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Tactics Tuesday: Liverpool bypasses Spurs' midfield and exploits makeshift backline

Spurs gave up the midfield battle before it even started, while the defense left massive gaps for Suarez and co. to exploit with ease.

Paul Gilham

Welcome to Tactics Tuesday! Your regular host Brett Rainbow is still curled up in a fetal position after Sunday's battering, so I'll be filling in for today. I hope you'll forgive my lack of gif wizardry, but let's be honest, nobody wants to relive this debacle in a series of never-ending 10 second loops.

Left Backs

Both sides lined up with back-up right-footed right backs playing out of position on the left flank. AVB attempted to protect Kyle Naughton with a defensively sound winger in Nacer Chadli. Brendan Rodgers went full YOLO and deployed Philippe Coutinho in front of Jon Flanagan as usual, despite Coutinho's natural inclinations to drift significantly inside and leave Flanagan to his own devices.

This felt like a microcosm of each manager's approach to the game. Rodgers followed the "a good offense is the best defense" maxim and put the onus on his explosive attack to keep Spurs from generating anything of their own. AVB, on the other hand, took a more reactive approach to setting out his side. Given the injuries to the back line and the fact that AVB never seemed to figure out his best options on the left wing, the decision isn't unexpected or indefensible, but it is telling.

Weak Side

The second feature of the left back situation is how each manager treated the other's vulnerable side in attack. Rodgers pinpointed Naughton straight away as a weak link and Liverpool hammered that flank until it gave way and produced the first goal.


This is a map of Liverpool's passing up until the first goal. You can see the vast majority of their early attacks hit us down our left. And if you recall, that first goal finally came when Liverpool overloaded the left side. Suarez looked to play Jordan Henderson behind the defense through a gap between Dawson and Naughton, and nobody from the left side of the pitch tracked Suarez's run into the box.

So how did Spurs attack treat Liverpool's inexperienced and vulnerable left back? By leaving him completely alone.


Here's a map of our passing after Liverpool's first goal (the less said about our offense for the first 17 minutes of the game the better). As you can see, instead of targeting Liverpool's vulnerable left side as they did to us, we force most our attacks down their right, where it's protected by England international right back Glen Johnson and a speedy touchline hugging winger.

Why? It's hard to justify this decision from a tactical perspective. Spurs' right side contains the familiar pairing of Walker and Lennon who play very effectively in tandem, and both of whom have lightning pace. With Coutinho drifting far inside the touchline, it seemed like a no-brainer to punish the wrong-footed 20 year old covering the entire flank on his own. Unfortunately, Spurs never attempted to do so.

Now, you may think that part of this isn't down to AVB's tactics, but reactive to Liverpool pressing down the same flank. We had the ball on our left, so naturally we tried to attack that way. But actually, after the first goal, Naughton grew into the game and kept Sterling relatively quiet (and I would argue subbing him off for Fryers, though he had a good game, was a waste of a substitution having already wasted one replacing the injured Sandro. but it's easy to say that in the hindsight of Paulinho's red card).

In light of Naughton's improvement, Liverpool shifted their attacks to the other vulnerable part of our defense.

Capoue Is Not A Centerback

Now I don't have a gif of this, so you'll just have to take my word for it. In the second minute of the match, a speculative ball comes over the top aimed at Coutinho. Spurs' defenders are at the top our 18 yard box, and Coutinho's positioning means he's never going to get to the ball. Dawson calmly let's it go over him to run to Lloris. Capoue has no idea what's going on however, and he runs over behind Dawson and in front of Lloris to head it clear. The ball goes straight back into danger. Suarez picks up the loose ball and dishes it to the now-unmarked Coutinho who gets a shot away inside the box. Spurs avoid conceding only because the Coutinho scuffs the shot straight into Lloris' arms.

This is only the beginning.

Capoue is a very good defensive midfielder and he showed against poor Sunderland and Anzhi teams that he's capable of filling in at center back if needed. But against Liverpool he showed that while he's a capable defender, he lacks the instincts of a central defender.

