It’s that time of year again; Liverpool are in another Champions League final. After demolishing Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in one of the biggest Anfield nights of all time, this will be the ninth time the Reds compete for the biggest trophy on the continent, with the five-time winners looking to erase the ghosts of last year’s painful loss in Kiev, as well as making sure their remarkable 2018/19 season does not go trophyless.
Contesting the match are Tottenham Hotspur, who will be partaking in their very first European Cup final. Coming off their own semi-final miracle, the Spurs will undoubtedly want to make it one from one, and after their last-gasp win at Ajax, are liable to believe they’re destined for it.
Here, however, we are less interested in narratives and more focused on pure analysis, and in this two-part series, we will attempt to dig into how the two sides match up. We begin by looking at the opposition.
Style of Play
In what is going to be a recurring theme of this article, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs do not rely on a single formation, and have gone through a number of solutions as the squad has had to adapt to injuries and other absences throughout the season.
Back when Moussa Dembélé was still at the club, Eric Dier was out of the dog house and Victor Wanyama existed as more than a rumour, Tottenham would often line up in attacking four-defender formations that placed Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, and one of Lucas Moura or Heung-Min Son in forward positions. Trusting their central midfield and exceptional central defenders to hold fast, Spurs could unleash their offensive talent with terrifying freedom.
As that midfield has been decimated by sales, injuries and transfer market inactivity, however, Eriksen, Alli and, to some extent, Moussa Sissoko have had to sit deeper in the formation, both blunting their ability to generate offense in the final third, and softening the Lilywhites’ underbelly. As a result, the back three has become increasingly common, and late-season Spurs have typically lined up in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3.
Mauricio Pochettino’s trademark pressing has followed the Argentinian from his days at Espanyol, through his time at Southampton, and is likely to be part of his philosophy wherever he ends up going after Tottenham. Regardless of formation, this Spurs team will get pressure on the ball carrier, cut off passing lanes and compress towards the ball side with aggressive intent whenever play is built from the back by the opposition.
Buttressed by the outstanding individual ability of their central defenders, this allows Spurs to generate turnovers and attacking opportunities in dangerous areas with the opposition caught off balance.
With the loss of their defensive midfielders, however, this edition of Tottenham have shown greater struggles when their press is bypassed, and room can be found in the half space between their midfield and defense, as well as in front of and/or behind their wingbacks. As a result, the 2019 Spurs is a much less impressive shot suppression side than former iterations, giving up 30% more shots than in the two previous seasons.
As has been the case with formations, 2018/19 has seen Spurs utilise a number of attacking strategies. In previous years, and the start of this season, with a fully stocked midfield and a healthy Kane, Tottenham could create play through the middle of the park. With Kane a mobile and willing target, and Alderweireld and Vertonghen exceptional passers, able to break through lines with vertical balls, the team could force play into the opposition’s half with regularity.
As the midfield fell apart and the back three became more common, much of Spurs’ play was pushed towards the flanks, where Kieran Trippier in particular has played a crucial role in progressing the ball up the pitch, either by finding Kane in the half-space or picking out the marauding runs of Son or Moura.
Finally, with Kane falling to an ankle injury twice this year, Spurs have shown a willingness to go long directly from their centre-backs, eschewing play through both the middle and the flanks, instead trusting the long pass accuracy of their CBs, the aerial and hold-up play of Llorente and the pace and skill of Moura and Son to win and maintain possession in the opposition half, allowing the rest of the team to follow suit.
The bottom line is this: Tottenham can use any and all of these strategies with success at any time, and Liverpool need to be prepared for all of them.
Naturally, you don’t make it to the Champions League final in any year without posing a number of different threats. Spurs are no exception, but with limited space, we will only go through three possible ways in which they will attempt to hurt the Reds on Saturday.
First off, despite coming off yet another injury, despite having the worst goalscoring season in half a decade, and despite looking clearly diminished after a long season was extended by World Cup participation last year, Harry Kane remains one of the best all-round strikers in the game. Having declared himself fit for the final, one must assume Kane will start, and Spurs will likely be better for it.
The 25-year old’s shot production dropped precipitously this season, in particular letting loose from range far less often than was the case last year, taking 50% fewer shots from outside the box. This only lead to a 23% drop in expected goals, however, indicating that Kane simply favoured — or was coached to look for — higher probability chances instead. Despite missing 10 matches, the Spurs youth product still finished sixth in the Premier League scoring charts.
At any rate, Kane, if fit, is a big part of Spurs’ offense, often coming deep to get the ball, able to hold it up, lay it off or spread it wide, and if given space anywhere near the box, knows exactly when and where to make his runs in order to maximise the threat. A poacher’s ability to generate good shots from difficult positions and in tight quarters means that the danger is not truly averted until the ball has been taken away from the striker altogether.
Secondly, and similar to the threat posed by Barcelona, Spurs have some of the very best long shot takers in the league. Only Manchester City scored more goals from outside the box this year, and with Eriksen, Son and Kane on the pitch, any opening from 30 yards and in is a potential blockbuster waiting to happen.
The team took far fewer shots from outside the area this season, but converted them at a 40% higher rate than average, and for a Liverpool side whose defensive structure is largely based around denying efforts from inside the box, and who can sometimes be slow to close down shooters from range, giving up high quality looks from range could be deadly.
Finally, there’s Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian may not have a stellar record against Klopp’s Reds — in their nine meetings he has managed only one win, four draws and four losses — but he is undoubtedly a clever strategist, and although Liverpool have been a comfortably stronger side than Tottenham over the course of the season, in a one-off contest, the former Espanyol manager is liable to spring a tactical surprise or two.
Games between the two managers have typically been tightly contested affairs, with few chances and goals — a 4-1 blowout at White Hart Lane notwithstanding — and as Klopp and Poche have gotten to know each other’s tendencies, the particulars of the contests have fluctuated. The 47-year old is likely to have a trick or two up his sleeve on Saturday, and it will be up to Klopp and his players to adjust accordingly.
Join us tomorrow as we take a look at what Liverpool can do to make sure they come out of the game with the trophy in hand.