Classic Game Rewind: Tottenham Hotspur 4–1 Liverpool, October 2017
Sometimes football provides us with sliding doors moments. Sometimes it provides us with moments that change the trajectory of both clubs for years to come. Sometimes it provides us with moments that feel like they perfectly capture both teams at the time, but in later years look very strange in hindsight.
When Tottenham Hostpur embarrassed Liverpool with a 4–1 win in October 2017, it only came as a mild surprise. See, back in the ancient period known as two-and-a-half years ago, Jürgen Klopp’s side were a bit flaky. The principles of the good play we’ve seen since were in place, but the Reds had an incredible talent to shoot themselves in the foot by giving up a select few high-quality chances. Liverpool would be great for most of the game, but when a team broke them open, they really broke them open. Here are the shots conceded in the eight games of the 2017–18 season they played before facing Tottenham.
If that expected goals per shot doesn’t scream danger on the surface, let’s put it into context by examining the xG conceded of the entire league at this point.
Yeah. The average chance Liverpool conceded was — by a decent margin — worse than those faced by any other team in the league. Yikes.
Thus it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Spurs carve Liverpool up and score with their first two shots. The first saw Harry Kane react much quicker than all of Liverpool’s defenders and Simon Mignolet, earning himself a pretty decent angle with the goalkeeper in no man’s land.
Kane outthought Liverpool’s backline again all of seven minutes later, this time catching the side out on a counter and playing in Son Heung-min for the finish. Neither of these goals really came from Mauricio Pochettino’s plan in possession. The action developed in transition moments, with Liverpool caught totally disorganised and 2–0 down before even registering a shot.
The race chart tells the story for the rest of the game. Liverpool had all of one good chance in the first half, which Mohamed Salah dutifully put away, but otherwise didn’t get going until they were already 4–1 down. Spurs came in waves, never feeling like they were dominating in terms of sustained periods but always landing the knockout punch.
Their choice to play like this might have actually been enforced. Pochettino’s football at its best was always about pressing high and working good opportunities in possession. This game didn't show that. The key selection issue was Mousa Dembélé’s injury. The Belgian's out-of-this-world ability to evade pressure while moving the ball through midfield made him irreplaceable for Spurs’ Plan A. It’s not a coincidence that Tottenham have declined since he left North London. But his absence meant that Pochettino didn’t even try to control the game with the ball. Instead, he trusted that Liverpool’s concentration lapses would be enough to move to a purely reactive game plan. Spurs were able to win the game not through tactical ideas or talented players, but simply by being more switched on in moments of transition.
I’ve not been the kindest to Kane in the past, so it’s worth highlighting just how good he was here. He was mostly playing on the shoulder of the defenders and managed to be quicker than all of them to just about everything. This would make sense for Sergio Agüero or Jamie Vardy, but Kane isn’t especially fast. He just thought quicker than Dejan Lovren, Joël Matip and Joe Gomez. They were forced to react to things he had already done a split second ago.
Lovren in particular was poor enough to be substituted after half an hour for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This sounds like an extreme move, but in practice it was just Gomez moving to centre back as Emre Can shuffled over to right back, with Philippe Coutinho coming into central midfield and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left of the front three. If it sounds like chaos, it was.
Clearly, after this game Liverpool became exceedingly organised. Since then, the Reds have won 75 of the 96 league matches played, with a fairly ridiculous 2.5 points per game over such a long period. Their backbone is now strong. Of the goalkeeper and back four that started against Spurs, only Joe Gomez would now be expected to start such a big game. And he now plays a different position, with Trent Alexander-Arnold established as the undroppable right back. Salah and Roberto Firmino both started in attack here, but they were joined by Philippe Coutinho rather than Sadio Mané. Coutinho’s talent is obvious, but he’s much more of an individual than Mané, making the side less tactically coherent. This was a rough sketch of a Liverpool side that has since become worth hanging in the Louvre.
For Tottenham, however, the game was something of the beginning of the end. As discussed, Dembélé was unavailable here, prompting a switch in strategy. The more reactive Spurs were able to pull off a few good results in one-off games, with the run to the Champions League final likely to be remembered for a long time. But they couldn’t produce consistent league results. As seen on the xG trendlines below, both the attack and defence cratered. This can’t be put down purely to the system, as players’ personal frustration with Pochettino was also an undeniable piece of the puzzle. But this confluence of factors brought a golden era of Tottenham to a fairly abrupt end.
Will Liverpool suffer the same fate in the years to come? It’s not out of the question. Most of the Reds’ key players are in their late twenties, and only a small drop off from several of them could have a snowball effect. The club’s excellent record in the transfer market in recent years could be tested to the limit as the side will have to rebuild faster than most fans likely assume. Liverpool do have a plan, and they can avoid this fate. But Spurs should be a pertinent example for what the club must avoid in order to continue to dominate.