A tale of tactics
Antonio Conte had spent a full week preparing his Tottenham players for what would greet them at Anfield and that was clear over the course of the ensuing 90 minutes.
Spurs dampened the famous Anfield atmosphere, restricting the noise to the opening minutes of each half, in the aftermath of Luis Diaz’s deflected equaliser and then later when a few corners were won by the home side in the final moments. Other than that, all you could hear were the travelling Tottenham fans and the occasional lone voice among the home crowd trying to get a Mohamed Salah chant started.
In the end the Egyptian was as muted as the Anfield crowd on Saturday evening and there was a frustrated edge to Jurgen Klopp’s post-match comments, even though he had earlier hailed Spurs’ counter-attacking as “insane”.
READ MORE: Tottenham players give Antonio Conte something he craves as Jurgen Klopp forgets to thank Spurs
When asked if Spurs’ bodies on the line style of defending had impressed him, Klopp dismissed it, stating: “I’m sorry I’m the wrong person for that, I don’t like this kind of football, but that’s my personal problem. I think they’re world-class and I think they should do more for the game.
“I think the game against Liverpool they had 36% or 38% possession, but it’s my problem. I cannot coach it. So that’s why I cannot do it. So yes, world-class players block all the balls, really difficult. Atletico Madrid is doing it. Fine, they won whatever. Fine, absolutely fine. I just can’t. I respect everything they do, but it’s not me.”
Gary Neville weighed in afterwards, indicating that Klopp’s words showed exactly why Conte would not have been the right fit for a United side now in a bad way.
Yet Neville was overlooking that this was a game-plan built specifically by Conte for this match. It worked and almost brought all three points back to north London.
To suggest that this is Conte’s week in, week out way of football is unfair. In the Italian’s 25 Premier League matches with Spurs, they have scored 51 goals, the third highest tally in the competition, just seven fewer than Liverpool and 13 more than United. Surely being tactically adaptable is a good fit for anyone?
For Neville, who once called for the far more pragmatic Diego Simone to become United manager, and the frustrated Klopp, the stats from Liverpool’s Champions League final victory against Spurs seem to have slipped into the ether.
For that night in Madrid, Liverpool had just 35% of the possession, managing just over half of Spurs’ 510 passes that evening and it was Tottenham’s struggles in front of goal that led to their demise. The Reds got the job done in whatever way possible and Klopp would certainly not have been berating his players amid their celebrations on the pitch for deviating from his ideal style of football.
It could have been worse for Klopp on Saturday evening in the Premier League had the otherwise excellent Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg chosen to head a big unmarked chance at goal rather than to nobody in particular behind him in the closing moments.
There was also referee Michael Oliver’s reluctance to book Fabinho, who spent much of his time bringing down Spurs players as they broke, with late sliding tackles and an unpleasant elbow to the face for Son Heung-min. It took until the 79th minute for the Liverpool man to finally go into the book when in truth the Brazilian could have three or four yellow cards by that point.
This was a night when neither team ended up with the result they wanted but for Tottenham to be scorned for an approach that saw them repeatedly attempt to pass through Liverpool’s fabled press, have better opportunities to score while ensuring Klopp’s side had to resort to pot-shots from distance is odd.
The White Wall
Spurs’ fans sometimes refer to the south stand at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as ‘the white wall’ with a nod to Borussia Dortmund’s yellow counterpart, yet the true white wall was built on Saturday night at Anfield.
It took the form of three pillars named Cristian Romero, Eric Dier and Ben Davies and it ensured that Hugo Lloris barely had anything to do all evening.
Some of the regular Liverpool-covering journalists were shocked by just how good Romero is. The Argentine had missed the first meeting between the sides in December with his hamstring injury but he more than made up for it at Anfield.
He strode around the pitch with a self-belief that is growing by the match. Even when he made one misplaced pass, it did not deter him from attempting to play around the Liverpool press again moments later and he constantly looked to dribble past it as well.
You don’t get voted Serie A Defender of the Year for nothing and Romero is now completely at home in the Premier League, a competition that suits his front-foot style of defending down to the ground.
The Argentina international is silky on the deck, dominant in the air and reads the game around him like a veteran. That’s possibly the scariest thing for opposition attackers. At just 24-years-old, Romero is only going to get better.
Tottenham often get criticised for not buying the finished product – and on the whole rightly so – but with Romero they signed one of Europe’s best centre-backs from under the noses of everyone else and Conte believes he still has plenty of room for improvement.
Romero made eight clearances, one tackle and one interception and blocked one shot. Alongside him Eric Dier was a colossus in the centre of the backline, marshalling them as a group and picking his moments to step forward and when to hold the line.
Dier made two interceptions, one tackle, 11 clearances and blocked three shots in a dominant display.
