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Liverpool FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

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How Tottenham Can Beat Liverpool

Liverpool are the favorites to lift the Champions League trophy, but Spurs have the talent... and maybe the luck... to surprise the Reds in Madrid.

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

When Tottenham Hotspur take the pitch this Saturday at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, they will be attempting to win their first-ever Champions League against an opponent that they know very well. Liverpool are an impressive team, finishing second in the league behind Manchester City with 97 points and only one loss. Spurs have faced off against the Reds twice in the Premier League this season, both close-fought 2-1 defeats at Wembley Stadium and Anfield.

To lift the trophy on Saturday evening, Spurs will need to play their best football against an outstanding opponent. Thankfully it is looking like they will go into the match, if not fit, at least moderately healthy with Harry Kane and Jan Vertonghen looking likely to be ready to play.

But it begs the question — is the familiarity with Liverpool a blessing or a curse? Can Tottenham find a way to beat the Reds on a neutral pitch? And what can their two previous meetings tell us about how to approach this, the most important Tottenham match in nearly sixty years?

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Can Tottenham Win?

Tottenham go into the game as deserving underdogs. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 28% chance of winning. Most betting markets value Spurs somewhere between a 30%-35% chance of winning.

This makes sense. Liverpool feature the best attacking trio in the world, arguably the best fullback duo in the world, and one of the top three center halves in the world in Virgil van Dijk. That they did not win the Premier League has less to do with any gaps in their team and more to do with the absurd run that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has been on for the past two seasons.

Even so, Tottenham are deserving finalists. They came out of a group that included Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Dutch champions PSV. Then over two legs they defeated Bundesliga runners-up Dortmund, Premier League winners Manchester City, and the current Dutch champions Ajax, who had defeated Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to the semifinals.

FC Barcelona v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Group B Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Spurs’ defensive duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen is arguably the top center back pairing in the world. Their attacking four, when fit, is nearly unstoppable. And with Lucas Moura, they have an excellent auxiliary attacker to bring in off the bench as needed. What’s more, Tottenham’s particular strength — defenders who are both excellent ball progressers and fast attacking players — may be ideally suited to exploit the few weaknesses Liverpool have.

Though neither of these teams have won a European Cup in recent memory, both are deserving finalists.

Cardiff City v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Both teams are weird in one specific way.

Though Tottenham and Liverpool have fairly different styles, there is one striking point of commonality that becomes apparent almost immediately: neither team is built around their midfield.

Indeed, both teams have midfields that have, for much of the season, been merely functional. Between the two teams, only Naby Keita is a truly transcendent midfield star, but his first season at Anfield was marred by injury and we never saw the form that made him such an in-demand prospect while in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.

The rest of the midfield cast is an array of unspectacular players who have done as asked this season but are not global stars by any stretch. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko, Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama... none of these players are mentioned in the conversations about the best midfielders in world football. Fabinho may mature into being such a player, but he is not there yet. The other players are either already at their peak (or past it), or almost certainly have far lower ceilings than the big Brazilian. And yet both teams have put together impressive campaigns with these weird, flawed midfields.

What makes this indifference toward midfield even more stark is when you compare it to recent European greats. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid have been the two most impressive European dynasties of recent memory. Both are built on balanced midfield threes in which all three members are top five in the world for their respective roles.

Juventus v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Indeed, if you wanted to make a list of the top players of recent history excluding Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the list would be heavily populated with members from those two midfields. It would include at least Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Luka Modric. Arguably it should also have room for Sergio Busquets and Toni Kroos.

Similarly, the great European also-rans of recent memory were often built on elite midfields. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, which finished second to Real Madrid in 2015-16, relied on Saul, Koke, and Gabi, with Tiago Mendes also making a major contribution. 2016-17 runners-up Juventus was built around Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, and Andrea Pirlo. To have two teams in the Champions League final with merely functional midfields is highly unusual in recent history.

PFC CSKA Moskva v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

How Spurs Play Without a Midfield

Why doesn’t Spurs rely heavily on their midfield? The short answer to that question, of course, is “LOL what midfield?” Since the departure of Mousa Dembele, Spurs have been working with a laughably thin midfield, even without factoring in long-term absences for Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama this season.

But that is only half the story. The bigger story is two-fold:

  • First, Tottenham’s primary defensive system, a back four with Kieran Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, and Danny Rose, consists of four good-to-great ball progressers. Trippier, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld are excellent passers. This means that Tottenham do not need their midfield to progress the ball or even to be involved in buildup play. The back line is good enough to consistently move the ball forward from the defensive third into the attacking third directly without ever needing involvement from midfield.
  • Second, Tottenham’s attackers are excellent at quick ball movement and making vertical runs to get open to receive the ball. Kane in particular is remarkably good at receiving the ball and then playing it forward to a runner after only taking one or two touches.

