Liverpool Spurs need consistency to become more than top-four also-rans
Certain games have greater resonance than others. Liverpool’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield has bigger significance than the usual Premier League match. It is a landmark moment for both clubs.
The reverse fixture at Wembley in October exposed the flaws in Jurgen Klopp’s side. The 4-1 Spurs victory fed a belief that Mauricio Pochettino’s team could challenge Manchester City for the title.
The responses from each club were very different. Liverpool went on a 13-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, the highlight being the 4-3 win over City. Tottenham’s title hopes were quashed within weeks. Defeats by Manchester United and Arsenal meant all the optimism inspired by the rout of Klopp’s men dissipated.
The mood has swung again.
Liverpool followed the thrilling success against City by losing their way. A 1-0 defeat to Swansea City in the league and the FA Cup defeat to West Bromwich Albion have revived all the old doubts. Tottenham’s 2-0 win over United evoked memories of the crushing of Liverpool, where Spurs travel to on Sunday. After Anfield, the next league game for Pochettino’s men is Arsenal at Wembley. This is the determining phase of the season. Victory over Klopp’s side would allow Spurs to leapfrog their opponents into the top four. There is much at stake for both clubs.
Events off the pitch have echoed the form at Anfield. January started with the signing of Virgil van Dijk and a surge of positivity. Philippe Coutinho’s departure killed that mood. The Brazilian has not been replaced and, even though the decision to stand pat with the squad is completely down to Klopp, there remains a suspicion that Liverpool are short of manpower — especially with Daniel Sturridge farmed out on loan to West Brom.
In October, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen destroyed the Liverpool defence. Dejan Lovren was stripped of confidence, humiliated and substituted after just 31 minutes. The Croat was a lightning rod for a wider failure. Alberto Moreno was almost as poor. Simon Mignolet should have stopped two of the goals. Emre Can, James Milner and Jordan Henderson failed to provide any protection for the back four as Tottenham’s midfield controlled the game. The vital space in front of the centre halves was ceded to Spurs.
Van Dijk is better equipped to deal with the threat from Kane but the systemic meltdowns Liverpool suffer in their defensive areas remain a problem. Klopp has been unable to get his side’s balance right. When the team come under pressure and are pushed back, the midfielders lack the mobility and positional sense to cut off trouble before it reaches the defenders. Klopp’s much-vaunted pressing game fails in the area where it needs to be most effective.
Liverpool were unable to persuade RB Leipzig to release Naby Keita in January. They will have to wait until the summer for the midfielder’s arrival. Yet the 22-year-old is more effective in the forward areas — both with the ball at his feet and in the pressing game. There is still likely to be a vacuum between attack and defence.
At their best, Liverpool’s forward line are capable of blowing the opposition away. Last season they swept Tottenham aside in the league and FA Cup at Anfield. Pochettino’s tactics played to the home side’s strengths. In both matches, Spurs were remarkably open and allowed Liverpool’s forwards time on the ball and the opportunity to run at the defence. At Wembley, Tottenham were more structured defensively and more dynamic up front. They got the ball forward early, applied pressure and gave Klopp’s team less time to think when in possession.
The London club have an uncertain future, too. Real Madrid are admirers of Pochettino and the 45-year-old has always given the impression that Spurs are a stepping stone rather than his dream job. Kane is attracting envious glances from Europe’s big clubs, too, as is Dele Alli. Tottenham will fight to retain their biggest assets — they need them more than ever next season with the move to the new White Hart Lane looming.
There are issues, though.
There are two ways to keep big names happy in football: win trophies or pay the going rate in wages. The most successful sides do both. At this stage, Spurs are doing neither. Kane could easily treble his £110,000-a-week salary elsewhere. Plenty of potential suitors can offer the possibility of trophies as well.
The first task for both teams is to secure a top-four place and Champions League qualification next season. They have been helped by the struggles of Chelsea and Arsenal but neither side has taken real advantage. Klopp and Pochettino need to carve out a period of consistency in the final third of the season.
These are two clubs that believe they can challenge City in the next five years. They have enough quality to contend for honours but lack cohesion at vital times. Liverpool and Tottenham have a lot to prove. They need to start demonstrating they can maintain their momentum, avoid dips in form and rise above being merely the supporting cast for Pep Guardiola and City.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.