1) “Not many teams can do what we did against a team like Tottenham,” said Pep Guardiola in August. “I told the players it’s emotional, it’s frustrating to lose two points in that way but football is like this.”
It never felt as though Jurgen Klopp would need to have a similar talk with his Liverpool squad on Sunday. City drew 2-2 at home to Tottenham two months ago, having had 30 shots to their three. Liverpool had 21 to seven, conceded in the first minute and were behind for more than half the match, yet still managed what their closest rivals couldn’t against Mauricio Pochettino’s side: suffocating them by polluting the air with inevitability.
The title race still has miles left to run, obstacles that must be overcome and variables yet to even be considered. But after last week’s stumble, Liverpool regaining their footing in these conditions feels significant. The momentum is theirs once more.
2) Losing by a single goal to the European champions and Premier League leaders will never be enough in isolation to plunge any team back into a crisis. But this was an incredibly deflating evening for Tottenham after a mood-altering midweek.
Pochettino’s starting line-up even felt like a volte-face. Erik Lamela succumbing to injury was unfortunate – he would surely have featured – but restoring Danny Rose and Christian Eriksen in particular was disappointing. Neither are in the team due to form, thus they were automatically underwhelming selections. The latter could potentially be excused due to extraneous circumstances, but Ben Davies can justifiably ask why he has started eight of 28 Premier League games in 2019.
That second-half substitute Tanguy Ndombele was perhaps their best outfield player also made a mockery of the decision to start the ineffective Harry Winks alongside Moussa Sissoko in midfield.
Coupled with yet another passive display when in the ascendancy against a superior side, and this was a shuddering dead end after the corner that was turned just five days ago. The gap to Liverpool and City seems wider than even last season, and not just because Klopp and Guardiola’s sides have improved on excellence.
3) There is a wider point to be made about Tottenham’s away record against their peers under Pochettino. Since he was appointed, they have played 28 Premier League games at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs, winning three and earning just 0.64 points per game.
Such travel sickness over an extended period of time cannot possibly be a mere symptom of a lack of financial backing or those “different agendas” pervading the squad. It has become an issue of approach and ambition in certain matches, of game management in specific scenarios, and of an acceptance of preconceptions rather than a willingness to challenge them. Tottenham entered Anfield as underdogs and played precisely as such for most of the 51 minutes for which they led.
4) The prospect of scoring within the opening few minutes was on the mind and in the mouth of both managers before the game. Klopp’s description of the Champions League final – “we were really mature, scored an early goal, defended them exceptionally well and then scored a second goal” – betrayed just how crucial that penalty was in Madrid. Pochettino noted at the time that it had a “massive impact” and “changed the plans”. Teams will prepare meticulously for such games, but no worthwhile strategy involves conceding.
So the start was predictably electric. Roberto Firmino almost put Sadio Mane in after 15 seconds in a statement of intent that Davinson Sanchez barely managed to respond to. Liverpool wanted to laugh first, last and longest again.
But they were behind 30 seconds later, hoist by their own petard. Harry Kane added a new dynamic to a game that felt entirely too formulaic in the build-up: intrigue. How would Tottenham go about defending an unexpected lead? And how would Liverpool overcome their second surprise setback in a week?
5) The goal was comprised of numerous wonderful elements: Kane’s improvisation; Heung-min Son’s purpose and Sissoko’s desperation to test Klopp’s pre-match theory.
“These three guys in midfield, if they get the support from the two wingers and Bobby then it can be kind of a wall you have to try and go over or something,” said the Liverpool manager of his latest midfield selection, as the impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita were swapped for the more conservative Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
“We are pretty solid there and we have to be against them. They always do something, especially in these games, special against us. Set it up a little bit and where we are strong, they try to turn it around, like maybe bringing Son into a very offensive position high left when Trent is going [forward] and stuff like this.
“Then we lose the ball and there is a counter-attacking opportunity. It’s always how it is, but you need to be as tuned as possible and that’s what we try to do with the line-up.”
