The Pressing Problem at the Heart of Spurs-Liverpool

This season, Anfield has been a fortress. Liverpool have yet to lose at home, and of their five draws, only the 1-1 against Chelsea reflected an even expected goals scoreline. The Reds have created ten non-penalty clear scoring chances in those draws and conceded only three. The typical home Liverpool performance has been dominant, even when the result occasionally has not been the win that performance deserved.

Liverpool will be looking to continue this run at home this weekend to Tottenham. But Spurs have something to build on too. Tottenham just beat Manchester United handily, and the last time they took on Liverpool, it ended in a 4-1 victory. Spurs created about 3.3 expected goals in that victory, the largest total that the Reds have conceded all season. In fact, the only other time Liverpool conceded more than two expected goals was against Manchester City, in a match that turned on an early Sadio Mane red card.

So which trend will be broken? This depends on one key dynamic. Can Liverpool push Tottenham back? The Reds’ home dominance has been driven by a relentless press and forward motion. They have successfully moved the ball forward in open play into the opposition penalty area 222 times in home matches, the most in the league. With waves of pressure to win the ball back and attackers pushing forward, Liverpool pin the opposition back and leave them no space to counter.

But at Wembley earlier this season, it was precisely this dynamic that Spurs thwarted. Liverpool managed only five open play attacking moves into Tottenham’s penalty area. Spurs successfully played quickly around the press by involving unexpected players into the play and looking to spring Harry Kane free against the Liverpool center backs.

One might expect to see Christian Eriksen’s attacking map featuring several key long passes forward, but right back Kieran Trippier was if anything more effective. His quick forward ball to Kane broke Liverpool’s press for Spurs’ first goal.

This weekend, Liverpool must contain Spurs’ quick-hitting attack and re-establish their suffocating pressure. The Reds will have two key advantages to press to make this happen. The first is Virgil Van Dijk. The new center back will likely replace Dejan Lovren in the lineup, and it was Lovren that Spurs targeted so effectively in their passes forward to Kane. If Tottenham seek to rush the ball forward, it might be possible to thwart this movement simply with better defensive play in the back line.

The second advantage is also a matter of personnel. Liverpool tried against Spurs to play a bruising midfield of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can. These stronger but slower midfielders found themselves pushed back and unable to challenge Spurs quickly. Henderson and Milner ended up doing more defending in their own half than pushing forward to win the ball and dominate play.

It is unlikely that Jurgen Klopp will make a similar selection on Sunday. In fact, Klopp started his three big midfielders against Huddersfield in midweek. Spurs should expect to see a faster and more dynamic midfield, likely featuring one or both of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum. This personnel should be more suited to closing down Spurs’ quick attacks and springing their own moves off the counterpress to pin Tottenham back. Liverpool’s press has been dominant at home, and the right personnel should enable the Reds to keep this run going.

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