Before we turn our attention to the Europa League today, let’s take a minute to break down the result from the weekend at Anfield. There are two things we should note about the match, neither of which are really all that new or surprising.
First, turnovers killed us.
Any pressing team necessarily has to squeeze the field of play in order for their system to work. A good pressing system is going to shrink the area of the field in which a match is played in order to make their pressing effective. (If you have to cover the entire field, you cannot press effectively because it is simply too much space to defend.)
Typically, this requires a team to push their defensive line further up the field. Though Spurs do not push their defenders as high as some pressing teams, we still do it. Of course, when you play a team with lots of pace, you have to be careful not to get beaten over the top.
One of the easiest ways for a team to beat you over the top is to win the ball in a dangerous position and make an immediate forward pass into space. For this reason, it’s vital that teams not turn the ball over in dangerous areas. You know, like this:
In this sequence, Spurs have the ball in the attacking third when Victor Wanyama misplaces a pass and plays it straight into the feed of Sadio Mane. Mane lays it off for Jordan Henderson who plays it forward and Mane is off to the races.
I’ve been saying for most of the season that Wanyama has fundamentally changed who we are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wanyama does many things well. But he’s not great on the ball and if you can’t compensate for that somehow, you’ll find trouble. Liverpool’s style in particular is ideal for exploiting Wanyama’s weaknesses.
Second, Liverpool cracked Spurs press repeatedly.
Turnovers are not the only thing that got Spurs in trouble when pressing further up the field. In something of a throwback to year one of the Poche era at Spurs, the first wave of Tottenham’s press failed on multiple occasions. And, as in year one, when the first wave failed, the whole system started to break down as the opposition was able to attack a discombobulated defense.
In multiple cases, the problem began with Toby Alderweireld pushing up to win the ball during a transition sequence. Liverpool won it, played a quick pass, and was, again, off to the races.
Here is the warning shot fired moments before Mane’s opener:
I’ve kept the whole sequence so you can see how hard Toby works to track back and make two vital interventions at the end of the sequence.
In fact, the primary problem in this sequence is probably not Toby; it’s Dele Alli. Watch the play at 12:31. Toby has pushed forward to pressure the ball, which is fine. But the second phase to the press is that Dele needs to move into the correct passing lane. Closing down on the ball is pointless if there are clear passing lanes. In this case, Liverpool had clear passing lanes.
This screen capture shows the problem:
I’ve indicated the two passing lanes available to Coutinho with red arrows. He can play the ball into space for Henderson (and look at the acres of space ahead of him if he gets the ball) or backward to Lucas.
The ball being played back to Lucas is mostly fine. It’s possible that he could launch a ball forward and give us trouble, but it’s unlikely. Plus even if he does, it’ll be a few seconds before he’s able to do that, which gives our players time to get into the right positions. The ball to Henderson is the problem because of all the space ahead of him and, of course, Mane up to his right running at Davies.
Dele blocks the passing lane to Lucas. So Coutinho plays the ball to Henderson and the attack is on as Henderson whips the ball out wide to Clyne who surges forward with Henderson, Mane, and Firmino in support. The only reason Liverpool doesn’t go up 1-0 here is because of Toby’s fantastic tracking back.
At times, the turnovers and pressing issues came together in the same sequence.
Moments later, Spurs were not so lucky. Here is Mane’s opener:
This sequence brings together both of the things we’ve already highlighted. First, the loose touch from Wanyama creates the transition in midfield. If he controls the first touch better—or even just takes an equally loose first touch but angles the ball toward the wing, we’re OK. But he puts the ball into just enough space for Adam Lallana to nip in and force the turnover. That’s the first problem. Now here is the second.
Once again, Toby pushes forward in an attempt to win the ball. Once again, this should be fine. Here’s the situation seconds before Wijnaldum plays Mane through:
I’ve used arrows to indicate what should have happened. Toby attacks the ball. Wanyama tracks Wijnaldum’s run and, again, denies the passing lane. If both of these things happen, then the worst-case scenario is probably Firmino wins the ball and plays it back to Lallana who can then launch a speculative over-the-top ball to Mane. That’s still bad for Mane v Davies reasons, but it’s a lower percentage pass for Lallana plus Eric Dier may be able to get back to help out while the ball is in the air.
Instead, this is what happens:
Wanyama moved toward the ball. Wijnaldum moved toward the space. Firmino wins the ball and lays it off for Wijnaldum. Now the Dutch midfielder has a through ball on for Mane.
There’s a second problem that arises:
Once Wijnaldum is on the ball, Mane makes his run. Davies is tracking him. Dier, however, is flat-footed.
It’s hard to say who should do what in this sequence. You can reasonably argue that Davies and Dier are both doing what they ought to do—Davies is tracking Mane and Dier is staying tight with Coutinho. If Dier and Davies both track Mane, that obviously doesn’t work because then Wijnaldum simply plays the ball to Coutinho instead.
However, there is another option: Davies can hand Mane off to Dier as Mane is making his outside-in run. It’s a split-second thing and may not even be possible given how the play is developing. But given the difference in pace between Mane and Davies, Spurs may as well try the handoff because the result can’t possibly be worse than what happened with Davies trying to chase down Mane.
If Dier anticipates Mane’s run and steps to his right (with Davies switching over to Coutinho to make sure he doesn’t get into space), then Dier cuts off the through ball and crisis averted.
As it happens though, Dier stays tight to Coutinho, the through ball gets played, and it becomes a Davies v Mane footrace. And that is only going to end one way.
What happened on the second goal?
This one, like the first, comes down to issues we have already discussed. In this case, it’s the turnover bug biting Spurs again. A speculative long ball from James Milner falls to the feet of Eric Dier. Dier takes too long on the ball, Mane nips in, and here.... we... go:
Nothing fancy here: Mane wins the ball, Lloris makes two great saves but can’t make the third. 2-0 Liverpool.
To sum up, the issue is not necessarily as simple as blaming Ben Davies for not marking Sadio Mane. Davies isn’t fast enough to mark the Senegalese speedster and anyone who has watched either player for any length of time ought to know that.
The issue is more systemic than that. Pressing teams defend best not when they are winning one-on-one battles against the opposition, but when they are simply denying service to the opposition’s top attackers.
Mane can make all the runs he want and have all the space in the world against the slower Davies—if Liverpool can’t get him the ball, it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, the mechanisms in the Tottenham system meant to prevent players like Mane from getting the ball failed in this match.
To be sure, a fit Danny Rose probably does a better job marking Mane because he is more capable of keeping up with him. But the key to this game was always going to be “can Spurs cut off service to Liverpool’s attackers?” Spurs did not do that.
The result was a comprehensive belting that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the first half of Tottenham’s recent trip to the Etihad.