Last May Southampton came to White Hart Lane and deflated Spurs’ end of season celebrations with a 2-1 victory, arguably the best performance from an away team that year. Midfield grafter Steven Davis scored both goals but the star was Sadio Mane. There were rumours at the time he was going to a bigger club but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about – until then. He was a constant threat, good control, quick feet and high workrate, an eye for space between defenders and the pace to burst into the box from deep. The perfect Pochettino forward, in fact.
Yesterday evening those qualities destroyed Spurs. Two goals in the opening twenty minutes and there should have been more but for Lloris, the game out of sight with over an hour to endure. Mane wasn’t the only difference between Tottenham and Liverpool but it was a stark reminder of what we lack in games of this level and intensity against our rivals for a top four place.
Add this to the news emerging earlier in the week that Mane turned Spurs down in the summer and this defeat, a 2-0 thrashing such was the gulf between the sides, was a stark reminder of the broader limitations of our challenge for honours. Mane got as far as a visit to Hotspur Way but Liverpool offered the same prospects and better money. Tottenham’s success, as much as I enjoy it and genuine achievement though it is, also serves to mask this unpalatable truth, laid bare by a comprehensive defeat against top four rivals who like ourselves are developing their side, that as we try to rise to the top we are banging our heads against the ceiling of opportunity.
These are the games that we measure ourselves by. Judging by this performance Spurs have a body of sculpted muscle but feet of clay. Throughout Tottenham wilted under the pressure of Klopp’s press. The resultant errors blighted our entire evening. We never got the ball moving freely in possession, were constantly caught on the ball or attempting passing angles that didn’t exist and made only one chance worthy of the name in the entire game.
Liverpool won the other major battle too, the tactics. Spurs’ left was weak in the absence of the injured Vertonghen and Rose, while Lucas looked out of place in the Liverpool back four. We never laid a glove on him, whereas Liverpool steamrollered down our flank, leaving Davies isolated and bewildered. Time and again, Liverpool had two and three players overloading our left up against the Welsh full-back and he was taken apart. Mane burst past him for the first and most of their chances started out there. To make matters worse, Lloris insisted on playing out from the back and going left too.
But Davies should not carry all the blame. We played a high line, which left us vulnerable to Liverpool’s pace from midfield. Also, giving the ball away led to both Liverpool goals. Losing possession exposed the back four. Moreover, Pochettino did nothing to plug the gap. He could have dropped Son back or moved a DM across but Davies had no protection. Defending is a team responsibility these days, and we didn’t function as a unit when our opponents had the ball. The new high TV angle at Anfield exposed the horror in all its gory detail.
So Mane swept in the first, then banged in the second shortly afterwards from a loose ball. I felt Hugo could have pushed away the initial shot instead of pushing it up, thereby keeping it in the danger area. Tottenham were in total disarray at this point, unable to stem the tide of Liverpool attacks or keep hold of the ball on the rare occasions they glimpsed it. Mane missed another chance and Lloris was solid on his line.
Without Pochettino we would never have got this far, and I’m eternally grateful. He’s been criticised in the past for not having a plan B. I thought this one had been put to bed this season. However, the manager did little to change the balance of a game that had tipped decisively in favour of the Reds. Son changed position, at times centrally to link with Kane, frustrated in his isolation, or to the right. I admire this attacking inclination but it was not right for the moment. We played as if we were 2-0 up against Gillingham not 2 goals down to Liverpool.
Eriksen and Alli, both largely ineffectual, should have dropped deeper to get hold of midfield and thereby give us some stability. Deprived of the platform to play usually offered to them by Dembele and Wanyama, they frittered away the rare moments when they had the ball at their feet. We’ve done this before, away to Southampton as the first example this season. A goal down after 15 shabby minutes, we reformed, controlled midfield and possession and used this as a base to win the match. I wrote at the time that this could a significant moment in the team’s development but we’ve forgotten the lessons, as we did at Manchester City. As it was, the game continued to rush away from us like primeval matter exploding from the big bang.
The half-time teamtalk evidently provided no solutions. I can’t recall the last time Spurs offered so little over 45 minutes. To overcome the press we went long but this was less a tactical adjustment, more an act of desperation. Our game descended into aimless long balls and petty fouls. Even Toby, the Premier League defender who has committed fewest fouls this season, was reduced to an ankle tap and a booking. Hugo and his defence contrived to almost concede again through reckless defending. The pundits chuckled and so did the rest of football looking on.
The table doesn’t lie. The table of salaries and transfer expenditure that is. Every team around us has a higher wage bill. Mane cost £35m and earns £90k a week. In the summer Spurs presumably did not want to stretch that far. Our highest paid player, Kane, gets around £100k by all accounts. At Liverpool, Milner is on £120k, Coutinho now on £200k. We don’t try to compete and class across not just a team but a squad cost money. Tottenham’s first XI are more than a match for anyone. Injuries to Vertonghen and especially Rose take us down a notch. Because of this pressure, the up and comers find it hard to get enough game-time. Wimmer’s form has fallen off a cliff, Davies looks uncertain and Janssen has no time to break that duck.
I’m deeply proud of what this team and manager have achieved and might achieve in the future, and it’s a future about which I feel optimistic. Proud that we haven’t broken the bank and have nurtured the talents of younger players rather than bought a ready-meal of a team waiting for the manager to heat it up. Proud of how tight these players are with the supporters. Fact is though, Mane brings home the point that there is a difference between overspending and investment, because the latter brings in the returns. Nothing outrageous and prudently planned, it could be the difference between success and glorious failure. And did Mane really ask for that much more than Sissoko?