Liverpool 3-2 Spurs: no defensive midfielders equals a shootout

The Reds just edge a really open end-to-end Premier League encounter, which finishes Liverpool 3-2 Spurs at Anfield.

Resilient, youthful, energetic and determined have all been buzz words to describe Spurs this season and the side showed all of them to twice come back at Anfield. In the end, we succumbed to a Mario Balotelli strike in a game that saw two teams go back and forth at each other, resolute to not back down.

There were a number of key factors at work that underpinned the whole match and it started with both teams not having a natural defensive midfielder.

Lack of holding players

Liverpool were without Lucas Leiva and we had Nabil Bentaleb with Ryan Mason playing just ahead of him. Leiva has been instrumental in shielding his back three in Liverpool’s four previous matches, which had yielded clean sheets in each of them. Bentaleb is more of a box-to-box number eight, but is young and adapting to the holding role. Add in the combination of our team looking slightly mentally and physically fatigued from the emotional win over Arsenal at the weekend and it made for plenty of space behind each side’s midfield.

There were just 55 seconds on the clock when Mousa Dembele picked up the ball at halfway, span and ran straight in-behind. Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were supposed to be shielding Liverpool’s back three and already they were left trailing. Dembele hit the wide-open space between the lines, where Erik Lamela was also free; the Argentinean in here would be another factor.


Dembele jets away with Lamela also free.

The move came to nothing, but both teams squeezing men in to this zone, looking to press and close down quickly, was condensing the playing area in midfield. This created turnovers and quick counter attacks.


Both teams congested the middle third.

The problem was that neither defence squeezed up behind its midfield and so these green spaces appeared where the defensive midfielders should’ve been. This left Liverpool open to runners like Lamela and Eriksen. We let in Philippe Coutinho and Jordon Ibe, but compounded the problem by making a number of errant passes that went straight to Liverpool players, twice putting them directly in on our goal.

Lamela between the lines

A real feature of the match was Erik Lamela getting loose between the lines. We saw above how he was wide open in space as Dembele drove forward with the ball, but the Argentinean was constantly drifting in to the middle and not being picked up. This allowed him to play several through balls, which snuck in Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen.


Erik Lamela passes played, Liverpool 3-2 Spurs.

It started early in the match, as Lamela squeezed a pass in to Harry Kane that saw Simon Mignolet miss the ball and clumsily bring down the youngster.


Lamela drifts centraly to feed in Harry Kane.

He then set up Eriksen and Mason for shots and had a viscous strike brilliantly tipped over by the Liverpool keeper as he hit the ball sliding across the ground. The pièce de résistance was his brilliant reverse pass to tee up Harry Kane for our first goal.

4 in the box

In his first meeting with Mauricio Pochettino when the Argentinean was in charge with Southampton, Brendan Rodgers saw his side beaten by being outnumbered in midfield. Pochettino likes to get four players in here by a man drifting in from the flanks and Rodgers’ team that day was overrun.

Since then, Rodgers has played a 4 man diamond midfield to counter this and its seen him win every encounter since. Without a number of key players, such as Lucas Leiva and Raheem Sterling, Rodgers stayed with his new 3-4-2-1 formation here. However, he still got his four men in to central midfield by playing a box. This saw Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho and Markovic try to block off the centre every time the Reds lost the ball.


Liverpool’s central four.

We speculated how Rodgers might achieve this in the keys to Liverpool vs Spurs before the game and this was his solution. The Reds’ midfield was difficult to play through, as Mason shows here by gesturing that he doesn’t have a pass.


Mason calling for someone to move.

Fast ball movement and errant passes

This box in midfield made us often look to move the ball quickly forward, as we did in the build up to the free kick to tie the score at 2-2. But it also resulted in a number of errant backwards and sideways passes that gave Liverpool the ball running at or even through our defence. Daniel Sturridge was given two excellent opportunities directly at our goal that he would usually bury had he not just returned from a lengthy layoff.

It wasn’t just us that were moving the ball vertically up the field quickly. Liverpool were also trying to find Sturridge, Coutinho, Markovic and the impressive Jordon Ibe jetting forward and beyond our backline.

With all of these above factors at work, it served up the richly exciting game that has become the hallmark of the Premier League.


Liverpool took the lead through Lazar Markovic, as they got the ball forward extremely quickly once more. Simon Mignolet sent it downfield in the direction of Daniel Sturridge, as we were caught up at a set piece.

The ball went in-behind Nabil Bentaleb who was up-field and the challenge from Jan Vertonghen sent it straight in to the path of Markovic. After a stray pass from Ryan Mason had put Sturridge through on goal moments earlier, this tackle turned in to another errant one, putting the Serbian in this time.


Vertonghen’s challenge sends the ball to Markovic.

Markovic’s shot was tame and scuffed, but the ball bobbled up off the surface and over the outstretched hand of Hugo Lloris. As the Serbian sunk to his knees in front of a jubilant Kop, the Frenchman thumped the divot responsible in front of him.