These two strengths add up to Tottenham’s much-discussed “air raid” attack. Or, if American football metaphors are not to your liking, you might think of them as a Seven Seconds or Less team — referencing the Phoenix Suns teams coached by Mike D’Antoni and led by Tottenham fan Steve Nash.

The idea with both the “air raid” and “seven seconds or less” is the same: move the ball as quickly and vertically as you can and let the speed of the attack serve as a kind of de facto playmaker. Tottenham’s midfield simply needs to not be terrible defensively and provide a bit of support as late runners coming in behind the main attackers.

At its best, the “air raid” hits teams quickly with a speed that makes even Klopp’s Dortmund teams of old look ponderous at times. The signature movements are consistent: often the ball is played forward down the middle of the field to Harry Kane or Lucas Moura. If the player who receives the ball can run at the defense, he does. Otherwise he plays it forward quickly to one of the team’s vertical runners before then making a vertical run himself. This goal, started with a kick from Hugo Lloris, scored by Dele Alli and assisted by Kane, is perhaps the archetypal “air raid” goal:

The ball is launched forward out of defense directly to Kane. Kane takes one touch with his chest to control, one with his foot to square the ball up, and then chips a perfect pass over the top to spring Alli. The impudent chip from Dele is what attracted all the attention, but really this goal is representative of how this iteration of Pochettino’s Spurs like to play.

In other cases, the ball is progressed down the wing into space for Son Heung-Min or Moura to run on the end of it to make a cross for Kane to attack:

In this goal, Toby Alderweireld played the ball forward to Ben Davies at the halfway line, Davies took a single touch to play the ball into space for the streaking Son and then the Korean attacker simply had to cross the ball for a Harry Kane tap-in goal. But the ball was progressed from the edge of the Tottenham area all the way into the Everton goal with only four touches as none of Davies, Son, or Kane take more than a single touch. That is the kind of speed Tottenham can play with.

The trade-off to this approach is that Spurs end up conceding midfield. As a result, the team is forced to do basically all of their defending in advanced attacking areas after an “air raid” attack is turned over or in very deep defensive positions. This chart from StatsBomb tells the story:

tottenham defensive pressures 2018-19

As you can see, Tottenham has more defensive actions inside the box than they do on the edge of the area or in midfield.

Liverpool FC v Watford FC - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

How Liverpool Attacks

Because the Reds have backed off their press over the past 18 months, the team has started to at times almost resemble a more dynamic, aggressive iteration of Napoli under Maurizio Sarri. Sarri’s style at Napoli was built on recycling deep possession before launching quick, vertical attacks forward, and he brought that same system to Chelsea this past season. Indeed, both Sarri’s Chelsea and Liverpool posted very similar possession numbers this season, second and third in the Premier League behind only Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

The key difference is that Sarri’s style is mostly dependent on aggressive vertical balls played forward by the single pivot in his 4-3-3. The deep possession is recycled through the single pivot and when an opening appears the ball is played forward by him. This passing map is representative:

Jorginho is not only receiving the most passes, but he’s also playing the most — and his primary outlets are the box-to-box running midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek and wide attacker Eden Hazard. One of the reasons that Chelsea struggled this season is because of how reliant Sarri is on the single pivot to progress the ball. If teams could cut off the supply to Jorginho or pressure him on the ball, Chelsea often lacked an obvious alternative plan.

Liverpool, by contrast, is a more dynamic iteration on a similar idea. How are they different? There are a couple key points. First, the Reds’ functional attacking shape is very aggressive and packs bodies into attacking areas, such that there are almost always passing outlets available. They are able to do this because Virgil van Dijk is amazing and can clean up opposition attacks that attempt to exploit Liverpool’s limited bodies in defense. Often the Reds attack with what can best be described as a 2-1-4-3:

Alisson
Matip, Virgil
Fabinho
Alexander-Arnold, Wijnaldum, Milner, Robertson
Salah, Firmino, Mane

Like Chelsea, possession is frequently recycled through the single pivot in midfield. But there is an important difference: Liverpool seldom asks the pivot to push the ball vertically. Rather, Klopp asks him to distribute it quickly and horizontally to both the midfield runners and the fullbacks, both of whom love to attack the spaces between midfield and defense or between fullback and center back. The passing maps, again, tell the tale:

liverpool pass map vs barcelona Between the Posts

Even without Firmino or Salah against Barcelona, Liverpool still did virtually all their attacking through the wide areas. Fabinho plays virtually no vertical passes — he’s just the hub through which the Reds shift play from left to right. All the vertical attacking is happening down the wings. The passing map from their 2-1 win against Spurs at Anfield is very similar:

Ben8t

Once again, there is virtually no vertical ball movement through midfield. It’s all horizontal with the vertical ball movement happening down the wings.

