The ‘head-to-head record’ may well be the weakest statistic used in football but the sport is changing. The top teams, at least, are firmly out of the era of the reactive and into that of proactive tactical approach. Alternatively phased, we now have a lot of managers who are accused of not having a plan B.
As a result, the last seven games between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – in the period since Jürgen Klopp took over – have been largely very similar.
Spurs open themselves up with possession football. Liverpool turn the ball over in midfield and counter-attack with rapid pace. Spurs do a decent job of pressing in return to suffocate the counters, and are less tired by the end of the game so can rally back (as evidenced by the fact only two of their goals in these fixtures have come before 60 minutes).
Four draws flatters Tottenham a little. They’ve generally had the rub of the green for finishing in these games. Stylistically, these matches do favour Liverpool, but there is one glaring exception to this trend: a convincing 4-1 victory for Spurs at Wembley.
Two goals up by the 12 minute mark, Tottenham were able to settle into a defensive shape and hurt Liverpool on the counter. This has always been the way to play against the Reds (with gradually diminishing results) but Mauricio Pochettino has demonstrated a lack of willingness to do so without a head start.
As a result whoever establishes the lead dictates the games; Liverpool can keep it open, Spurs can close it down. A solution then, for both teams, that couldn’t be easier on paper or harder in practice is “just score first”.
How do you do it though? This is something both teams have been putting resources into over the last two years. Liverpool invested into their set-piece staff, overcame their weakness from corners (though the introduction of Virgil van Dijk helped a lot) and displayed some attacking set plays too.
Klopp is clearly not happy with these returns as Liverpool have recently and controversially hired a throw in coach to expand their set-piece repertoire. Joe Gomez’ late long throw for England against Spain on Saturday provided a glimpse of what is to come in that department.
Tottenham, meanwhile, are only really beginning their set-piece enlightened era, seemingly turned on by England’s World Cup run. That newness does provide a positive for Spurs, as they probably have a few routines unused and so are harder to prepare for.
My first two picks for #ChallengeTwelve have to be the primary set-piece targets for each team Virgil van Dijk and Davinson Sanchez.
For my third pick, as tempting as it is to pick an obvious goal threat in Salah, Kane, Mané or Moura it’s important to recognise how crucial Mousa Dembélé will be in this fixture (even if he doesn’t start!). The Belgian, despite his waning fitness, is the one way for Tottenham to survive the Liverpool press.
So far this season Dembélé has been used predominantly in a number 6 role. No longer able to dominate a midfield, Spurs can still make use of his press-resistance. When that’s his main purpose playing him as deep as possible to get him on the ball as early as possible makes perfect sense.