It’s one (admittedly really impressive) thing identifying what a team will do, and another thing entirely trying to stop it. Sissoko sought not to go either over or under Klopp’s midfield “wall”, instead just bursting a hole in it that 2009’s Anton du Beke would have been proud of.
But if the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting different results, what is the definition of finding success doing one thing but refusing to repeat it? Tottenham cut through Liverpool with direct running but did not even attempt another dribble until Sissoko again crashed his way through their china shop in the 37th minute. Spurs exposed a possible rare weakness and opted not to exploit it thereafter.
6) Sean Dyche’s recent joke that “anti-football won the European Cup final” was said through gritted teeth and gritty throat, but it did bear relevance: Liverpool were much more direct than usual in June, taking route one and still finding their typical destination.
Two incidents within a matter of seconds at Anfield would have had Dyche nodding sagely. Liverpool created a chance for Salah when Mane out-jumped Toby Alderweireld, with Gazzaniga saving comfortably. His subsequent clearance found Kane, who beat Dejan Lovren in the air without actually jumping, to provide space and time for Son to shoot.
Neither effort came too close to changing the scoreline, but it was refreshing to see two of the game’s most influential coaches lumping it long and finding moderate joy.
7) The difference between Burnley and these two sides is the intent. While the Clarets are simply instinctively aiming for their most dominant area – an aerial battle that their two tall strikers will relish – these two sides were carefully choosing their moments.
It is not a compliment to say Gazzaniga was possibly Tottenham’s best outlet: only Rose and Ndombele (both two) created more chances. His distribution was an added bonus to what was an excellent goalkeeping performance.
But Trent Alexander-Arnold was the key, a particular proponent in the art of the long ball. Many of his 20 crosses came from deep, with his switches of play to Andy Robertson at left-back a delight. The 21-year-old created seven chances – almost as many as Tottenham overall (8). The gulf between these two teams was outlined in a difference between the full-backs starker than Iron Man living in Winterfell.
8) If this seems harsh on Tottenham thus far, it is simply born of frustration. And that is from 90 minutes of watching them as a neutral; you lifelong supporters are poor b*stards.
There were two moments that could have changed the complexion of this game entirely. The second came shortly after half-time, when Son rounded Alisson (from Gazzaniga’s clearance) but hit the crossbar after Lovren’s mistake. The first was earlier and potentially even greater – and proof that Eriksen actually did play.
It was the Dane’s sensational ball over to Kane on the left-hand side that started the move, with the striker’s first-time volleyed cross just beyond Dele Alli’s reach. His cross deflected into the path of Eriksen, whose shot from an angle narrowly missed the unmarked Kane.
When Tottenham took the game to Liverpool and met them as equals, they did not look out of place. It is a mystery why they chose not to do so for the majority of the game. Pochettino might point to the one-goal deficit as an example of their competitiveness; their first and second shots on targets being separated by 86 minutes is a fair counterpoint.
9) ‘Six minutes that shook the world,’ was how Steven Gerrard described perhaps Liverpool’s most famous night. ‘Six minutes that broke Milan’s hearts. Six minutes that wiped away the smirk. Bang, Milan’s players looked like they had been in a car-crash.’
The teams, the players, the managers, the circumstances: pretty much everything had changed from that phenomenal 2005 night in Istanbul, but the sudden sense of a tide shifting, a pendulum having abruptly swung, remained the same. In six minutes, Liverpool wiped away any possible Tottenham smirks, and the visitors seemed to be careering into a ditch.
From the 25th minute to the 31st, Liverpool had six shots, four of which were on target. They had 94.1% possession and a 90% pass-completion rate. Tottenham completed a single pass in those 360 seconds: Gazzaniga hurriedly scrambling the ball away to Rose to try and alleviate an overwhelming press.
It was an instantaneous role-reversal that only Gazzaniga seemed willing to challenge. He saved from Salah and Firmino in quick succession, then Virgil van Dijk from point-blank range and Alexander-Arnold from outside the area. Liverpool took the Champions League runners-up and rendered them training-ground dummies, reminding us that they can be irresistible instead of just brilliantly belligerent.