Then there was Ben Davies. Often the overlooked one in the defence and sometimes the scapegoat, but gone are the days when Spurs fans would worry about the Welshman being torn apart by Sadio Mane. He did that in one of his early games at Anfield, the tag stuck even though he was not the first or last defender to suffer at the hands of the Senegalese attacker.
On Sunday, Davies was at his peak after a nervy early ball or two. He grew in dominance and threw his body in front of everything that came his way, typified by an inch-perfect flying block in Spurs’ box from a Salah shot. Davies blocked four shots on the day, made 10 clearances, one interception and one tackle.
That heavily deflected Diaz shot, bouncing off Rodrigo Bentancur, was a cruel way to get past a line that had given nothing away.
For Conte, he was delighted with a group of players that had given him everything he asked for but were still left disappointed afterwards.
“On one hand I think we have to be satisfied because it is not easy to play in this moment against an amazing team, especially at Anfield with an amazing atmosphere and a lot of noise. It’s not simple,” he said.
“Against Liverpool, to see Liverpool players running and have a lot of energy despite playing every three days is incredible. I think that they’re deserving everything they are reaching this season.
“For sure for this reason too, to have a good result was positive on one hand. On the other I think maybe we have to be a bit disappointed, and I can see it in the eyes of my players at the end of the game.
“A bit of disappointment because we had the chances to win, to win the game, especially the last time. It was an incredible chance but I repeat, good performance. I asked of my players to be good defensively and I think we didn’t concede to Liverpool any chances. We conceded from a deflection.
“At the same time I asked for them to be brave, with courage, because Liverpool in every game are going to press you in a strong way. If we are prepared and you’ve studied the way to overcome this pressure, you can find a lot of space to attack and to create problems for Liverpool. When this happened we created the chances to score, but I think the draw was fair.”
The wing-backs show what they can do
The road for Emerson Royal has not been easy. Signed as a solid full-back for Nuno Espirito Santo by Spurs’ managing director of football Fabio Paratici, the wing-back life has not been kind to the Brazilian.
Yet in the past two matches, with Conte taking some of the attacking responsibility off Emerson, the 23-year-old has mostly been focusing on his defending and in doing so he’s been excellent.
At Anfield, he put in his best performance yet in a Spurs shirt and Liverpool struggled to advance down his flank.
On top of that, the full-back used the ball well on the whole whenever he had it, instructed by Conte to pass around the Liverpool press and 78.8% of his 33 passes found their mark, half of his six crosses found a Tottenham shirt and four out of his five long balls were accurate on the night.
The key pass had him pop up on the left-hand side of the pitch before hitting a lofted pass to Kane, who controlled it sublimely in the build-up to Tottenham’s goal.
Emerson does not fit the wing-back role as naturally as his counterpart on the left-hand side but he proved that when it comes to defending, he’s no error-strewn liability in this Tottenham side.
The man on the left was Ryan Sessegnon, again handed a chance to start regularly in the absence of the injured Sergio Reguilon and this match was a journey in itself for the 21-year-old.
He began the game nervously within the noise of the Anfield cauldron, a few passes going astray, getting the wrong side of his man on a couple of occasions and there was a miscued header that forced Lloris into a scrambling dive across his goal to stop it from reaching the waiting Salah.
Once he got through that part of the game though, Sessegnon grew in confidence and he proved at both ends of the pitch why Conte has such high hopes for him, if he can just believe in himself.
For at the back, Sessegnon belied his years with a tactically disciplined display that was reminiscent of his performance in the victory against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in February.
The young wide man successfully made five tackles, more than anyone else on the pitch. He also made three clearances and blocked one Liverpool shot. On the one main occasion Salah got away from him too easily, Sessegnon did what Conte and the top managers want, he cynically grabbed the Egyptian and took a yellow card rather give Liverpool a dangerous attack.
At the other end of the pitch, as he did at City, Sessegnon grew in confidence and played a big part in the goal. This time he burst down the left to provide an outlet for Kane and then hit the perfect first time low cross inside to Son to sweep home Spurs’ goal. That made it 20 Premier League goals for Son, all from open play, and he is now just two behind Salah in the Golden Boot race, even if the South Korean cares little for such personal accolades.
For Sessegnon, this was another performance in a huge game that showed Conte that he can rely on him when it counts and as the youngest person on the pitch he is also only going to improve.
The key for Sessegnon now is to remain fit, play in all of these remaining Tottenham matches and then have a crucial pre-season under Conte to set him up perfectly for next season when he has a chance to make that left wing-back spot his own.
A Thursday night like no other
There’s a certain irony to the fact that a Thursday night match is going to go some way to deciding which of the north London rivals will play regularly next season on that night of the week in the Europa League.
There’s no getting around that Tottenham needed a win at Anfield to keep their destiny in their own hands, although the performance will still go some way to keeping them in the right frame of mind going into the north London derby.
