If you talk to just about any Tottenham Hotspur fan, regardless of their club’s form, they usually feel a deep sense of impending doom. This feeling of dread is not unfounded; it has been cultivated throughout its rich history of flattery to deceive.
Ahead of today’s home game against Liverpool, Spurs fans should have had plenty of reason for optimism.
Liverpool’s form in the league, especially away from home, has been disastrous this season. By contrast, Spurs have just qualified top of their group for the Champions League round of 16, after beating Marseille at the Stade Velodrome.
They have also maintained their top four status throughout the season, despite many less than brilliant performances. However, the boos that echoed through Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at half-time illustrated a growing discontent with the current situation at the north London club.
The Spurs are a team of two halves
Games involving Spurs in recent times have followed a worrying pattern, where Conte’s men act ineptly without guts in the first half, before mounting cavalier counter-attacks in the second half.
This game fits that mold perfectly. Tottenham seem to suffer from a peculiar brand of self-loathing, often being his own worst enemy.
During the first period of the game, Liverpool were the better team and controlled much of the game.
Spurs threatened only intermittently, with Perisic unlucky to see his header bounce off Alisson and off the post; but the Klopp side was much more confident and incisive.
Mo Salah looked back at his family best, in what has been an uneven season by his standards, and opened the scoring after 11 minutes.
Darwin Nunez was playing down the left, and it was his orderly control and pass to Salah near the edge of the area that allowed the Egyptian to take a touch to control the ball and evade Ryan Sessegnon’s challenge to shoot mercilessly past Hugo. You cry.
Darwin Nunez was described in a Gary Neville commentary on Sky Sports as ‘sloppy’, ‘crude’ and ‘scruffy’. He often looks awkward in possession and doesn’t possess the deft control of Firmino, nor the effortless dribbling ability of Salah. However, his power and outspokenness caused concern in the Spurs backline.
Liverpool were dominant but still seemed to lack the faith and incisiveness that saw them nearly sweep every major competition last season.
It took a calamity from Eric Dier to make it easier for them to go into halftime two goals ahead. A long ball from the Liverpool goalkeeper landed on the centre-back’s head some 40 meters from goal.
He made a puzzling decision to try to return the ball to his goalkeeper, despite not being under pressure. Worse still was his execution, as he headed the ball to his shoulder and fell directly on Mo Salah, who did not need another invitation.
Salah looked razor-sharp throughout the game, delivering two immaculate touches towards Hugo Lloris, before expertly knocking the ball past the out-of-form keeper.
Spurs return in the second half
This is perhaps the biggest cliché in English sport, but it could hardly be more appropriate in this case.
Spurs appeared as a different team as soon as the second half started, with Ivan Perisic hitting the ball against the woodwork for the second time after 48 minutes. Eric Dier pushed forward down the right side with some success, ready to make amends for his earlier mistake.
Conte made no changes to the squad, nor to the form of his team. What he had changed was the intensity and intent of his attack.
However, for the next 20 minutes, the topic became the final ball and the execution in the crucial moments. No one was more to blame for this than Emerson Royal.
The Brazilian full-back always found himself in space on the right side, but it could well have been a deliberate tactic by Klopp as his shot was as effective as a pot of chocolate.
One particular junction in the 56th minute, while allowing the freedom of the city, came closer to reaching the International Space Station than Harry Kane’s head.
Emerson Royal’s continued selection is inexplicable, as his shortcomings as an attacking fullback closely rival his shortcomings defensively.
Therefore, the game changed even more with the introductions of Matt Doherty and Dejan Kulusevski instead 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 the players next to him to offer speed and penetration.
Kane often drops deep while playing his 9/10 hybrid role, with excellent passing range when there is movement in front of him.
The introduction of Kulusevski reaped immediate dividends, as he created a superb goal which Kane finished off two minutes into the game. The Swedish striker dribbled menacingly around the edge of the box, before passing a pass to the England captain. Kane shot accurately into the far corner, and the momentum was steady with Spurs.
As the match progressed, Liverpool offered less and less in attack, to the point where they once again had only Salah up front, dropping deep to defend their lead.
Fitness must have played its part in this, as Spurs were the team to play with urgency compared to Liverpool’s exhaustion and heavy legs.
Liverpool looked shattered but deserves credit. The Spurs got some decent chances, but almost exclusively from set pieces.
Clement Lenglet should have scored with a header in the 79th minute. Bentancur came close with another header a few minutes later, and again from a play by Harry Kane in the 87th minute.
Ultimately, however, Liverpool were able to repel the onslaught, with Alisson Becker once again proving his worth, particularly in dealing hard with a strong aerial challenge from Matt Doherty.
Crucial win for Liverpool
This represents a vital result for Liverpool in the context of their stuttering season.
They have once again shown their ability to up their game against tough opponents, having recently beaten Man City and Napoli.
However, they must win again against lesser teams and their full defenses to climb the table into more familiar territory. This result raises them to the 8th position, 7 points behind Tottenham, which occupies the 4th position.
For the Spurs, their fans will be deeply frustrated by their inability to play for 90 minutes.
Clearly there is a problem with the mentality of the players in the first half.
However, the lineup certainly didn’t help, and Conte shouldn’t be blameless. They are, of course, blighted by injuries and sorely miss the options of Richarlison, Heung-Min Son and Romero on defense.
Kulusevski was in no condition to play the full 90 minutes, but his inclusion, or even Lucas Moura’s pace early on, could have altered the pattern of the opening period.
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