Given the hysteria surrounding Jurgen Klopp’s first match as Liverpool manager, many in the media must have been surprised that another team actually turned up at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Yet once the furore died down, the match said far more about Spurs’ progress under Pochettino than it did about the new kid on the Anfield Road.
Klopp’s good, mind. Because of the international break he only had his players for a couple of days but he certainly got through to them. From the kick-off Liverpool launched a ferocious onslaught, hurling themselves into tackles and blocks as soon as a Tottenham man got anywhere near the ball. For the first 10 or 15 minutes we could barely move, let alone get the ball out of our half. This wasn’t so much a press, more a vice and Spurs were being crushed. The Shelf was shrouded in dark muttered foreboding.
Not only did Spurs not cave in, they gradually came to terms with what was required. You could almost see the players working it out. Rose lost out, Walker lost concentration and Njie, on as early as the 11th minute for the injured Chadli, had no idea what had hit him, his head still firmly on the bench. With remarkable ingenuity, Eriksen and Dembele in midfield responded to the pressure. Eriksen thrived on the challenge. No time on the ball so play it quicker, pass and move, ready in space if needed. Others followed their example, Kane running ceaselessly into channels or dropping deeper, first touch to move it on. Dembele and Alli working hard in central midfield then Rose offering some respite wide left.
By the end of the half, we’d got past working it out, we were on top. We pinched the ball off them, Alli I think and Kane set up Njie whose shot was well saved. Njie just over, Kane missed the best chance of the game, shooting low straight at the keeper and Alli’s shot from the rebound was blocked. Not everything Eriksen tried came off but the angst inspired him to be energetic and creative, looking for the telling pass when he could have justifiably played it safe.
It shows how far we have come. The old Spurs would have folded like Brits on a picnic at the first sign of rain. Less than two years ago (it seems like another era) Rodger’s Liverpool started this fixture in the same manner. Spurs lost 5-0, had a man sent off and AVB was sacked. This was the most mature performance I have seen from Tottenham for a long time. Resilience through flair has become a hallmark.
To underline the point, Mason, Dier and Bentaleb were all missing from our defensive midfield. Once Dembele and Alli sorted themselves out, you wouldn’t have noticed. Alli played his most disciplined game, diligently holding his attacking exuberance in check unless he was free to move up. He didn’t get booked for a rash challenge either. He’s learning.
Dembele was a dervish of the midfield, tackled, holding and spinning on the ball like a man possessed. Holding onto the ball has been his weakness but on Saturday his ability to keep it and not be knocked off the ball gave his team-mates precious moments to find space so he could move it on. I know what you were thinking – he’s going to hang on to the ball once too often and they’ll break away…but he didn’t, not once. More evidence of the committment of this squad. Earlier in the week Dembele was tipped to leave the club in January to fund the purchase of a striker but this was the performance of a player determined to stay, to be part of something.
The second half was tense rather than exciting. The pace dropped, understandably, and it ended up with the teams cancelling each other out. A mistake looked likely to settle it as the ball stayed resolutely away from both penalty boxes. Near the death Eriksen set Kane up at the edge of the box but his shot was saved. At the other end, Alli conceded a free-kick – I feared that was the mistake but we cleared easily.
A touch of regret at the draw because Spurs had the better chances. Kane’s lost the magic in front of goal. It’s tempting to say he’s taking a fraction longer, one touch too many but last season he often had two or three touches while closely marked before scoring. Elsewhere his play has improved – he never hides, never stops working off the ball and twice barely perceptible shimmies plus a sublime first touch set up good moves, a third saw him chopped down mercilessly.
He could have done with some help, and that’s the problem. Too often he was isolated 15 yards from the nearest team-mate, dealing with a long ball against two defenders. Njie is raw talent, he’ll take a season at least to get used to the pace. So with Son injured, no one to share the goalscoring or for that matter anyone on the bench to make an impact or replace tired legs. The failures of the window leave us short. My fear, expressed at the time, was that it was both shortsighted and placed undue, unfair burden on the young squad however willing they are. I don’t want to be proved right.
Writing this blog I’ve come to the conclusion that the perspective from which fans view the game significantly changes their perception of the performance. Television encourages a critical interpretation. It distorts what is humanly possible, makes the game look easier than it is. I’m not excusing basic errors early on in this game but from my viewpoint, centre Shelf 14 rows up, the speed of the first 20 minutes made me wince. The players had no time to react. I suspect social media was by and large flat after this one. As far as I’m concerned, I take my hat off to those Spurs players, each and every one. I don’t know how they can think straight let alone play that well. It’s unfashionable to make a comment like this and it’s not something that applies every week as regular readers know but there are times when mortals like myself don’t know how they do it. Perhaps we’d all enjoy modern football more if expectations were not so unrealistically high.