x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Different manager, same old result for Tottenham against Liverpool

A 3-0 home defeat under Mauricio Pochettino is a clear setback for Tottenham Hotspur after four straight wins against lesser opposition, but the question is whether this result does much more than reinforce the obvious point that teams who play a high-line are susceptible to the extreme pace Liverpool possess in their forward line.

Tottenham Hotspur's Argentinian head coach Mauricio Pochettino, right, fared no better than Tim Sherwood or Andre Villas-Boas did before him against Liverpool. Olly Greenwood / AFP
Tottenham Hotspur's Argentinian head coach Mauricio Pochettino, right, fared no better than Tim Sherwood or Andre Villas-Boas did before him against Liverpool. Olly Greenwood / AFP

It does not seem to matter who the manager is: Tottenham Hotspur struggle against Liverpool.

Last season under Andre Villas-Boas, they lost 5-0 to Liverpool at White Hart Lane and then, under Tim Sherwood, 4-0 at Anfield.

A 3-0 home defeat under Mauricio Pochettino is a clear setback after four straight wins against lesser opposition, but the question is whether this result does much more than reinforce the obvious point that teams who play a high-line are susceptible to the extreme pace Liverpool possess in their forward line. Liverpool, certainly, can take heart from a performance that showed all the positives from the first half-hour of Monday’s display at Manchester City without any of the defensive lapses that ended up costing them a 3-1 defeat.

Perhaps most encouraging of all was the way Mario Balotelli seemed to slot so easily into the forward line.

Manager Brendan Rodgers opted for a diamond, with Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge up front together, each pulling wide to create space for the forward surges of Raheem Sterling and, occasionally, Jordan Henderson.

It was that combination that brought the opening goal, with Sturridge laying in Henderson to play a delightful ball for Sterling.

To expect Balotelli to replicate the sort of partnership that Luis Suarez had with Sturridge is unrealistic, but there were immediate signs that they did have an understanding, as Sturridge crossed for Balotelli to head just wide as early as the third minute.

That was the beginning of an uncharacteristic display from Balotelli, who squandered two other fine chances, but worked ferociously hard and seemed almost consciously to be playing for his teammates. He is, of course, far too enigmatic to be simply a selfish poacher.

Rodgers was clearly ecstatic at how well Balotelli’s first week has gone.

He spoke of “controlling the background noise” and trying to limit the influence of the “circus” that surrounds him, but also spoke of “giving him responsibility, treating him like an adult”.

This, Rodgers said, was the first time the 24-year-old had ever marked at a corner – and he did win one notable header away.

But Balotelli was not the only encouragement for Liverpool. Alberto Moreno, having endured a difficult debut at City, was much improved and capped a solid display by dispossessing Andros Townsend and running 50 yards to score the third goal.

Tactically, Rodgers got it right: the diamond in midfield meant his full-backs might have been exposed, but Sturridge and Balotelli worked the channels sufficiently to prevent Danny Rose and Eric Dier, the Spurs full-backs, from getting forward too much, while the natural inclination of both Spurs wide men is to cut infield, into an area Rodgers had congested.

For Spurs, though, this was a reality check after four straight wins at the start of the season. The old flakiness has not gone away, even if the mood around the club is far more optimistic than it was after the 5-0 loss to Liverpool in the equivalent fixture last December.

Pochettino spoke of his side as a work in progress and he is owed that consideration.

His frustration at a “soft” penalty at a “key moment” was understandable, but the fact is that, if Balotelli had been on song, his side could have been 3-0 down by half-time. Whatever else he has changed at Spurs, the old tendency for wilting under pressure remains.

But perhaps it would be wrong to read too much into one game. After all, the way the sides are set up, Spurs are almost the perfect side for Liverpool to play – unless the press is perfect, pace will always prosper against a high line.

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