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Tactics Thursday: How Spurs Took Apart Liverpool

They used a blueprint that the Reds would have recognized.

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

In four previous tries in the league, Mauricio Pochettino had never beaten Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. His record was 0-3-1 and, let’s be honest, two of those draws were probably flattering and the one loss could have had a much worse final score than it did.

The problem is a fairly well established one with Pochettino at this point: When Tottenham run into a team that will try to press them as hard as Spurs like to press their opponents, his team can struggle. It all comes down to who wins the pressing battle. At times, as in the 2-0 win against Manchester City last season, Spurs actually win the battle and get the result. But in other cases, such as the 2-0 defeat at Anfield and 2-2 draw at the Etihad, which again really flattered Spurs, the results have been ugly.

Against Klopp in particular, the problem has been that Klopperpool is kryptonite for Pochettino’s Tottenham. Pochettino teams are defensively organized, rugged in midfield, and grind opponents down over a full match. Klopp’s Liverpool is fast, dynamic, and thrives on chaos. As such, they’ve routinely frustrated Spurs by simply being too fast for them, with last year’s 2-0 drubbing being the worst example.

How Pochettino Countered Normal Liverpool

This year, Pochettino hit on an interesting idea to counter the Reds: He’d play just like them. He set up in a 3-5-2 that looked like this:

Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen
Trippier, Eriksen, Winks, Dele, Aurier
Kane, Son

The key to note here is the Spurs midfield. There is not a single vintage Pochettino midfielder in there—someone who is powerful, breaks up play in midfield, and is comfortable in a generally more defensive role. Instead, he has two attacking midfielders in Dele and Eriksen flanking a mobile deep-lying playmaker type in Harry Winks. It’s a trio that overlaps quite a bit in key attributes with Liverpool’s trio last season of Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson. They aren’t bruisers, but they can run and once they win the ball they can push it forward quickly. Repeatedly, this is exactly what Spurs did in their win against the Red.

Oddly enough, the two goals in the match’s opening minutes did not come off this kind of quick counter-pressing tactic. The first was simply a chipped ball into the box from Kieran Trippier that both Dejan Lovren and Simon Mignolet made a mess of, allowing Harry Kane to open the scoring. First, Lovren lets the ball run rather than trying to head clear. Then Mignolet charges off his line and doesn’t win the ball:

Before Spurs would grab a second goal, however, we would see their first threatening attack created via a Liverpool-style counter press. Phillipe Coutinho receives the ball on the left flank near the touch line. So three Spurs players, Trippier, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Winks, converge on him in an effort to win the ball in a wide area. Eriksen wins it, plays a quick pass to Son, and Son then plays a through ball to Harry Kane. Nothing came off the chance, but it shows how Spurs wanted to attack:

The second goal came moments later. Somehow, it featured an even worse gaffe from Lovren. The Croat defender misread a long throw from Hugo Lloris, allowing Kane to run in the open field at the Liverpool defense before playing in Son Heung-Min for a 1v1 against Mignolet which he finished calmly to give Spurs the 2-0 lead.

So both goals are basically down to major errors from the Liverpool defense. These glaring defensive errors, more than anything else, are why Liverpool look the likeliest of the big six to join Arsenal in the Europa League places at season’s end.

That being said, the striking thing is that Spurs created several other chances of note as well, almost all of which came off a high, aggressive press and then launching the ball forward as quickly as possible after winning it. We already saw the first sequence just before the Son goal to put Spurs up 2-0. But there are several other examples of Spurs mimicking Liverpool’s press. Here is Eriksen pushing the ball forward and over the top of the defense after Trippier won the ball in a wide area and had been fouled and taken a quick free kick to the Dane:

Moments later, Spurs cut out a cross from Emre Can, Eriksen played it forward to Kane and Kane played it first touch to Son. Again, Kane and Son are off to the races:

After this, the game began to settle down. Liverpool pulled a goal back to make it 2-1 and then Klopp made a substitution at the half hour mark to withdraw the ineffective Lovren and replace him with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Spurs grabbed a third goal off another defensive gaffe, this one from Joel Matip, in first half stoppage time. A fourth goal followed early in the second half, again due to poor defensive play from Liverpool.

That being said, this match felt very like last year’s match at Anfield—the home team took the tactical initiative early, scored a couple goals, and then the match mostly settled down with the leading team doing enough to preserve their lead but not pressing their advantage as much as they might. Spurs established early how the match would be played. Liverpool didn’t have an answer. The result was a surprisingly comfortable win for Pochettino’s men.