16 Conclusions: Tottenham 1-3 Liverpool
1) For an insight into the difference between Tottenham and Liverpool, one need look no further than how they are affected by injuries. Shortly before Thursday’s game it emerged that Fabinho was unavailable, depriving the champions of their third centre-half with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez still on the sidelines. Joel Matip would be accompanied by Jordan Henderson, both of whom were close to impeccable.
In the case of the hosts, Harry Kane was substituted at half-time after condensing his biannual ankle problems into one game. Without him, Tottenham had one shot in the second half – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s wonderful goal from outside the area – and three touches in the penalty area while chasing the game.
It was always a fool’s errand to rely on the Kane and Heung-min Son partnership as their only source of attacking sustenance. Build around them and give them a platform to flourish – it would be stupid not to – but at least pretend to try and stop putting all your eggs in that one basket, lest some inevitably fall and break. They are a truly sensational tandem but the lack of alternatives when that fails to produce is astounding. Liverpool are rattling through internal solutions while Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior and Lucas Moura watched from the bench as an isolated South Korean failed to get within 20 yards of the opponent’s goal. Cheers, Son’s crying.
Liverpool and Spurs played almost exactly the same number of passes in that game (584 vs 586), but Liverpool successfully completed 11 within 20 yards of the opposition goal, whereas Spurs completed… zero.
— Grace Robertson ⚧ (@GraceOnFootball) January 28, 2021
2) Matip, of course, was confirmed post-match by Jurgen Klopp to have sustained an injury that “looks serious”, hence his removal at the break after a commanding first half. It remains to be seen how Liverpool respond to this latest puzzle without at least typing in Steven Caulker’s number before hastily deleting it, but that was the sole dark lining to this long-awaited silver cloud.
They were excellent, preying on weaknesses and hunting with ferocity and swagger like the Liverpool of old. At their best they overwhelm opponents, forcing errors in every area of the pitch and moving with purpose. At their worst, they go five games without a win and four games without a goal before conjuring one of their best performances of the season away at a supposed close rival. Liverpool are not the best team in the country right now – they visit them on Sunday – but it will require more than four below-par weeks for them to relinquish the title it took 30 years to win.
3) Tottenham have been outshot in every home Premier League game they have played against current top-half opposition so far this season. In total, they have managed 40 shots against Everton, West Ham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester and Liverpool, allowing 92.
The approach can work. Two of those matches ended in victory. But when it doesn’t the blow of defeat is emphasised under Jose Mourinho more than any other manager. It is bad enough losing a game in any circumstance but fans at least need something tangible to take away as consolation: effort, desire, intent. They want to see proof of the wider picture in the absence of the smaller details. It is easier to support the team, the manager and the players when the journey is clear, even if the destination is obscured.
It must be infuriating to watch a side so lacking in authority when told to pick on teams their own size. Mourinho has had more than a year in charge and we still feel no closer to seeing a sustainable idea of what he wants to do.
4) Those opening ten minutes should be hung up in the Louvre. Thiago insisted on taking the kick-off to ensure he could stat pad his pass accuracy; Matip responded by launching it straight to Serge Aurier. Liverpool should have scored after one minute and 50 seconds when Sadio Mane nodded a Trent Alexander-Arnold missile down for Mo Salah to return the one-two, only for the Senegalese to decide that caressing it into the far corner with his stronger right foot was considerably less fun than making an utter hash of it with his left.
Tottenham’s response was to construct a quite brilliant team goal, Aurier combining well with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Steven Bergwijn before Tanguy Ndombele and Kane helped play Son in to slot past Alisson. Sandstorm by Darude had barely stopped whirling around the entirely empty stadium by the time it was ruled out for an armpit offside. Liverpool, having learned their lesson, immediately gave the ball away and afforded Kane the space and time to almost find Son’s run once more.
Son then tried a half-volley from 70 yards out that nearly trickled out for a throw-in.
To round it all off, Steve McManaman uttered the actual phrase, “it’s only on his throat,” his comical pause before delivering the final word perhaps betraying his regret at slightly downplaying Mane shoving his forearm directly into Joe Rodon’s neck.
Up the Barclays.
5) Do check the Ndombele run that preceded the disallowed Son goal if you can. Thiago nipped away at his heels but he was pissing in a whirlwind. Tottenham will need his ability to carry the ball like that more than ever in Kane’s absence; he might be their next best link to Son.
6) If that Kane touch to set up Son’s attempt after 21 minutes was deliberate then he is a witch. The England captain essentially controlled a long Hugo Lloris kick by letting it roll down his lower leg and straight into the path of Bergwijn, who helped it on to Son before Alisson’s save.
The best bit was Henderson appealing for some sort of infringement. Still not entirely sure what. Unless PGMOL has changed another rule and unfathomably good first touches that go completely overlooked are now outlawed.
Ridiculous first touch from Kane after that Lloris long ball there.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) January 28, 2021
7) There were two glorious pieces of defending in the first half. Matip looked in danger when Dier found Son with a sumptuous raking ball from deep in the 20th minute, but the Cameroonian galloped back chaperoned the forward off the ball, jogging away as he tapped it to Alexander-Arnold to start a Liverpool move.
A little later, and with the visitors starting to find their groove, Roberto Firmino slipped Mane in with a sharp through ball but Joe Rodon did incredibly well to thwart him with a perfect sliding tackle right on the penalty spot. The focus is so often on the attacking talent at the disposal of these two sides but both instances of world-class defending were a lovely reminder of the quality further back.
