If you speak to almost any Tottenham Hotspur fan, regardless of the form of their club, they are generally filled with a deep sense of impending doom. This feeling of dread is not baseless; it has been cultivated over their rich history of flattering to deceive.
Going into today’s home match against Liverpool, Spurs fans should have had plenty of reason for optimism.
Liverpool’s league form, especially away from home, has been disastrous this season. Conversely, Spurs have just qualified at the top of their group for the knockout stage of the Champions League, having beaten Marseilles at the Stade Velodrome.
They have also maintained their top-four status throughout the season, in spite of many less-than-scintillating performances. However, the boos ringing around the Tottenham Hotspur stadium at halftime illustrated a growing discontent with the current state of affairs with the North London club.
Spurs Are A Team Of Two Halves
Games involving Spurs of late have followed a worrying pattern, where Conte’s men perform with gutless ineptitude in the first half, before staging cavalier second-half fightbacks.
This game fell perfectly into that mould. Tottenham seem to suffer from a peculiar type of self-loathing, often being their own worst enemy.
Throughout the first period of the game, Liverpool were the better side and controlled much of the play.
Spurs threatened only intermittently, with Perisic unlucky to see his header bounce off Alisson and onto the post; but Klopp’s side looked far more assured and incisive.
Mo Salah looked back to his familiar best, in what has been a patchy season by his standards, and he opened the scoring after 11 minutes.
Darwin Nunez was playing off the left, and it was his tidy control and pass to Salah near the edge of the area that enabled the Egyptian to take one touch to bring the ball under control and evade Ryan Sessegnon’s challenge to fire ruthlessly past Hugo Lloris.
Darwin Nunez was described in commentary by Gary Neville on Sky Sports as ‘sloppy’, ‘raw’ and ‘scruffy’. He often looks awkward in possession and does not possess the slick control of Firmino, nor the effortless dribbling ability of Salah. However, his power and directness did cause worries for the Spurs back line.
Liverpool were dominant, but yet still appeared to lack the belief and incisiveness that so nearly led to a clean sweep of all major competitions last season.
It took a calamity from Eric Dier to facilitate them going in at half-time two goals up. A long ball from the Liverpool goalkeeper landed on the centre-back’s head around 40 yards from goal.
He made a baffling decision to try and direct the ball back to his goalkeeper, despite being under no pressure. His execution was even worse, as he headed the ball onto his shoulder, falling straight to Mo Salah, who did not need any further invitation.
Salah looked razor-sharp all game, and he took two immaculate touches toward Hugo Lloris, before dinking the ball expertly past the out-of-form ‘keeper.
Spurs Second Half Comeback
This is perhaps the biggest cliché in English sport – but it could hardly be more apt in this case.
Spurs came out looking like a different team as soon as the second half began, with Ivan Perisic smacking the ball off the woodwork for a second time after 48 minutes. Eric Dier pushed forward down the right side with some success, keen to make amends for his earlier error.
Conte made no changes to the personnel, nor the shape of his team. What had changed was their intensity and attacking intent.
However, for the next 20 minutes, the issue became the final ball and the execution at crucial moments. No one was more to blame for this than Emerson Royal.
The Brazilian wing-back consistently found himself in space on the right-hand side, but this may as well have been a deliberate tactic from Klopp because his delivery was about as effective as a chocolate teapot.
One particular cross in the 56th minute, whilst afforded the freedom of the city, was closer to reaching the international space station than the head of Harry Kane.
The continued selection of Emerson Royal is inexplicable, as his shortcomings as an attacking full-back are closely rivalled by his defensive inadequacies.
The game was therefore further changed with the introductions of Matt Doherty and Dejan Kulusevski in place of Royal and Sessegnon.
Harry Kane had been having an intriguing battle with the excellent Konate throughout the match, but to be at his best he requires players alongside him to offer pace and penetration.
Kane often drops deep whilst playing his hybrid 9 / 10 role, with a superb range of passing when there is movement ahead of him.
The introduction of Kulusevski reaped immediate dividends, as he created a superb goal finished by Kane within two minutes of coming on. The Swedish forward dribbled with menace around the edge of the area, before threading a pass to the England captain. Kane shot with precision into the far corner, and the momentum was firmly with Spurs.
As the game wore on, Liverpool offered increasingly little in attack, to the point where they reverted to having only Salah up front, dropping deep in order to defend their lead.
Fitness must have played its part in this, as Spurs were the side playing with urgency compared to Liverpool’s weariness and heavy legs.
Liverpool looked shattered – but deserve credit. Spurs did gain some presentable chances, but almost exclusively from set pieces.
Clement Lenglet should have scored with a header in the 79th minute. Bentancur went close with another header a few minutes later, and again from a Harry Kane flick on after 87 minutes.
Ultimately, though, Liverpool were able to repel the onslaught, with Alisson Becker once again proving his worth, particularly in robustly dealing with a strong aerial challenge with Matt Doherty.
Crucial Victory For Liverpool
This represents a vital result for Liverpool in the context of their stuttering season.
They have again proven their ability to raise their game against tough opponents, having recently beaten Man City and Napoli.
They must return, though, to winning ways against the lesser teams and their packed defences in order to climb the table towards more familiar territory. This result lifts them to 8th position, 7 points off Tottenham in 4th place.
For Spurs, their fans will be deeply frustrated at their inability to perform for 90 minutes.
There is clearly a problem with the mindset of the players in the first half.
The lineup certainly didn’t help though, and Conte should not be blameless. They are, of course, blighted by injuries and sorely miss the options of Richarlison, Heung-Min Son, and Romero in defence.
Kulusevski was not fit to play 90 minutes – but his inclusion, or even the pace of Lucas Moura from the start, could have altered the pattern of the opening period.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Pro Sports Images