Sport Soccer

Monday 17 December 2018

Brian Kerr analysis: Spurs and Reds winning hearts but not trophies

Enlightening philosophies ensures an enthralling spectacle but their respective frailties explain why they remain off City’s pace

Tottenham’s Harry Kane scores his side’s first goal despite the close attention of Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren during the Wembley rout earlier this season. That defeat was a rude awakening for Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Tottenham’s Harry Kane scores his side’s first goal despite the close attention of Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren during the Wembley rout earlier this season. That defeat was a rude awakening for Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Brian Kerr

Amazon have entered the €6bn race to secure Premier League TV rights.

You'd nearly want to be fitting every nook and cranny of the rainforest with Plasmas or LCDs at that rate.

The figures are mind-boggling but sometimes you'd wonder what the TV companies think they're paying for or, indeed, what the customers think they're paying for.

One of the many myths perpetuated about the Premier League is its boast about competitiveness. Advocates will point to Swansea, when rock-bottom, defeating Liverpool, conquerors of the runaway league leaders in their previous game, and then Arsenal, as prime examples of why theirs is the "best league in the world."

But upsets like these are becoming an increasingly rarer occurrence.

This term, the top six clubs have already put more than 125 goals past the bottom six, winning 38 of the 48 encounters and losing just two before Christmas (albeit four in January as Arsenal and Chelsea imploded).

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp ready for a vital clash against Tottenham on Sunday. Photo: PA
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp ready for a vital clash against Tottenham on Sunday. Photo: PA

The desperation to remain in the top flight ensures so many teams beyond the big six are not in the business of trying to win but, instead, in the business of trying not to lose.

That is an acceptable position, perhaps, for novices like Brighton or Huddersfield. But not for all.

Newcastle, once the great entertainers under Kevin Keegan, produced one of the season's most sterile, defensive displays in front of their own fans against Manchester City.

Everton, too, with all their fine tradition and massive summer spending, welcomed Manchester United to a heaving Goodison Park and failed to fire one shot in anger, never mind one on target.

Then again, when you get €100m just for finishing bottom of the pile, perhaps such excessive caution is understandable but I can't imagine it being a big draw in the far-flung corners of the globe. In reality, the big six are the big draw and, even if Jose Mourinho occasionally refuses to indulge himself or his team, these are the games that genuinely whet the appetite.

They are in a league of their own.

And generally Liverpool have been involved in the truly magnificent games which are the real reason why it's such a great league.

Liverpool 4 Man City 3, Arsenal 3 Liverpool 3, Spurs 4 Liverpool 1, Liverpool 4 Arsenal 0, Man City 5 Liverpool 0, Man City 4 Spurs 1.

Even if some of the games have ended up being lop-sided, the approach of the teams has remained consistent.

They try to bring the best of out of themselves and the players. They endeavour to achieve beauty and poetry.

But the risk is that they can also bring out the best in the opposition by leaning more towards attack than defence. At least there is a real sense that the players are enjoying the game and that transmits to the occasion.

There is an enthusiasm among the players who know they are guaranteed the space to play, and from the managers, who have trust in them to play, instead of the soul-destroying efforts to navigate just beyond a parked bus.

And still it doesn't please everyone; when Liverpool won that thriller against City, some complained about the defence rather than appreciating the thrilling attacking intent.

Jurgen Klopp's response - "They can blow up my boots!" - was a perfect riposte. He's right. It was fantastic. They had a real go; they cracked the heretofore invincible City.

People criticise them for their defeats but attitudes like Klopp's, which are imparted to the players is why we love the game, why we have loved the beauty of Brazil, Barcelona and Ajax down the years.

Young kids are enthralled by that tightrope walk where risk battles reward. Individual brilliance, collective intensity and the magnificence of the team play delights young and old.

Of course, the key is to combine style with substance; City remain streets ahead this season in that regard; Liverpool and Spurs, for now, are still the great pretenders.

They are winning hearts but soon they need to win trophies.

Philippe Coutinho, Emre Can and Kyle Walker recognised as much.

Players usually only move for money or trophies. Perhaps Can thinks there is a greater chance of both in Italy; particularly as Juventus usually hoover up the odd trophy every year. Walker's is a similar case; he will win a trophy, at least one, this season.

Spurs are out of the League Cup and still, by the skin of their teeth, remain in the FA Cup, which Liverpool do not.

Either team could still win the Champions League but there are no guarantees there; it still makes you wonder why Coutinho was so eager to leave given he had the chance to play in the Champions League and perhaps win it.

Liverpool remain a selling club while Real Madrid may be circling North London if some of their stars, including their manager, might possibly feel there are better chances of trophies elsewhere and, perhaps, extra cash for a club whose wage bill remains half that of Liverpool's.