After going a goal down, we showed our newfound resilience and determination to get back in the match. Erik Lamela moving in to space by drifting inside to get between the lines was crucial to the comeback. He’d already found a couple of neat through passes to put in teammates and he moved off his starting position on the right flank once more.

Lamela took the ball and exchanged passes with Christian Eriksen, which brought Emre Can out from his position in the back three. We’d looked at exposing Emre Can’s aggressive movement in the keys to Liverpool vs Spurs and the German was once more taken out of the play by his impetuosity.


Can drawn out as Lamela finds Kane.

Lamela played an exquisite reverse pass to Harry Kane, who let the ball slide across his body and then twisted before firing through the legs of the on-rushing Simon Mignolet.

Kane’s stealthy movement has become a feature of his play. Despite now being the focal point to stop when playing us, he still manages to find that moment of space in a congested penalty area.


After the interval, Liverpool went back in front after another combination of defensive errors.

The first saw Eric Dier fluff a clearance as the ball bounced up off him and out for a throw-in. The second was Danny Rose rashly trying to dispossess Daniel Sturridge in the box. Rose had been flying in to challenges all evening and the Liverpool striker didn’t need a second invitation to go down.

Steven Gerrard coolly converted the spot kick and Liverpool were back in front.


Another showing of newfound Tottenham resilience followed. After the body blow of conceding the penalty, it took us just 8 minutes to respond. Again it was from moving the ball forward quickly that we earned the free kick from which we equalised.

With Liverpool’s midfield retreating and with their box now flattened out, there was no pressure on Ryan Mason. The youngster had time to get his head up and spot the run of Christian Eriksen beyond Emre Can, who was caught slightly up field, away from his fellow defenders.


Mason finds Eriksen over the advanced Emre Can.

Emre Can recovered and knocked the ball loose from Eriksen’s possession, but as he did, Harry Kane was first to it and Steven Gerrard slid in, fouling him in the process.

Christian Eriksen shot the dead ball directly at goal, forcing Simon Mignolet in to a sprawling save. The Liverpool keeper pushed the ball away, but straight to Harry Kane who had closed in from an offside position. Not spotted by the linesman, Kane squared the ball across the six-yard box for Mousa Dembele to bundle home.


After twice coming from behind, the match was decided by moves from the substitutes bench.

Mauricio Pochettino has done many good things since his arrival at Spurs, but his use of his in-game changes still requires some work. We’ve queried them before and here you could see what he was trying to achieve by taking off Christian Eriksen and Ryan Mason for Nacer Chadli and Paulinho, but it didn’t make sense in the heat of the battle.

Pochettino was removing the player in his midfield that was, and could, move the ball quickly forwards, as Mason demonstrated in the move that lead to our equaliser at 2-2. In Eriksen he was also taking off the player that has not only dug us out on five occasions this season with late goals, but also was drifting in to the spaces where Liverpool had no defensive midfielder.

Paulinho is a late arriving in the box attacker who can do neither of these things – get between the lines or pass the ball quickly up the pitch. Nacer Chadli is a player that is great at running in-behind defences on counter attacks, but needs an Eriksen or Mason to get him the ball. Without either of them on the field, this wasn’t going to happen.

On the other hand, Brendan Rodgers made two good changes. With the space between the lines we were giving away, Adam Lallana looked to be the perfect player to bring on with fresh legs to exploit it. Mario Balotelli for Daniel Sturridge was a like-for-like switch, but his lack of mobility sees him set up more often than not in the centre and that benefited the Reds here.

The move started with Adam Lallana drifting in to space to pick the ball and find Jordon Ibe. The Liverpool youngster had been giving Danny Rose problems all game, which had seen him commit some rash fouls. This brought Nabil Bentaleb over to help cover, leaving Lallana to move in to the space created inside the double team.


Lallana moves in-behind the double team.

Ibe slipped the ball between the two Tottenham defenders, giving Lallana space and time to pick out a pass across the six-yard box. Pochettino’s former pupil made no mistake in fizzing the ball along the floor and Mario Balotelli stretched out a boot to prod it home.

It was another major blow, as Liverpool took the lead for a third time and something we could never recover from. The Reds then did a good job of killing the game to run out the clock.

Liverpool 3-2 Spurs overall

After the emotionally charged and physically sapping match with Arsenal, this game came too quickly for us. There were plenty of concentration errors, lapse passes and the players looked slightly jaded from their exertions at the weekend.

Saying that there were plenty of positives in this performance. Our youthful team, again with an average age of 24 years old, came back twice to level the scores soon after going behind. They also pressed and hounded Liverpool well in order to win back possession. Erik Lamela had another good game and is making small strides in fulfilling the potential that caused us to part with £30 million for his services.

A draw may have been a fairer result here, but taking a point is something we’ve not always done this season. We’ve comeback to edge games 2-1 and earn three points, giving us a very good total of thirteen wins this season. However, with only four draws in twenty-five Premier League matches compared to eight losses, we also need to grind out a share of the spoils too, rather than going home with nothing.

