Things did not go especially well for Tottenham Hotspur the first time they played Liverpool this season back in September. That match was supposed to be the grand opening of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium before problems with the fire suppression system caused a multi-month delay. Spurs were bamboozled by Liverpool’s press, gave the ball away cheaply, Michel Vorm was in for the “injured” Hugo Lloris, and Tottenham limped out of Wembley Stadium with a 2-1 defeat to the Reds.
A lot has happened since then, but you’d be hard pressed to say that Spurs are anything close to being at their best heading into Sunday’s match at Anfield. Spurs welcomed back Dele Alli and Harry Kane from injury, and celebrated by losing at Burnley & Chelsea, drawing in the North London Derby, and losing again at Southampton. That’s one point from a possible 12 heading into Sunday, an anemic total that dropped Spurs from comfortable favorites for third to a dog-fight for top four. Spurs managed xG totals of 0.8, 0.7, 1.7, and 1.2 in those four matches — not exactly the kind of numbers that you’d expect from a team that was once mentioned in the same breath as the phrase “Premier League title.”
Liverpool, by contrast, are rolling. They haven’t lost since January 3, and have taken 22 out of their last 30 points. If you ask a Liverpool supporter, that’s cause for concern, as the tendency to draw matches they should win (Leicester, West Ham, United, and Everton for example) could be critical as they try and stay ahead of Manchester City for the league title. Still, that is an objectively impressive string of results. The front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino continue to excel, combining for an xG90 of more than .5 and 45 total goals. Their midfield stable of Georgino Wijnaldum, James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Naby Keita are fluid, flexible, and very capable of executing Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing offense.
In short, [checks notes] yup, Liverpool are still good. Considering that the Reds are unbeaten at home and have only dropped four points at Anfield all season, this is going to be a challenge.
How will Tottenham line up against Liverpool?
This morning’s news probably confirmed Tottenham supporters’ worst fears heading into this match. The injuries to Eric Dier and Harry Winks means that, while Spurs’ central midfield was never especially robust to begin with this season, for all extents and purposes they have no midfield at all. When you’re playing a team that presses well and plays a midfield three, that’s a problem.
The solution, probably, is to try and bypass midfield entirely. Hello, Air-Raid Offense. With Dier and Winks sidelined, that probably means a 4-4-2 diamond with Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko at the base, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli at the top, and a front two of Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane. If Spurs can progress the ball quickly pas Liverpool’s midfielders (and stay out of trouble from the press) they might be able to snatch a goal through the creativity of Dele and Eriksen, and the offensive ability of Son and Kane.
The Achilles heel is, of course, the fullback play. Kieran Trippier’s defensive shortcomings this season have been detailed extensively on this blog, and while he will have Sissoko as his “defensive binky” (to use a Michael Caley phrase) the idea of Salah and Mane running at Trips and Danny Rose/Ben Davies for 90 minutes scares the pee out of me.
One way to counteract that would be to switch to a back three, bringing on Davinson Sanchez for Wanyama, and that might be what we see in the second half if Victor starts to tire. That reduces the midfield effectiveness even further, however, and at that point you might as well bunker and try and play counter-attacking football. And maybe we’ll see that — it’s happened before — but it doesn’t seem a very Pochettino-ish thing to do.
Instead, I think Spurs will start the match in a back four with Wanyama and Sissoko in the pivot. Eriksen can drop deeper if they want to try and play out of the back and are getting overrun, but Poch better have a pretty good plan B or things could go south in a hurry.
That’s my prediction for Tottenham’s lineup against Liverpool. What’s yours?