It’s a battle of 2nd vs. 4th next in the Premier League, as the unbeaten Liverpool take on similarly undefeated Tottenham Hotspur.
The Reds’ new system and Spurs’ new manager Ange Postecoglou have given both teams a flying start to the season. What can we expect from this rumble between resurgent forces?
Triangles vs. Triangles
Both sides typically line up in a 4-3-3 for the kickoff. But from there, the two teams divert interestingly, with one common theme: triangles.
For Liverpool, it can often look like a 4-4-2 shape. With two players in the last line occupying the opponent’s defense, there is usually at least one player offering width, and one player covering in behind. This creates a triangle shape that makes it easy to keep possession and swarm around the ball in a counter-press if the ball is lost.
For example, in the excellent 3-1 win over West Ham, Luis Diaz started on the left of a front three led by Darwin Nunez. But often we saw Diaz drift centrally to occupy West Ham’s backline, while midfielder Curtis Jones pulled wide. We’d then see either midfielder Alexis Mac Allister or left-back Andy Robertson come short, creating the triangle on the flank.
Tottenham, meanwhile, deploys a similar principle – but take it to the next level.
Postecoglou’s teams are famous for their fluidity, with the creation and recreation of triangles up and down the pitch. Rather than sticking to rigid positions, players are free to move from full-back to midfield, to the wing space, and even into central forward areas. The key is to make sure the triangles are preserved so that the team can retain possession of the ball and counter-press if it is lost.
For example, in their season opener against Brentford, Spurs right-back Emerson Royal scored from the edge of the box. In this screenshot you can see that the full-back, midfield, and forward positions are occupied by some unusual players:
Interestingly, both teams’ tactical flexibility compensates for a clear weakness. Liverpool has conceded just 5 goals in the league this season. That is the second-best record in the division, despite mostly playing without a specialist defensive midfielder. Spurs meanwhile lost their key striker Harry Kane, but have still scored a respectable 15 goals in the opening 6 league games.
Carry on my Heung-min Son
Spurs have the right manager with the right approach at the right time. Postecoglou’s insistence on fluidity means opponents struggle to mark zonally against them. It’s confusing trying to decide when to follow an opponent when to pass them on to a teammate, or who to pass them on to when players are swapping positions so frequently.
But teams who try to player-mark rather than zonally marking Tottenham are also playing a dangerous game. That’s because the squad Postecoglou inherited is full of exceptional ball carriers such as Yves Bissouma, Destiny Udogie, and Son Heung-min. These players can reliably dribble past their markers, meaning the pitch opens up for them to attack dangerously.
Here’s an example from the win over Manchester United. A United attack breaks down on the edge of the box, and James Maddison receives the ball in a tight space. Manchester United engaged their counter-press, with three players falling on the ball to force a turnover. Maddison has teammates in support, but they’re too close to pass to.
Instead, Maddison carries the ball into space, breaking free of the United press and opening up lots of space for Spurs to attack.
In this case, the attack was successfully slowed down by United. But it demonstrates the danger of trying to press Spurs high up the pitch.
Stopping Them at the Source
Liverpool faced a similar challenge in their recent win over Aston Villa. Again lining up without a specialist defensive midfielder, the Reds focused on pressing high to stop Villa playing out from the back.
Villa’s center-back Pau Torres was targeted in that game as he is key to their buildup. With Liverpool pushing two midfielders onto Villa’s two pivot players, and Darwin Nunez marking Torres’ fellow center-back, the Spaniard’s options are limited.
Mo Salah is responsible for Torres, but rather than rushing him directly, Salah curves his run towards him. This prevents Torres from passing to his outside fullback, Lucas Digne.
Torres concedes a corner, from which Liverpool scored the opening goal.
The Reds completed seven high turnovers in the first half alone, better than any 45 minutes in the previous season, and restricted Villa to zero big chances.
If Liverpool adopts a similar approach against Spurs, they could have some joy.
Cutting out the middle, man
However, Spurs’ secret weapon is goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, who has a much better range of passing than Villa’s Emiliano Martinez. Pushing up to press high stops the opponent from playing short passes out. However, it can open up space in midfield for mid-range chipped passes from the goalkeeper. Vicario is one of the few Premier League goalkeepers who can find these passes, so Spurs can definitely bypass Liverpool’s high press if needed.
One area in which Spurs have struggled this season is breaking down more compact defensive blocks. The likes of Manchester United and Arsenal played into Spurs’ hands by attempting to press high, but a mid-block – a press that is conservative in the first line before ramping up in midfield – could be a more fruitful approach.
We saw Liverpool do this against Newcastle, albeit whilst playing with ten. Using a 4-3-2 in the second half prevented Newcastle from playing easily through the center, and when the move broke down, there was space for the deadly duo of Nunez and Salah to hit ruthlessly on the counter.
How will Tottenham line up?
Liverpool have been fairly consistent in rotating heavily for cup competitions, so we can expect another round of changes from the Carabao Cup side that beat Leicester. Curtis Jones’ value covering wide areas should see him retained despite starting midweek, with the rest of the established “Premier League” side returning. Trent Alexander-Arnold has been ruled out, with Klopp saying the game comes “too early” for him.
Spurs are already out of the Carabao Cup. So they’ve had a full week to recover from the North London derby. James Maddison took a knock to his knee in that game but is expected to start at Anfield. The same cannot be said of Brennan Johnson. His full debut was cut short with a hamstring concern on 60 minutes. Former Everton forward Richarlison is the likeliest replacement.
Two attacking teams, with obvious defensive frailties, that possess exceptionally talented players and deploy them in creative, flexible systems. Sounds like a 0-0 draw, doesn’t it?
Liverpool certainly have the ability to defeat this excellent Spurs team. Whether they go blow for blow or box clever will be intriguing to see. It could just decide the result.
Pre- and post-match coverage for Tottenham/Liverpool can be found on American Scouser’s Facebook, X, and Youtube channels 45 minutes before kickoff and 15 minutes after.