Loyal

Yet both sets of supporters remain loyal to their teams, mainly because they continue to uphold a proud tradition of good football and flashy individuals.

But the nagging sense remains that they need to convert that promise into something more substantial.

It's very hard to separate these sides.

Liverpool will warm to the challenge, though, as their vulnerabilities have often come against the lesser sides while their record against near rivals is admirable, especially at Anfield, where they remain unbeaten in 12 'top six' clashes.

In contrast, Spurs' style has left them exposed against the established teams; they have won only one in 18 against the big six - a somewhat controversial 2-1 win at City thanks to a Kane penalty - and there has been little sign of improvement this season.

Spurs have been beaten in all three of their away games against the big six this term - most recently losing 4-1 to City - and have won only twice in the last 25 visits to Anfield.

Klopp's tactics against Pep's boys were brave and courageous, often leaving themselves one-on-one against City's forward trio as they pressed aggressively and tenaciously from midfield, succeeding in forcing errors that disrupted City's rhythm and coughed up goals.

Once again, though, they buckled late in the game when they appeared to be in control at 4-1; Sergio Aguero's late header almost snatching a draw as unlikely as anything that had preceded it.

Both the strength and vulnerability of Liverpool on show in a 90-minute snapshot. Three key flaws remain.

Firstly, they continue to concede from set-pieces - the corner concession against Swansea just a week later exposed their unreliable half-zonal/half man-marking approach.

Secondly, the high defensive line against opposition free-kicks leaves them vulnerable; two of Spurs' goals at Wembley derived directly from this deficiency.

And then there's the goalkeeping situation; Simon Mignolet was poor against Spurs and Loris Karius has since emerged as the number one. For now. He has yet to demonstrate the consistent class of a top-six goalkeeper.

Spurs have the ammunition to exploit Liverpool's frailties with their high press even though, of course, they will also be pressed themselves.

While their own fab four - Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Christian Eriksen - can leave them short in midfield and protection for their full-backs, they are quite happy to beat the press with long passes to Kane, as shown against Real Madrid and Dortmund in the Champions League.

Alli, Kane and Son were a handful against United in midweek but it is Eriksen who links it altogether; his set-piece delivery can expose Liverpool too.

We have seen Liverpool at their counter-attacking best against the more adventurous teams who allow them the space to receive the ball in front of and behind the defenders.

Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firminio will find themselves in one-on-one situations where they can thrive and perform the combination plays that have devastated Arsenal, Seville and Man City.

However, the reverse fixture in Wembley was dominated by Liverpool's defensive frailties, with the hapless Dejan Lovren departing the fray before half-time as Spurs established their superiority very early in the piece.

That defeat was a rude awakening for Klopp. Since then, he has changed his goalkeeper, bought Virgil van Dijk, and strengthened his midfield protection.

Left-back Andy Robertson has been re-introduced as an attacking full-back but Joe Gomez is more restrained on the right. Van Dijk was missing last week but surely he will return to replace Lovren.

For too long Jordan Henderson was the sole reliable protector in midfield. Today, he should be joined by Can as another sitter, charged with attempting to blunt Alli and Eriksen while Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain may be tasked with reprising his spectacular impact against City.

From a Spurs point of view, despite taking an early lead against United in midweek, Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele left gaps and spaces in the defensive line and Davidson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen appeared compromised.

In the second-half, Dier and Dembele dropped back in a more disciplined, defensive role and the team were compact as a result.

Both full-backs push up, though, so Liverpool's wide men will get space unless Spurs get the balance right between their attacking approach and disciplined defending. Their results against the bigger sides in away matches suggests they haven't.

And, if they don't tomorrow, I could see them losing another away game, which could have a decisive effect on the Champions League qualification hopes.

Are Liverpool better than they were in October? They surely won't concede two sloppy early goals as they did then but their risky approach always invites danger.

Despite losing Coutinho, their attacking trio out-performed City's in the 4-3 win. Can they repeat that feat against Spurs' famed front three?

Ironically, this game will be all about whose midfield and defence is most secure because we know both sides have the ammunition to inflict serious damage and score goals, which is why this fixture historically produces lots of them.

Apart from City's leading lights, the league's top scorers, Harry Kane (21) and Mohamed Salah (19), have been the best players in England this season.

The theme of this fixture, and the trend of their teams' performances, suggests that both men can add to their totals.

The essence of winning is about getting it right in defence and attack; for now, neither of these sides have managed that consistently enough.

Which means we will be enthralled by another spectacular. One that should be enjoyed wherever you're watching in the world.

Irish Independent

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