Yesterday, we started out by taking a closer look at the threat Tottenham pose to Liverpool in Saturday’s 2019 Champions League final in Madrid. Now, it’s time to delve into what the Reds can do to hurt their opponents.
The two sides — the managers and, due to little turnover, most of the players — have met many times over the past couple of seasons now, with most of the games decided, if at all, by a single goal. Tactical adjustments and experiments have been attempted regularly when the two sides meet, and despite the familiarity, one never knows exactly how either is going to approach the match.
We’ll make an educated attempt at guessing, though. Here, then, are a few of Liverpool’s likely keys to victory.
Keys to Victory
As touched on several times in Part One of this series, the 2019 edition of Tottenham is capable of playing a number of different styles, depending on personnel and game state. As such, strategies that may be tailored to one style may not be effective against another and vice versa, suggesting that Jürgen Klopp may find himself having to adjust during the course of the game as well.
The first decisive factor in how to best attack Spurs is how many defenders they field. It is a simple idea, but the reality is that defensive spacing will change drastically depending on whether the team plays with two or three centre-backs.
Should Spurs decide to go with a back two, it is likely that they will also play a front three, allowing their wide attackers to either try and prevent Liverpool’s fullbacks from pushing up, or track back and cover those fullbacks should they advance forward.
In the latter situation, space for the fullbacks — huge playmakers for the Reds this season —may be at a premium, but Liverpool’s own wide attackers will have better opportunities at isolating themselves against an opposing fullback, while the nearest centre-back will either be too far away to safeguard their team-mate, or leave holes in the centre of the box as they come wide in support.
Kieran Trippier in particular, crucial as he has been to Spurs’ build-up play at times this season, is not a tremendously gifted defensive fullback, and if left on an island against Sadio Mané, owner of one of the continent’s most unfairly effective step-overs, could find himself in serious trouble.
In the case of a back three, however, while there is no wide forward to track back, the accompanying central defender is close enough to his wingback that he can effectively support him without opening up the box for opposing attackers to run into, making it easier to close down or cut out a cross. Dangerous looking situations may occur more often in the wide spaces, but the probability of a cross successfully turning into a shot drops.
Regardless of the mechanics forced by specific formations, the fact of the matter is that teams that are capable of attacking the wide areas with quality — Manchester City, Arsenal, Wolverhampton and Liverpool, among others — are the sides that have caused Spurs the most defensive grief this year. Given how aggressively the Londoners compress laterally to the ball, they are often open to a cross-field switch, and as the season has gone on, that ability to move play from one flank to the other in an instant has become one of Liverpool’s strongest attacking weapons.
Tottenham’s secondary area of concern is the defensive midfield. With Moussa Dembélé sold, Eric Dier either injured or out in the cold, and Victor Wanyama a shadow of his former self, Spurs have no natural defensive midfielders left. While Harry Winks, if healthy, can certainly do a job there and Moussa Sissoko sure can cover a lot of ground, neither possess the instinct to sit and shield their backline.
As a result, the space in front of the defensive line is often left vacated, and teams that are able to get their playmakers on the ball in that area can potentially wreak havoc, either by taking shots, threading through balls to diagonal runners or taking on defenders and forcing fouls.
A three-man defense mitigates this somewhat, again because it allows one of Spurs’ exceptional central defenders to break from his line and challenge the ball carrier without leaving gaping holes behind him, and if Pochettino wishes to make it a tight and low-scoring contest, he is likely to go with this option.
Finally, and as is always the case with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the counter-press could be a crucial factor. While Pochettino demonstrated that he understands the danger of attempting to play out from the back and through the midfield against the Reds when the two sides last met — opting to go over the top and ceding possession more often to circumvent the press — the two matches against Ajax showed that when Spurs do decide to keep the ball and build attacks more slowly, an aggressive press can turn them over and hurt them.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain potentially available to start, the Reds could for all intents and purposes field a front four in defense, making life miserable for their opposition’s deep playmakers. The Lilywhites’ central defenders are all outstanding players, but if forced to defend their goal going backwards in transition, are liable to be almost as vulnerable as most other defenders, and given how effective Liverpool have been at shutting down games after taking a lead this season, one or two successful counter attacks could be all it takes to decide the match.
There are countless other factors that can end up making the decisive impact, of course: the tactical battle two of Europe’s most talented managers, which of the half a dozen deadly attackers have the best day on the job, whether Dejan Lovren unexpectedly starts and reprises his disastrous White Hart Lane performance from last season.
Presented here, though, is our analysis and our best guesses at what threats exist, which weaknesses can be exploited, and which elements of the matchup could end up being decisive in the end.
Everything is at stake here; for Tottenham, a historic, first-ever Champions League title, for the Reds, a trophy to show for after a seven-year drought and one of the most impressive seasons in the club’s illustrious history. Hopefully, it will be a game worthy of the occasion, free of controversy, and a deserving winner.