Final score: Liverpool 3-2 Spurs.

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8 Responses to Liverpool 3-2 Spurs: no defensive midfielders equals a shootout

  1. anotherwisemonkey 11th February 2015 at 7:18 pm #

    A balanced response, cheers.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th February 2015 at 5:11 pm #

      Thank you Sir.

  2. Andy B 11th February 2015 at 8:52 pm #

    Great article as always.

    I agree that bringing on Paulinho was a complete waste of time. Why he gets picked to play is one of life’s big mysteries.

    It would have made sense to bring on another passing midfielder like a Tom Carroll or Harry Winks, but unfortunately Mason is the only passing midfielder in the current first team squad. This should have been addressed in the January transfer window.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th February 2015 at 5:03 pm #

      Thanks for reading Andy. Mason did look tired and Pochettino could’ve still taken him off, but removing another passer in Eriksen didn’t seem smart to take off all our creative options.

  3. Mike Sz 11th February 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    With the caveat that I missed the game initially, and have only yet caught 1st half highlights, as well as some random commentaries…

    It certainly seems as though a draw would have been the fairer result. On the one hand, if it was the case that Spurs were really going for the win through to the end, I guess there’s something about what that might say about the growing confidence of the team that I like. On the other hand, Mark’s point about seizing the moment to “take our share of the spoils” is an important one as well. Can, or should, Spurs be able to play for the draw? One might say that, in terms of playing an in-form Liverpool away, the answer is yes.

    Interestingly (or maybe not!), I recall SkySports, for example, commenting how Spurs “struggled,” though The Guardian praise the end-to-end attacking nature of the game. My sense is certainly that Spurs made some errors (some quite influential), but “struggling” implies something that happened over the course of the entire game…and it doesn’t seem that was the case. Errors, yes…but it seems Spurs put up a good fight, at the very least.

    I think it’s true…this game did come awfully soon after the glorious North London Derby. But then, the obvious counter lurks: the best teams will find a way. I think Spurs need the rest that they’ll have now. But then, I always worry about breaks coming at a point when the momentum and morale is generally good, as it should be, even after the Liverpool defeat.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th February 2015 at 5:10 pm #

      Great post Mike. I have no problem in choosing to play for a draw at the end of a match if its away at a tough ground, but i think you have to take in to account the state of the match. If we were heavily on top, then go for it and try to win. If we’re not in control of the game and the home side is pushing for a winner, then shut the game down. Even top sides do this, it’s game and situation management. If we’d turned half of the 8 losses that we have in to draws, that’s an extra four points, which right now would put us nicely in the top 4. It could make a real difference come the end of the season.

  4. Chris 22nd February 2015 at 12:00 am #

    Good, extensive examination of the game, as usual. My couple of points:

    1) The defending for their third goal. As Bentaleb rotated across I felt we were about to lose it. I noticed first of all that Walker did his job well, he blocked off our right wing, forced them back and then to switch play to our left. He gets a lot of criticism for his mistakes, but he’s constantly stopping attacks at source like this – it’s something you won’t get much credit for as the play isn’t really dangerous at this point.

    Anyway, back to the Rose/Bentaleb defending – I was hoping we’d got out of this, but you can see how they are standing up to Ibe in your last picture. They’re side by side, neither taking the initiative. IMHO this is fatal, Ibe can get his head up for a pass (as he did), or he can choose to take on either defender, _or_ he can chip the ball through the middle and run through, most likely taking a foul on the way.

    One of them (Rose) needs to get close so he can’t get his head up and hopefully make him turn. Bentaleb is there to clear up if he does get beaten.

    2) I lost confidence with Harry due to his horrible in-game management (along with naive team selections), and I lost confidence in AVB when he gave up on his principles (and those solid 1-0 wins) for whatever reason. And with Sherwood, his complete lack of tactics which left our players hanging out to dry… less said the better.

    This Liverpool game (and Fiorentina)… uh oh, is Poch not the miracle man we had hoped for? The Liverpool game, I can mostly forgive. As you mention, we had a young team out there who should have been looking to shut up shop at 2-2 and take that point away from home. But then, you don’t bring on Paulinho to make your central midfield more solid. And as you say, Eriksen is the guy you leave on to nick that goal in the 90th minute. Capoue? Stambouli?

    But the Fiorentina subs… what was that about.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 24th February 2015 at 4:40 pm #

      Some excellent points Chris. The in-game subs do continue to be a cause for concern in amongst what otherwise has been a very good job being done by Pochettino. I’m really unsure about how they can be justified sometimes to be honest and also whether there are orders from higher to play certain players eg Paulinho, to put them in them shop window. As you mention AVB got away from his principles. It was reported, whether this is true or not, that the board wanted more exciting football and not the 1-0 wins, so maybe Pochettino is being leaned on as well…