Son favours the inside left channel. Furthermore Trent's in-game tactical awareness was also poor. Whilst this should have been a warning sign for Liverpool, as we will see.. things nearly went from bad to worse.
In the second half, Jose put Bergwijn down the left. The Dutchman would make a number of dynamic runs in the left half space, latching on to flick ons by Son and using his strength to get away from Trent and Williams. Both times he failed to execute accordingly and Jose would be left ruing his luck...tactically Jose had nailed it and was seriously unlucky to not be rewarded for spotting this vulnerable aspect of Liverpool's backline. Liverpool's opponents this season should take a leaf of this approach by Tottenham but in truth you do need players of the calibre of Son to truly exploit it.
Jose was the beneficiary of a famous slip at Anfield which put paid to Liverpool's title hopes, thus allowing City to walk away with the title. Yesterday at the death, Tottenham's set piece positioning would go awry after an untimely slip left them outnumbered. This allowed the much maligned Firmino to take advantage of the uncertainty. He cleverly pushed away Alderwierald - who would also lose his footing - and plant the ball sweetly into the top corner. Cue pandemonium and heartbreak for a Spurs side who despite being second best for large spells of the game, had the better quality of chances in front of goal.