There were many things wrong with Spurs’ desultory performance against Liverpool yesterday but the worst thing was, it was entirely predictable. Tottenham collapsed to type, a feeble effort on the part of players and management alike without even a whimper of resistance.
Spurs were completely outclassed. Liverpool weren’t so much on another planet, they came from another universe. They were totally committed to their cause, approaching the afternoon as if they were on a last-man standing survival exercise, whereas Spurs were out for a pleasant Sunday stroll.
We began with the same formation as last week, one that Sherwood has plumped for after weeks of unsettling experimentation, but with Sandro replaced by Sigurdsson in the centre of midfield. Bentaleb was asked to stay deeper with the whole line hanging back until we had the ball. Eriksen began on the left with licence to cut inside and Chadli further forward to support the lonely Soldado.
Managers face a genuine dilemma against the rampant free movement of this thrilling Liverpool team. Defend too much and you play into their hands, too open and they will tear you apart. Tempted by their defence, which is less than rock solid, Sherwood went for a balance. A throwaway comment at the end of his pre-match interview may have given a clue to his intentions. He said something about perhaps getting at them later on when they tired.
In theory this team was set up to do that. The full-backs stayed at home, the midfield were energetic enough to press while in Lennon and Chadli we had players to hit on the break. Only problem – we didn’t do any of that. We never looked like a team and frankly many looked as if they just wanted to get it over with.
It was reported that Sherwood claimed not to have watched Liverpool in preparation for this match. I can’t believe that to be true, although these days at Spurs I can believe anything however absurd. What I do know is that Rodgers most certainly had watched us. If Eriksen drifts in from the left, it gives us an extra man in the middle and he’s more difficult to pick up, as well as that being his best position. It also leaves a gap on our left. Rodgers played three up front with Sterling placed to exploit that weakness. From the kick-off he and Johnson piled into that gap. Eriksen got back but too slowly.
Our centrebacks dealt with the first cross like novice skaters on the ice for the first time. Vertonghen’s marginal deflection was enough to unbalance Kaboul who could only touch the ball into his own net after 1:41. I’ve seen more deflating beginnings to a match but just now I’m struggling to recall them.
Spurs managed to repel the series of attacks that followed. To his credit, the outnumbered Bentaleb was alert to the problem and slid across to cover as best he could. However, he got precious little support from his team-mates. Siggy was energetic but we provided no cover for the back-four who were exposed to the dazzling interplay and individual alchemy of Suarez, Sterling, Sturridge and Coutinho.
I suspect Sherwood reminded the team about this collective failure in what I assume was an extended post-match inquest behind the locked doors of the dressing room. If so, he would be right. The lack of application was a pitiful, aimless response to going a goal down so early, to the point where we never looked like getting back in the game. Jumping ahead in the story for a moment, my memory of this debacle, assuming that I can’t forcibly erase every minute recollection from the deep recesses of the fibres of my brain, came with the replay of Liverpool’s third from behind the goal. Coutinho broke through the wide open fields of Anfield to shoot unchallenged from range. Behind him, our entire midfield bar the dutiful Bentaleb are strolling back, apparently without a care in the world.
However, there is a another element to this truth. In hindsight Sherwood may wish to consider his choice and tactics, especially leaving only Bentaleb as a defensive midfielder and Sandro on the bench. Throughout, Liverpool could take our entire midfield out of the game with a single incisive pass.
Right, let’s get this over with. Two more goals before the Acme Memory Eraser takes full effect. If not, old age will do the trick, usually does these days. Ironically, for all Liverpool’s outstanding dazzle and swagger (they are so good I almost forgot myself and managed to stop applauding at times), all their goals came from the now familiar self-inflicted wounds.
After escaping several near misses, Spurs played like a unit for five or ten minutes, the only time when we had anything approaching an equal share of this match. We couldn’t cope so to redress the balance, Dawson, on as sub for the injured Vertonghen, with his first touch passed inside without looking. Suarez pounced and scored across Lloris from a tricky angle. The pain of his error was evident in every desperate, hopeless stride of his despairing recovery run. It was as close as any player got to the feeling of the supporters.
Coutinho’s next in the second half, then a free kick with everyone back but somehow Daws ended up one on three at the near post. One of the red shirts got the final touch.
Little to say about individuals. Lennon has put considerable effort into his sculpted facial hair but the Azzatollah made not a single run of any significance with the ball at his feet. This bearing in mind that even Liverpool can’t cover every area of the field. No really, they can’t and they leave space out wide, preferring to fall back and defend in depth centrally. It never occurred to us to exploit that.
Soldado was totally isolated throughout. Chadli had a couple of half-chances without making any impact. Siggy bounced around, Kaboul kept going but that’s about all that can be said. Bentaleb tried to play the role he had been given, at least trying to stem the tide. Only Eriksen showed glimpes of form and purpose but they were rare. Wasted on the left. Lloris couldn’t be faulted.
Sherwood spent the whole game in the director’s box, adopting a stern expression, contorting his body and compressing his head towards his knees, half-turned away from the action. He refused to budge throughout. He faced to his right, when the ball was in the left-hand goal he twizzled his neck at a crazy angle rather than move.
He’s traded his gilet for a club blazer but he’s now trying on different roles for size. Furious touchline agitation has been replaced by a distant, considered stare from above punctuated by the occasional furtive whisper into a mobile, like a bookie’ runner passing on a tip. I guess he thought he looked hard but if he had folded in on himself any further he would have become positively foetal.
Whatever his failings, Sherwood is clearly passionate about the game and about the club. I’m no lover of fist-pumping technical area hysterics but as his team struggled, he appeared aloof and uninvolved. I simply do not understand why Sherwood feels he has to put on a performance, whether he chucks his coat into the dugout or his toys out of the pram. It’s not about him, it’s about the team. My team. It smacks of uncertainty and insecurity. Whatever he’s doing, it’s not getting through to the players and that’s his job.
What a pleasure it is to see Liverpool play football. It’s been a while since I felt the anticipation of a televised match but when they are on, I look forward to seeing the only team in the Premier League that opponents truly fear. You just want to see them play. Just a shame we had to be their latest victim. They discovered that they could score goals but they were giving them away too. Any other Prem side would have counselled caution and strengthened at the back but it was as if they took a deep breath and said, what the hell.
Hard to believe that not so long ago, their youngish manager was the one getting the ridicule for his management-speak platitudes and adherence to a passing game that worked only sporadically. But they stuck with Rodgers whereas we got rid of ours as soon as the going got tough. He turned us down by all accounts because he felt he couldn’t work with the chairman. Sound choice. Good luck to their fans as they relish in this unexpected, unbelievable success, gained through attacking improvisation that’s impossible to resist, coupled with hard work and a team approach that I envy so much.