There was a game this weekend in which, towards the end, two ‘goal of the season’ contenders were scored in quick succession.
Rather than simply enjoying the wonder of these goals, the lion’s share of the discussion surrounding the game has been on refereeing decisions.
Of course, those decisions were pivotal in determining the result of the game. So they do make important topics of the conversation.
These moments, later in the game, were also entertaining in their own way – the raw emotion of the surprise call, the schadenfreude of a rival fan bases’ pain and resulting social media breakdown.
I am not going to write about the referees. Instead, I am going to talk about the context that surrounded them.
The first half: same old, same old
The story of Klopp versus Pochettino fixtures has been the latter’s refusal to adapt to the former’s play-style and suffering for it.
That trend was broken in October when, at Wembley, Spurs scored early, sat deep and hit Liverpool on the break.
Lining up with an asymmetrical midfield, often blurring between a 4-2-2-2 and a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond which congested the middle of the park, the same counter-attacking style that he had used at Wembley earlier in the season indicated that Mauricio Pochettino’s plans were, yet again, unchanged on this occasion.
Those plans were scuppered as, this time, the early goal fell to Liverpool: Mohamed Salah pouncing on a loose pass and immediately free on goal in a style typical of Jurgen Klopp’s approach.
Spurs were forced, then, to bring the ball forward against the world’s most lethal counter-attacking unit. This went more or less exactly as it was planned from a Liverpool perspective.
The rest of the first half was a familiar story: Tottenham struggled to move the ball around their defenders for a while before being turned over when trying to force the ball into midfield, at which point Liverpool were able to run at Tottenham’s high defensive line - though they failed to add to their scoreline with this.
The second half: role reversal
At halftime, Pochettino switched Dele Alli with Christian Eriksen and moved to a more rigid diamond with a greater separation between the lines of defence, midfield and attack.
Regardless, the second-half carried on as the first until the 52nd minute at which point Davinson Sanchez carried the ball forward before playing directly to Dele Alli who, in turn, found Ben Davies entering the area wide of the box. A quick three-man combination triggered a dramatic shift in the game.
For a 25 minute spell, Alli put on the archetypal old-school number 10 performance: less the velvet guile and vision of continental Christian Eriksen than a switch to an athletic, aggressive style that we had come to expect from the young Englishmen.
Fighting for the ball in the air and on the ground; flicking it on with his first touch; spreading it wide as soon as possible; winning fouls and faking others. Dele gave Tottenham a route through Liverpool’s press and, just as importantly, returned the favour, winning second-balls and forcing the Reds to play long.
From this point Liverpool began dropping off from Spurs’ first and second lines when defending and Tottenham tightened their grasp upon the game, boxing Liverpool into their own half and dominating the ball.
Whether the diffusion of Liverpool’s pressing was pre-planned or a reaction to the problems Alli caused them is unclear.
Equally unclear is how much of swing in momentum was tactical and how much was fitness-related. Importantly, Klopp made two midfield changes on the 63rd minute but to little effect.
Soon after, the German made their final change, swapping James Milner for Joel Matip and switching to a 5-4-1.
The intention here was to close down Tottenham’s full-backs more quickly, preventing them from taking as much space as they had been during the second half. However, this carried a side-effect, making Liverpool even flatter and easier for Tottenham to cage in.
Shortly after the switch, Victor Wanyama fired in a shot that threatened to burst the ball and the skull of anyone brave enough to get in front of it. Tellingly, though, he did so after arriving first to a second-ball from fairly deep after Loris Karius’ punched clearance.
The end game: Pochettino gets the last laugh
The final 15 minutes of the game is already well-discussed.
What the in-depth exploration of penalty decisions misses is that Spurs were deserving of their point, if not more, not because of the legitimacy of penalty decision but because of their control of the game and creation of chances.
In the Premier League this season, Liverpool have dropped points at home on five occasions. They had the vast majority of the ball each time.
Last season, they went seven home games without a win and never with less than half the ball, demonstrating, as they did at Wembley earlier in the season, the value of counter-attacking football both for and against them.
The only example that comes to mind of Liverpool being beaten on both the possession charts and the scoreline was at the Etihad following Sadio Mane’s early red card.
Pochettino broke the golden rule: “Never play football at Anfield”. Uniquely, he still came away with a result and performance to be proud of.
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