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12th Feb 2017

Liverpool’s knack of beating the best but not the rest continues against Spurs

Dropped points against lesser teams will still haunt Jurgen Klopp

Tony Barrett

In answering their critics, Liverpool validated much of the criticism they have received.

If an impressive and merited victory over Tottenham Hotspur maintained their strong form against their top six rivals, it served also to underline their status as reverse flat track bullies. Put them up against the strongest and they invariably perform; pitch them against the weakest and the tendency is to wilt.

While the 16 points they have taken in eight matches so far this season against Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City represents an impressive return, the 16 they have dropped against Bournemouth, Burnley, West Ham, Sunderland, Swansea City and Hull City are the reason why their title challenge has turned into a bid to finish in the top four. For all the legitimate questioning of their strength in depth, Liverpool may also need to contemplate whether their attitude is always of the standard required.

At Anfield under the floodlights with a big opponent in town, the likelihood was that they would produce and they did. The contrast with their display in an early kick-off at home to Swansea three weeks earlier could not have been more stark. This time the tempo was established at the very outset as Tottenham’s defence were forced back to their own penalty area, creating a space between back four and midfield that Liverpool exploited time and time again. “From the first pass we were there,” Jurgen Klopp said. It had been several weeks since he was last able to say the same.

Given what we know about the type of strategy that Liverpool struggle against, Tottenham’s tactical approach made little sense, especially when they responded to being pushed back by looking to get as high up the pitch as they possibly could. While that solved the problem of the space they had been leaving in front, it created a new one with space now being left behind. For the first time in this calendar year, Liverpool were able to press and counter to their heart’s content. “We weren’t compact or aggressive,” Mauricio Pochettino complained but this was a failure of the tactics board as much of the team itself.

Isolated at left back with little protection in front, Ben Davies became the most disappointed person outside of Dakar that Senegal had been eliminated from the Africa Nations Cup as Sadio Mane took Tottenham’s full-back apart. Filling in for the injured Danny Rose, Davies had to wait until half-time before Pochettino implemented a tactical shuffle which saw Mousa Dembele pushed wider but by then the damage was done and it would prove to be irreversible. A weak link had been exploited and this time it was Tottenham’s strength in depth that was coming under scrutiny.

The two goals that Mane scored, both of which provided flashbacks to the autumn when Liverpool were rampant, mean the winger is his club’s top scorer in 2017 even though he spent a month in Gabon. The gap between importance and over-reliance can sometimes be gossamer thin and it seems as though Liverpool have strayed into the latter where Mane is concerned, particularly given the way they tore into Tottenham in the first half as the visitors faced eight shots on target, the most they have conceded in an opening period in the last 14 years.

Mane was responsible for half of that total and both of the goals and his presence galvanised those around him. “I’m not sure that I’ve seen many better games from a forward without scoring,” Klopp said of Roberto Firmino but the Liverpool manager could also have lavished praise on Georginio Wijnaldum who had his best all round game for the club and Adam Lallana whose intelligence underpinned much of what was good about his team’s display. Even the much maligned Simon Mignolet justified retaining his place with a crucial save from Son shortly after Liverpool had gone 2-0 up.

“We were really strong, really direct, really clear,” Klopp added. “We have finally started 2017 now.” The likelihood is that they have started it too late to make an impression on Chelsea who were the night’s other big winners as Liverpool’s victory gave them the chance to increase their lead at the top of the Premier League to 12 points. With that kind of advantage within their grasp, Klopp knew that this was not the time for mind games other than to suggest that it is not impossible that they could still be caught. “Chelsea doesn’t look too much that they will struggle over weeks but if they do I’m sure there will be somebody,” he said.

The gap, according to Pochettino, “is a big problem for us but not only for us,” and it leaves the chasing pack needing to work out why it is as large as it is. In Tottenham’s case it is partly due to a poor away record against their closest rivals, one which has now stretched to just one win in their last 15 matches under Pochettino. For Liverpool, it is the reverse and in both respects this was a result which confirmed much of what we already knew.

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