Somewhat like a Guardiola team, Liverpool uses simple lateral ball movement to destabilize and stretch their opponents, creating gaps for their elite wide playmakers to exploit. The difference is that whereas Guardiola teams often do this through patient possession-based attack, Klopp’s Liverpool wants to make a single quick lateral ball into a wide area that exposes the defense and sets up the attack. Liverpool’s opening goal in the recent Premier League fixture against Spurs at Anfield is an ideal example of this style:

firmino goal vs tottenham

There is a little luck about this as Milner’s ball wide to Robertson caromed off Eriksen’s head on its way to the Scottish fullback. But the rest of the attack is exemplary of how Liverpool want to attack. The ball is turned over off the long kick from Hugo Lloris. They gain possession quickly and Milner gets the ball into a wide area with his second touch. Because of the quick ball movement (and Tottenham’s 3-5-2 shape) Robertson finds himself in acres of space and is able to play an exquisite cross into the box to find Firmino.

One additional thing that the Reds will sometimes do to further supplement the wide attack is that their midfield runners, rather than making vertical runs forward into the box, will make overlapping runs with the fullbacks. This creates space by dragging defenders out of position and doesn’t require them to pull Mane or Salah away from goal to support the fullbacks, meaning that the Reds still have all of their big three lurking in the 18-yard box.

Liverpool FC v Huddersfield Town - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

This attacking style has been a nightmare for opponents this year for many reasons. The service provided by Liverpool’s fullbacks is consistently world-class and the Reds system guarantees that their fullbacks will spend lots of time on the ball and have plenty of space for distribution. Mo Salah had a great year, even if he didn’t beat expected goals the way he did last year. Sadio Mane took another leap in his development. And because of the quality of van Dijk and keeper Alisson, the Reds can afford to take the risks they do because generally their defense can clean up the messes that their high-risk style can create.

What will decide the match?

Because of the way both teams play, it is probable that both are going to be able to play their preferred style. Spurs concede plenty of space in midfield, which means Fabinho or Henderson will have the time and opportunity to distribute to the fullbacks. Meanwhile, because Liverpool pushes so many players forward, Spurs should be able to launch vertical attacks over the top and try to catch Liverpool out.

Given that, three factors figure to loom large in determining who will lift the European Cup.

AFC Bournemouth v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

1. How will Spurs line up?

Assuming everyone is fit, 10 of Tottenham’s 11 players select themselves: Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Sissoko, Eriksen, Dele, Kane, Son. Who is the 11th player? Depending on how they answer the question, Spurs could play any number of different systems.

If Pochettino selects Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, or Harry Winks, we should expect to see Spurs in their typical 4-4-2 diamond shape with Dier, Wanyama, or Winks at the base, Sissoko and Eriksen as runners, and Dele playing close to Kane and Son. If Spurs go with this approach, the biggest problem will be with handling Liverpool’s front three. When Spurs played a back four against Liverpool last fall at Wembley, the Reds won 2-1 but in reality the result was far more one-sided:

Part of the poor result could be attributed to the personnel Spurs used and the fact that it was early season. This was one of Dembele’s final starts for the team and he was asked to play at the base of the diamond, a role for which he was not particularly suited. Eric Dier was asked to play as an eight, and Harry Winks, who had not fully recovered from his ankle injury, rounded out the midfield three behind Christian Eriksen in the 10 role. So Spurs were without Moussa Sissoko’s running, Dele Alli’s positional intelligence and pressing, and also were without Son Heung-Min up top. You could also argue that all three of Dembele (as a six), Dier (as an eight) and a not fully fit Winks were below-replacement level in midfield. It may be the case that a midfield including all of Sissoko, Dele, and Eriksen could successfully limit Liverpool’s freedom in the wide areas and also run the “air raid” more effectively — especially with Son Heung-Min also available for this match.

While using the above tactics with a healthy squad could make sense, it is perhaps telling that in the return fixture at Anfield earlier this spring Pochettino switched to a 3-5-2 to counter Liverpool’s attacking threat. Spurs could use a similar system on June 1 by selecting Davinson Sanchez or Ben Davies as the 11th man in Madrid.

That being said, the results suggest the 3-5-2 isn’t a good solution either. In the Anfield match, Pochettino attempted to crowd the center of the park and tried to play the ball quickly through the middle up top to Kane and Moura.

For the first 15 minutes, it mostly worked. But after the quarter hour mark, Liverpool scored the goal already discussed above. It was also at that time that the Reds began to get the ball into wide areas more consistently and successfully. Though they only created three shots during the next 15 minutes, Liverpool were consistently getting the ball to their fullbacks in space and it was only a bit of luck and some good defending from Spurs that kept them at bay.

