This Saturday will see the fourth showdown between two of the Premier League’s most interesting managers, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and our beloved Mauricio Pochettino for Spurs. The first three matches have produced three draws, with a 0-0 draw in last season’s opening fixture followed by back-to-back 1-1 draws that saw Liverpool go ahead only for Spurs to draw level in the second half.
Here are the xG maps for each of the last two fixtures. (I am not bothering with the first game between Klopp and Pochettino since that was also Klopp’s first game at Liverpool and so it’s not really representative of how he wants his team to play.)
xG map for Liverpool-Tottenham.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) April 2, 2016
I for one welcome our new Lester overlords. pic.twitter.com/YvUM2vnyXh
From this past August:
xG map for Spurs-Liverpool. Liverpool should have put it away in the first half, Spurs able to claw back a point. pic.twitter.com/dMuE8BvqbZ— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) August 27, 2016
Comparing Liverpool and Tottenham’s Best XI
If you want to describe both Liverpool and Spurs as playing similar styles, you could do that: Both teams use a high pressing system to both strangle the opposition attack before it begins and to create attacking chances. Both clubs require players who are intelligent, industrious, and willing to work within a fairly rigid tactical system.
That is where the similarities end, however.
If you look at Liverpool’s best XI this year, this is almost certainly what you’ll come up with:
Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner
Lallana, Henderson, Wijnaldum
Mane, Firmino, Coutinho
Spurs best XI looks like this:
Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen
Walker, Wanyama, Dembele, Rose
Eriksen, Kane, Dele
What the two systems have in common is that both of them routinely end up pushing five players into the attacking third. But the way they do that is quite different.
Liverpool thrives on chaos in the attacking third.
Liverpool’s system is about speed and chaos. They want most of the game being played in the attacking third and they want as much of the game happening in the transition phase between possessions as they can. It’s the chaos that creates chances and it is their speed that allows them to both create the chaos and benefit from it in creating chances.
This is why the Reds spent as much as they did on Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane this summer, two players with minimal European experience and good but not great records at typically midtable Premier League clubs. Both players are hard workers with plenty of pace—ideal Klopp players. Indeed, Mane played for Lunatic Engineer Jurgen Klopp, also known as Roger Schmidt, when Schmidt managed in Austria with RB Salzburg.
When Liverpool are at their best, the game will have a somewhat frantic feel to it as Liverpool transition from winning the ball in an advanced position to taking a shot as rapidly as they possibly can.
Tottenham wear their opponents down.
Tottenham’s style is quite different. Speed is not a major concern for Spurs; physicality is. If Liverpool want to overwhelm their opponents with speed and an attacking barrage, then Spurs want a more attritional style with less chaos in the attacking third and more a slow wearing down of the opposition.
As part of that attritional style, Spurs have much more sustained possession in deep parts of the field, either in their own defensive third or deeper midfield positions. Spurs are generally happy to maintain possession in those parts of the field and wait for an opportunity to open up, usually thanks to the clever movement of the fullbacks, Dele Alli, or Harry Kane.
You can see the difference in how the teams recover the ball and then use it.
One way to compare the two teams is to compare two games where they were each near their peak so far this season. Fortunately for our purposes, both teams had outstanding games against Watford and so we can compare Liverpool’s 5-1 win hiding of the Moose Hornets with Spurs’ 4-1 hammering of them.
To begin, both teams enjoy similar possession numbers with the Reds at ~60% and Spurs at 65%. Liverpool made 444 passes against Watford; Spurs had 476. But when you take a closer look the differences begin to show up:
Here is Liverpool’s ball recovery chart for the game: They have ~30 ball recoveries past the halfway line:
Not only do Spurs have fewer ball recoveries overall, they have substantially fewer in the attacking half—including basically none in the attacking half of central midfield, an area where Liverpool was constantly winning the ball back.
The passing numbers are also interesting. Liverpool attempted 200 passes in the attacking third—nearly half of their total passes for the game. Spurs attempted only 84 passes in the attacking third.
The situation is reversed when looking at the defensive third. Liverpool played only 82 passes in the defensive third and many of them are balls played back to Simon Mignolet. Spurs attempted 137 passes in the defensive third.
This all makes sense, of course: Liverpool’s matches are mostly played in the Reds’ attacking third with Lallana, Wijnaldum (or Emre Can), Mane, Firmino, and Coutinho buzzing around. Spurs matches are played more across the whole field but with most of the sustained possession coming in the defensive third and attacking moves being initiated by the center backs.
How will this play out on Saturday?
Oddly enough, when the two teams play each other both of them end up wanting lots of possession in the same part of the field: The Tottenham defensive third/Liverpool attacking third. In practice, however, this ends up favoring Liverpool heavily: The ball is already where they want it to be and their frenetic rushing around not only generates chances for them, it also disrupts Tottenham’s primary way of attacking. You might think of it as being kind of like rock-paper-scissors if Tottenham is paper and Liverpool are scissors: Tottenham have a great system, but Liverpool’s style is the perfect foil for it.
In addition to the natural advantage Liverpool has in the game due to tactical philosophies, Spurs are without two of their key players from this season: left-sided center back Jan Vertonghen and left back Danny Rose. This means Spurs will almost certainly set up in the same 4-2-3-1 they have used since Vertonghen went down with Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld in central defense and Kyle Walker and Ben Davies in the fullback positions. Not only will Tottenham’s defenders be hassled more than normal by Liverpool; they’ll be without the outlet provided by Danny Rose bursting down the left flank.
One of the decisive factors in this game is going to be how Alderweireld and Dier especially cope with the pressure Liverpool puts on them whenever they’re on the ball. If they can avoid giveaways in dangerous positions, Tottenham’s overall defensive structure can probably thwart most of Liverpool’s attacking moves. But, then, Liverpool’s entire system is built around forcing giveaways in dangerous positions, so this will be easier said than done.
Is there any hope for Tottenham?
There is, actually! My guess is Liverpool will have most the possession in this game and probably the game will be played more at Liverpool’s preferred pace. That being said, one thing that stands out when you watch clips of this Reds team is that their high press can be broken and when it is Liverpool’s defensive personnel simply isn’t good enough to cope with the counter attack.
Hull City punched through the press a few times in their 2-0 win last weekend. Once that first layer was broken, it was remarkable how often Hull looked like threatening. But whereas Hull’s attacks were being funneled through Ewandro and Abel Hernandez, Tottenham’s figure to be going through Dele Alli and Harry Kane with Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min supplementing them.
So while we can probably expect the run of play to mostly be in Liverpool’s favor, don’t be surprised if the highest quality chances fall to Spurs. The key for Tottenham will be finishing the chances they get. Given his pace and Liverpool’s defensive problems, Son will probably get some very good chances to shine in this game. If he takes them, Spurs should be able to score enough goals to get the win.
But if Son continues to be profligate in front of goal and if the Spurs defenders turn the ball over in dangerous areas, this could be a great match for Liverpool and the sort of result that saves a season.