10) Yet Tottenham still led. And they could have doubled that advantage with the aforementioned Son chance. It came as no surprise that they would soon rue his miss.
There was an element of fortune surrounding the equaliser. Fabinho’s speculative lofted ball into the area seemed to be intended for Firmino, who was pushed in the back by Rose. The left-back’s main error was to then mistime his jump as a result, neither clearing nor controlling the ball. By the time he had turned, Henderson was already planning his celebration.
The captain received predictable criticism for his part in the first goal, having been bullied off the ball by Winks, then failing twice to put out a fire he himself helped set. But his run was opportune, the final vestiges of his past as an exciting winger emerging at the perfect time, and his finish was as excellent as his second-half performance. Klopp’s midfield selection was just about vindicated.
11) The German only has two spots to fill there; Fabinho is his one constant. The 26-year-old continues to improve from what is already an exceptional base.
There is a danger with underestimating his quality due to the role, as with the Premier League’s other phenomenal defensive midfielder. N’Golo Kante has proven that he is no mere shield for the back four, and instead can create as effectively as he can tackle or intercept. He and Fabinho are the first points of attack for their sides, not just safety blankets. Both have legitimate claims to be among the absolute best in the world in the position.
12) For all their supremacy, Liverpool needed a penalty to complete the comeback. And while there may be complaints, this exact same fixture in February 2018 provides compelling evidence. Replace Lamela with Mane and Van Dijk with Aurier and you get the exact same result: a penalty at Anfield.
“I tried to put my leg between him and the ball, and it was unlucky for Serge Aurier and lucky for me,” Mane said after the game. The Senegalese was cute in moving his left leg into the path of Aurier’s right as the Tottenham defender attempted a clearance. It was cheap, it was cynical, but it was genius. And it was another blatant example of the FA’s bias towards Liverpool and desperation for them to win the league. Or something.
13) One lesson Klopp has surely learned is that Lovren is never the answer to any question worth asking. He might have “rhythm” but match fitness is hardly an asset when your matches rarely go by without at least one high-profile mistake.
The deflection from Son’s shot in the first minute was unfortunate, but letting the South Korean almost score at the start of the second half was born of negligence and a lack of concentration and judgement. Joe Gomez absolutely has to start from now while Joel Matip is unavailable.
14) I stand by all of this. Eriksen and Tottenham are just no longer compatible; there is too much water under a bridge that is already up in flames. Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso were surely better options, depending on the objective at hand.
15) With that said, Pochettino’s desire to play down Ndombele’s impact was bizarre. Jack Pitt-Brooke provided the best cross of the entire game with a simple post-match question that left the manager with an open goal. It was the perfect opportunity to boost the midfielder’s confidence and adorn the looming cloud with a silver lining.
“Big difference, doing what?” was his pithy reply, stressing the need to “be careful with how we assess”, adding that “it’s so important to rotate and keep all motivated to play”.
Only a fool would deny that Tottenham looked considerably better with Ndombele. He was confident, unburdened by the opposition, and a vital connect between midfield and attack. Such a hostile answer to what was hardly a critical question benefits absolutely nobody.
And his admission at feeling “disappointed because with the ball we didn’t play the way we wanted” was equally strange. If that was the case, why wait until two minutes from full-time before introducing such an excellent passer as Lo Celso?
16) Liverpool have dropped points in successive Premier League games twice since May 2018. Avoiding that hat-trick is more important than it sounds.
The effect of seeing an eight-point lead dissipate into a four or even three-point one in the space of a fortnight would have been potentially crushing. City need to be kept at arm’s length for as long as possible, and the nature of this result transfers the pressure back onto them.
Before this month, Liverpool had not earned points from a Premier League game they had been losing at half-time since January. The Manchester United draw remains a regret, but these were perhaps the ideal circumstances for victory. Bring on November 10.