Liverpool FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The tactical problem was apparent: Sadio Mane and Mo Salah were sitting in slightly deeper positions in the channels, which kept Tottenham’s wingbacks pinned deep. This then created acres of space for the fullbacks, which Liverpool were continually exploiting. Tottenham’s center halves were also struggling with knowing how to defend — should they push out to mark Salah and Mane or stay deeper? The goal is perhaps at least partly attributable to this problem as Sanchez and Vertonghen both lost track of Firmino in the box.

At the half-hour mark, Spurs made a change. Danny Rose was shifted forward into a wide midfield role, Eriksen shuffled out wider, Sissoko pushed ahead, and Trippier dropped off deeper. The 3-5-2 became a 4-4-2. With Rose and Eriksen in wide areas, Spurs were able to be more actively defensively as they now had two players on both wings, which limited the time and space that Liverpool’s fullbacks had. The game was basically even after that with Spurs equalizing through Lucas Moura before a late Toby Alderweireld own goal (and Hugo Lloris error) handed Liverpool the win. That said, Liverpool only outshot Spurs 10-9 for the final hour and both teams had six shots inside the box, even if Liverpool managed one more shot from outside the box.

Thus it is possible that Tottenham uses some sort of 4-4-2 system built around the versatility of Vertonghen, Rose, and the midfield. It could be the same team that played at Anfield with Son in for Lucas:

Lloris
Trippier, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen
Eriksen, Sissoko, Dele, Rose
Kane, Lucas

This system would maximize Tottenham’s ability to defend wide areas while also playing both Belgian defenders and Sanchez.

If I had to guess, my prediction is that Spurs will play the diamond if Harry Winks is available. If he is not, we’ll see Sanchez brought back into the back line with Spurs playing 3-5-2 personnel, but operating in a 4-4-2 with Vertonghen as a makeshift left back and Rose as a left wing. Given the lack of reporting on Winks, it is quite possible he will miss out. So the game is probably going to turn on how Tottenham’s hybrid 4-4-2 handles Liverpool’s width and how effectively Spurs are able to attack via the air-raid.

Liverpool FC v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

2. How do the center backs perform?

In the opening quarter hour at Anfield, when Spurs were generally on top, there was a sequence in which Joel Matip slipped while chasing down a vertical ball played forward. That allowed Eriksen to charge at the Liverpool defense and play a through ball for Lucas Moura, which was just a little too weighted for the Brazilian to get to. With a slightly better ball from Eriksen, Spurs could have gone up 1-0.

On the other hand, if Spurs center halves were less alert between the 15- and 30-minute marks, Liverpool may have scored two or three.

Because both teams tend to marginalize or bypass midfield, a significant burden is placed on the centerbacks both to deal with the attacks that inevitably come their way and to help spring attacks going forward. Spurs ask more of their defense than Liverpool, to be sure, but Liverpool repeatedly ask their defense to do one difficult thing well: defend fast-moving counters. It is entirely possible that this game will be remembered for a cardinal error by one of the two team’s key defenders.

Even if an error doesn’t decide the match, Spurs in particular need Toby Alderweireld to be at his best in what will probably be his last game with the club. Alderweireld’s defensive ability will be vital, but so too will his passing. If Alderweireld can spring the Spurs counterattacks, then Tottenham will get some very good looks at goal. If he can’t, then this could be a very one-sided match.

Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

3. Who is fit?

Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Harry Kane are all likely to make their first start in some time at Madrid. Kane will have been out for two months. Firmino will have been out for a comparable time. Salah will have gone about a month without a game. Given how dependent both teams are on their attackers, fitness questions could play a major role in determining the outcome. Kane has come back from many ankle injuries and, with one notable exception, has generally returned to form quickly. Salah hasn’t really had any major injury issues during his time in England and so is a bit of an unknown. Firmino is likely to be fine, though like Kane he could struggle to shake off the rust a bit in the match’s opening moments.

In addition to Kane, Spurs are also facing fitness questions with Winks (who could miss based on the current reporting), Sanchez, and Vertonghen. Given that the best non-Winks team Spurs can field is likely the hybrid 4-4-2 that features both Sanchez and Vertonghen, their fitness is a major concern for Tottenham.

Conclusion

Liverpool are favored. They deserve to be. But Tottenham have the pieces that are needed to give Liverpool trouble. They’re capable of defending wide areas. They progress the ball well from deep positions. They have a number of clever, quick attackers who love to play on the counter. If Liverpool wins, no one will be surprised. But a Spurs upset win is entirely possible. After all, back in November Tottenham was only given an 11% chance of surviving the group stage, then only a 20% chance of beating Manchester City. And then they came from 3-0 down on the road in Amsterdam against Ajax without Harry Kane to secure a birth in the final. Pochettino’s men have been beating the odds all season long in Europe. What’s one more time?

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