Let's look back at that first goal, via @FeintZebra.

The guy jogging back next to Suarez? That's Capoue. Capoue, who is our right-sided center back, is jogging back from the halfway line on the wrong side of the pitch. Now, Capoue is not strictly at fault for the goal here (though he, Dembele, and Paulinho could all have done better to track Suarez's run from deep), but it is an example of his positional struggles as a center back.


As you can see, Capoue's average position for the match is essentially right on top of Sandro. Perfect for a defensive midfielder, less so for a center back. By playing so high up the pitch, Capoue leaves massive gaps behind him for Liverpool to exploit. It'd be one thing if Dawson was playing on the same line to work an offside trap, but as it is Dawson is just left isolated against Suarez. If it comes down to a footrace to chase down balls into the space behind Capoue, we know who's gonna win that one.

Liverpool spent the next 30 minutes after the goal attempting to exploit that area.


Liverpool pumps ball after ball into that space from deep, trusting that eventually a chance will open up. Eventually it does.

Henderson has broken from midfield into space through the right side of our defense. That's Capoue sliding in. From the wrong side of the pitch. What's he doing there? Who knows!

Even after the goal comes, Capoue doesn't learn his lesson. Here's another shot of Capoue playing incredibly high up the pitch, and on the wrong side again to boot. You can see the pass about to come over the top for Suarez and Coutinho to run onto with nothing but space between them and the goal.

But this isn't to blame Capoue. He's not a CB and with everyone else injured he's just trying to do the best he can. You might also want to ask, why was the defense under so much pressure in the first place? Where is our midfield? If you look above, all three of our midfielders on the left side of the screen, completely bypassed and out of the play. This is not an isolated incident.

Spurs Surrenders the Midfield Battle
Spurs' midfield just flat out did not show up on Sunday. Liverpool passed circles around them and Spurs vaunted pressing was mysteriously absent. Sandro, Dembele, and Paulinho were chasing shadows. By the time the second goal was scored, Spurs midfielders had managed two tackles and zero interceptions between them. Joe Allen managed more by himself, and this with Liverpool seeing significantly more possession.


Here's a look at the ten minutes leading up to Liverpool's first goal. As you can see, Spurs were completely incapable of moving the ball beyond the halfway line. Those black triangles are fouls committed by Spurs players and the green X's are all the rare times we successfully won the ball off a Liverpool player. None of which are in dangerous areas to transition to attack. Between fouls, misplaced passes, and Liverpool's ability to harry Spurs in possession, Spurs were completely incapable of relieving the waves of attacking pressure Liverpool applied. Conceding a goal looked like an inevitability at this point.


Here's another look back at Liverpool's passing chart before the first goal. Not only do you see waaaay more blue arrows than Spurs managed, there's a neat little hole in the shape of the center circle. Liverpool passed circles around Spurs' static midfielders. Despite the formidable physicality of Sandro, Dembele, and Paulinho, it's meaningless when the other team is happy to pass-and-move with impunity around you.

The Rest of the Game Didn't Even Matter
After the second goal, Liverpool surrendered possession and let Spurs control the ball so they could hit Tottenham on the break. For a while there, it looked like Liverpool letting off the gas pedal might let Spurs back into the game. But then Dembele's substitution followed by Paulinho's red card meant we were left with precisely none of our starting three central midfielders. Playing a man down with a makeshift midfield pairing of Holtby and Chadli, against an already dominant Liverpool trio, was always going to end in tears. And it did.

From then on, it's not an issue of tactics. Spurs were playing a makeshift midfield in front of a makeshift defense. No tactics in the world were going to save us. We were honestly lucky to only concede three more goals.

With AVB's sacking, it'll be interesting to see how Tim Sherwood corrects some of these problems. The injuries to Rose, Chiriches, Kaboul, Vertonghen, and Sandro made this game much more difficult for AVB than it otherwise would have been, but he seemed to make no effort to mitigate the obvious problems these injuries would create. Hopefully we can move on from here. I hear Danny Rose is about 90% fit.

(all charts from FourFourTwo StatsZone)