Arsenal just about got past a struggling 10-man Leeds side on Sunday afternoon to make it a four-point gap when the north London rivals do battle on Thursday.
A derby victory is going to provide momentum to whoever takes it, particularly with less than straight forward matches to come for both teams – Spurs at home to battling Burnley and then away to already relegated Norwich and Arsenal away at revitalised Newcastle and scrapping Everton.
“First of all Arsenal have to play tomorrow. In England no easy games. Don’t forget Brighton. Today they won 4-0 against Manchester United. Brentford won 3-0 against Southampton and against these two teams we dropped points. I want to show you that in England not easy games,” Conte said after the draw at Anfield.
“You can’t think that ‘I’m playing against a low or medium team’. That doesn’t exist, a low or medium team in England. Every game is very difficult and for that reason there are three games to go for us, four games to go for Arsenal.
“In every game you have to gain three points, not easy. Not easy for us and not easy for Arsenal. We deserve to stay in this race because I think in November not many people could believe Tottenham can fight until the end for a place in the Champions League.
“Now we stay in the race and we are deserving this. On Thursday we have an important game, a vital game and a north London derby against Arsenal, our rival for this race and it’s another game I want to get three points because it will be very important to continue to have hope and to finish in the Champions League.”
The key for Tottenham is whether they finish in fourth place or not, they cannot let it be another negatively defining moment.
The Champions League final defeat ended up being just that for Tottenham as all of their best-laid plans unravelled with a belief among the players and staff that they had peaked in reaching that evening in Madrid, particularly coming off the back of two transfer windows without any investment in the squad.
Whether Spurs finish fourth or fifth this season they need to keep Conte as happy as one can keep the Italian. They need to build a squad fit for his purpose.
Conte has been speaking a lot in recent days about the need for teams to spend big money on “important players” if they want to challenge at the top next season. However, he has also been acknowledging that it requires patience from all sides to build a squad ready to compete for the biggest prizes.
When asked on Saturday how long he felt it would take for Tottenham to compete with Liverpool for Premier League titles, he said: ” I understand this type of question, but I think we need to have a path with the team, and to create a base and then to improve the base here.
“I think Liverpool, no I’m sure Liverpool did this because they created a foundation with Jurgen and they did a fantastic job in seven years they won a lot, He created a monster, in a good way, an amazing way, and he has to be satisfied – but to do this you have to have time and patience, and a lot of things because you have to go step by step.
“It’s impossible to imagine that next season you are going to win the title because I’m realistic and I know there are teams in England like Liverpool and City, Chelsea, also United, who are really strong, and it’s not simple to face these monsters.”
There may be comfort to be found in Conte’s words which talk of ‘we’ and the future, something he is not normally inclined to do. Perhaps that is because there are few other enticing managerial jobs likely to be out there this summer or perhaps it is because the early signs from Tottenham and chairman Daniel Levy are that they will back him in the right way.
The key this summer will be buying the right players, rather than splashing the cash on the wrong ones. That summer after that pivotal 2019 Champions League final Tottenham spent what would eventually be around £150m, including bringing in the two most expensive signings in their history.
Three years on and both of those players – Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso – are on loan at other clubs, with nobody willing to buy them permanently last January, Jack Clarke is on loan at Stoke after failing to break into the first team set-up and only Sessegnon looks like he could end being the best thing about that transfer window if he steers clear of further injury woes.
The key for Paratici this summer will be how much he has learned about the Premier League in the past year and the players required, particularly after Conte publicly tore into the thinking behind his talented but lightweight summer signing Bryan Gil.
Both Dejan Kulusevski, again impressive against Liverpool, and Rodrigo Bentancur, who improved as the game wore on, have adapted quickly to Spurs and the Premier League but how much of a part Conte had in those January signings is unclear.
With everyone else with top four hopes expected to spend big money this summer, and Newcastle set to join the gang, Spurs have no choice but to back Conte and also provide him with ready-made players rather than simply prospects. Romero, Bentancur and Kulusevski are all perfect examples of players who can tick both boxes for club and coach.
Paratici is close to appointing his new number two, in the wake of technical performance director Steve Hitchen’s departure earlier this year. football.london understands the interviews have now taken place with all the prospective candidates on his shortlist and the newcomer, who will work behind the scenes and is expected to come from abroad, will be in place to help with the summer transfer window and Paratici’s continual overhaul of departments within the football side of the club.
Tottenham need all the help possible in getting their business this summer right, but first Conte’s men need to do all they can on the pitch and win their three remaining matches. They can only do their job and then hope others give them a helping hand.
The crowd will also play their part on Thursday evening for what could be the noisiest north London derby of all time in front of a full Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the first time. There are going to be plenty of nerves and anxiety but the supporters will be able to play their part in transferring those to the opposition. It’s going to be one hell of an occasion and whoever handles it the best will set themselves up perfectly for the finale.
Source by Football London