Tottenham vs Liverpool is a huge game for both sides: André Villas-Boas’s side need to win to get their season back on track, while Brendan Rodgers’ need to win to maintain their push for Champions League football. Victory for either side would go a long way towards allaying latent fears in the media and in the stands that these youthful, progressive managers are in fact egotistical tinkerers who should be managing smaller clubs until their hair has at least greyed a little.
The match itself is wide open: Spurs’ struggles in front of goal are well-documented and Liverpool arrive at White Hart Lane with a raft of injuries that makes predicting their line-up very difficult. In such cases it is tempting simply to back the home side, but the visitors have the most unstoppable attacker in the Premier League in Luis Suárez and therefore to write them off would be foolhardy.
Given that Jan Vertonghen will be missing, it is difficult to see how Spurs can contain the Uruguayan. Of course, a good team performance would overcome any individual heroics Suárez produces, but those have been few and far between this season while Liverpool’s number seven has kept on filling his boots. There is the worry that whatever Spurs do themselves, Suárez could win the match on his own.
It is very hard to predict which system Brendan Rodgers will use given the injuries hampering his squad at the moment. Of course, whatever formation he uses the game-plan will be the same: pass and move, dominate possession and creatively work the ball forward into goalscoring positions. Tottenham’s more vertical, high-tempo setup provides a nice contrast to this plan and, unless both teams shut up shop, the match should at least be watchable for neutrals.
Given that three of Rodgers’ best players are centre-backs and his wingers are relatively unreliable, he may well select Daniel Agger, Martin Škrtel and Mamadou Sakho and push his wing-backs forward. This would leave Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen in the middle with Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson off of Suárez. On paper, that seems a workable system on paper, but it would probably prove too complicated on the field of play. Therefore, it will most probably be an orthodox 4-2-3-1.
Simon Mignolet has had a fantastic start to his time on Merseyside and will continue between the sticks. Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan will take the full-back roles, with the youngster looking to build on the eye-catching displays he has put in. For all his faults, Aaron Lennon could yet be the opponent that undoes him.
Any combination of Agger, Škrtel and Sakho will take the centre-back spots. There is basically nothing between them individually, although as Agger has recently been ill he may miss out. Despite their players’ undoubted talents, though, Liverpool’s defence has been decidedly porous of late, keeping only one clean sheet in their last twelve league games – and that was against Fulham so it barely even counts. Even Spurs’ attack should be able to create chances against them.
Joe Allen has started the last three games and has played very well, but Rodgers will probably prefer Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva in the double pivot when facing a muscular and aggressive midfield trio at White Hart Lane. If Liverpool find themselves a goal to the good with twenty minutes to go, they can then introduce Allen in place of a more attacking player and use his calmness and splendid technique to help shut the game down.
The bold thing for Rodgers to do would be select the potentially brilliant Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling to interchange on the wings and go all-out attack, with Coutinho free to roam and pick his passes from the number ten role. The Brazilian has the potential to be the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League but at the moment he is merely the most aesthetically-pleasing.
It is always harder than it sounds for creators to add ‘end-product’ to their play – primarily because their ‘assist’ numbers depend on the finishing capability of their teammates – but Coutinho’s figures have been particularly disappointing this season: in ten league appearances, his 3.8 shots per game and 2.1 key passes per game have yielded one goal and one assist.
Luis Suárez’s is just about the only name one can safely assume will be on Liverpool’s teamsheet and his is the one that AVB would most like to be absent. It is every Premier League manager’s $64,000 question at the moment: how do you stop him? There does not appear to be any way to do it: he is just too good.
If Liverpool do indeed go with that line-up and system, then AVB’s options are rather limited. His full-backs will have their hands full with Liverpool’s wingers combining with Coutinho and an overlapping full-back, so it may be very difficult for them to venture forward and support their own wingers. Additionally, the further forward they go, the more space there will be for Suárez.
It would be unlike AVB to spring a tactical surprise, in any case, so we can assume that it will be the usual frustratingly turgid selection in a 4-2-3-1. The best hope Spurs have is that Lennon takes Flanagan to the cleaners and creates enough chances for Roberto Soldado to convert at least one.
They could really do with Lewis Holtby and Paulinho putting in performances but against Henderson and Lucas it would be a big ask. It is not beyond Tottenham’s capabilities to win – but we have grown used to seeing the side punch well below its weight. This would be the perfect time for them to come of age.