8) James Milner has been made to look his age exactly twice on a football pitch: as a 16-year-old when skipping past actual world champion Marcel Desailly to score against Chelsea and celebrate in a laughably oversized Leeds shirt; and as a 35-year-old piling into a 50-50 with Ndombele before discovering the Frenchman had masterfully spun him about five seconds earlier and was long scampering into the Liverpool half. The Tottenham midfielder is bloody good fun.
9) To clarify, Milner was actually really good. It is a fairly redundant sentence but still. And Georginio Wijnaldum alongside him was as brilliant as ever. Liverpool can fret all they want about whether to sign another centre-half this month or in the summer but replacing the Dutchman if he decides not to extend his Anfield contract will be much more difficult. He is precisely the sort of player whose impact and role in this team will only be truly appreciated from the outside when he is gone.
10) Liverpool probably deserved their goal on the balance of play but the frustration was two-fold for Tottenham. The decisive pass, lofted from Henderson into Mane, was only possible because Kane was hobbling around the pitch and couldn’t press effectively, thus allowing Liverpool’s captain to step out of central defence and pick his runners. The forward’s centre was simple enough to invite Firmino to tap in.
Henderson might have loaded the bullets but Tottenham’s gun wound was typically self-inflicted. Dier’s decision to try and shepherd the ball back to a reluctant goalkeeper instead of testing the structural integrity of the stands was straight out of the Harry Maguire school of non-defending. As Rio Ferdinand said at half-time: “Clear your lines and talk about it after.”
So many people complain about Dier but it was José who gave him a new deal. He’s a player José likes. He’s a player José sees as a first choice centre-back. Makes way too many mistakes. Alderweireld is older and slower but he should be getting in the team ahead of him.
— Noz Ahmed (@NozAhmed) January 28, 2021
11) It was symptomatic of Tottenham’s complete lack of resistance or competence for all three goals. The second came barely a minute after their own kick-off to start the second half, Liverpool instantly swarming them and doubling their lead when Alexander-Arnold capitalised on a poor Lloris save to score. Mane, whose effort it was the Frenchman parried to the closest red shirt he could see, then hammered an Alexander-Arnold cross into the roof of the net to make it 3-1 after Rodon followed Dier’s lead by attempting a clearance in his head and forgetting to put it into physical practice.
Mourinho blamed “individual mistakes” for the concession of “completely avoidable” goals recently, and indeed after this game. He technically wasn’t wrong to do so. But he must also see that his particular brand of cautious, rigid, low-risk and low-line football puts undue pressure on a defence ill-equipped to implement it, especially against such an energetic and effervescent team. It requires absolute unbroken concentration and perfect decision-making for 90 minutes against an elite, if out-of-form, attack. That really isn’t a realistic expectation, and certainly not of this defence.
To continue to watch individual mistakes and bemoan said individual mistakes as the sole reason for your undoing instead of devising a system and plan that reduces the likelihood of them being made is baffling. Don’t blame the trousers if you keep shitting yourself.
12) It will have pained him most that Liverpool’s crucial goals came in first-half stoppage time and little over a minute after the second half began. The only Premier League goals Tottenham had conceded from the 41st minute to the 50th since Mourinho’s appointment were penalties from Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy, and a pivotal Marcos Alonso strike in a 2-1 win for Chelsea last February.
That is the period when players are perhaps most susceptible to slips in focus: just before half-time and immediately after the break. Liverpool should not be having five unanswered shots and three quarters of the possession away during four minutes of stoppage time and two minutes of the restart. That is a failure on almost every level, from playing to coaching.
13) Let’s not do the handball thing. It’s boring and shit and interminable. What we should do, much like with the flowing move for Tottenham’s disallowed goal, is appreciate the excellence that was lost in the fumes of McManaman and Peter Walton’s palpable sexual tension.
Firmino did phenomenally well to hold the ball up. Henderson had launched it into the ether and Dier was manfully occupying the halfway line but could do nothing to wrestle the ball off the Brazilian. Thiago, Mane and Salah soon turned ostensible defence into breathtaking attack but it really was all about Liverpool’s centre-forward doing what he does best.
14) Whisper it, but that could be said for Liverpool’s entire attack. Firmino had three shots and three key passes. Mane had seven shots and one key pass. Salah, the greedy, selfish fella up top, had one shot and two key passes.
But the vital difference was in Alexander-Arnold’s performance. His assist was a little fortuitous perhaps but that is the kind of delivery that has been lacking recently, the sort that creates panic in defenders who have no idea how to handle it. It helps to play against this Matt Doherty, but even so. The match-winning right-back might have returned with typically perfect timing.
Goal. Win. Good night. pic.twitter.com/m9BfiGKSg1
— Trent Alexander-Arnold (@TrentAA) January 28, 2021
15) Hojbjerg’s goal was a delight. Credit to Bergwijn for bothering to run with the ball at Liverpool’s defence in the build-up, as that change of approach seemed to catch them completely off-guard. It might be worth revisiting that at some point.
He and Ndombele were the only Tottenham players to emerge with their reputations unscathed. Both had some really excellent moments in spite of what was around them. That is a midfield partnership that deserves more nurturing.
16) Sorry but the “individual mistakes” thing is worth a second visit. Liverpool ended the game with Henderson and Nat Phillips at centre-half yet the latest shot Tottenham had was Hojbjerg’s 48th-minute goal. They might have lost because of “individual mistakes” but they failed to win because of one individual’s mistake in setting them up so counter-intuitively. Tottenham were only in this match for as long as Kane was. Liverpool absorbed yet another mid-game injury of their own and improved. Two places and four points separate these two teams but they could not be further apart in their reaction to adversity.