This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Sunday’s late kick-off sees Tottenham travelling to Anfield to face the form side in the Premier League and, against all odds, potential title-winners. Liverpool are on a run of seven straight wins and have won ten of their last twelve, scoring forty goals in the process. The prospect of Steven Gerrard lifting the league trophy at the end of the season seemed remote in August, but it is a disgustingly realistic conclusion to the campaign now.
Whether or not Liverpool win the title, their fans should and will be delighted with the unexpectedly huge leap forward they have made. Although their habit of shipping silly goals could yet prove their Achilles’ heel, the ruthlessness of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge at the other end has more than offset it so far.
Indeed, such is the irrepressibility of the Reds going forward that optimism is growing in the red half of Merseyside that their twenty-four year wait for a title could be coming to an end. There is a certain irony to that: the one with Roy Hodgson aside, this was the first pre-season in a long time that was not notable for Liverpool fans crowing “this is our year”, and yet it may well turn out to be their year after all.
Liverpool’s resurgence is down to two things: firstly and most importantly, the often overlooked financial contribution of Fenway Sports Group, without whom the club would not have signed any of this season’s attacking stars; secondly, the rejuvenating effect of Brendan Rodgers’ modern coaching, which has seen key players reach new heights in new roles and others find consistency where before there was only wild unpredictability.
One of the most surprising aspects of Liverpool’s resurgence has been that it has been accomplished without a massive summer signing. Admittedly, the retention of Suárez was a big coup, and the January 2013 arrivals of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge made a huge difference and their bedding-in period towards the end of 2012-13 allowed them to hit the ground running in this season.
Of the summer arrivals, however, Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas and Tiago Ilori have made no impression whatsoever, Kolo Touré and Mamadou Sakho have been in and out of the team and Simon Mignolet’s form has been sketchy in this calendar year.
This underscores the fact that that the upturn in Liverpool’s fortunes this season is all down to the improvement of players already at the club and the work of Brendan Rodgers. His incremental progress and the support he received while making errors last season is a lesson to Daniel Levy, who once again sabotaged a Spurs season rather than play the long game.
Tactically, the key to Rodgers’ side’s success this season has been their flexibility. The manager has varied his approach depending on the opponent and looked to exploit specific weaknesses, rather than rigidly stick to one plan. Last year’s tiki-taka model has been transformed and the squad now works as a multifaceted unit, usually with a clinical counter-attacking strategy as Plan A.
They still play the intricate, triangular passing football that Rodgers perfected at Swansea, but with a much more aggressive pressing system. Like most top sides nowadays, they look to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible and get to the goal as quickly as possible.
For most of this season they have used a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, but we have also seen experiments with back threes and, in recent weeks, a midfield diamond. All have been well-executed and this strategic variety gives them a tactical advantage on their opponents and makes predicting their starting formation and tactics very hard.
With Tottenham’s favoured system an aggressive, up-and-at-‘em 4-2-3-1 that pays little attention to structure, shape and control of either the ball or territory, it would not be a surprise to see Rodgers revert to the deep, counterattacking system which totally destroyed the similarly bold (read: naïve) Arsenal in February, although it could be tweaked slightly to provide a slightly greater element of control in midfield.
The back five picks itself, really: Simon Mignolet in goal, Glen Johnson at right wing-back, Jon Flanagan on the left, with Martin Škrtel and Daniel Agger in the middle. Due to a constant raft of injuries and some poor individual decisions, Liverpool have only kept three Premier League clean sheets in 2014, but with this back five on its game that tally will surely rise.
Infuriatingly popular moron and absolutely-not-a-holding-midfielder Steven Gerrard will play in holding midfield. In his mind, the real-life Roy Race will be pinging the ball around like Andrea Pirlo but in reality he will be endangering the lives of the Anfield faithful with his overhit cannonball hoofs, while leaving plenty of gaps for Spurs’ midfield to exploit.
Normally this would be something the visiting side could exploit, but Gerrard will be allowed by the referee to break up all of Tottenham’s attacks by committing as many yellow card offences as he likes without ever receiving a red. Never listen to people who say it does not matter who is England captain: Gerrard is walking proof that the benefits are numerous.
Next to Gerrard will be the much improved and infamously odd-of-gait Jordan Henderson. The former Sunderland player is perhaps Rodgers’ biggest success story, his phenomenal work-rate now augmented by an admirable football brain and the guts to take responsibility and play a creative role when he is not merely busting his lungs running the length of the pitch.
Depending on Rodgers’ intentions, Joe Allen or Philippe Coutinho would take the third spot in midfield. The metronomic passing and astute positioning of Allen has been favoured in recent weeks as Liverpool have crowded the central area with four bodies, but if they are going out all guns blazing as they did in the Arsenal game then the infinitely more creative and attacking Coutinho should get the nod.
The Brazilian has perhaps not produced the numbers his incredible talent promised this season, with just three goals and six assists to his name, but his defensive contribution has more than made up for that. With 2.1 tackles per game to his name, he is proof that even the most creative players have to play as hyperactive pressers now, and his performance in the victory over Arsenal, with six tackles and two interceptions as well as five chance-creating passes, was about as devastating as one can see from a modern ‘number ten’.
The front three will presumably be Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez, about whom enough has been written already. For Tottenham to shut the three down with Kyle Naughton and Danny Rose playing in the full-back positions will probably be impossible. Perhaps a more rational, pragmatic manager than Sherwood would double-up in the full-back positions, but we can be sure that such defensive thinking is ruled out by default.
Given that the two sides are such polar opposites in terms of talent, form, intelligence and collective understanding, it is difficult to see anything other than a home win, and with Tim Sherwood likely to proudly and knowingly walk straight into the trap Brendan Rodgers has set for him, it could be bloody. If there is any cause for optimism, Liverpool’s habit of donating goals to the opposition cause means that with a bit of luck Tottenham need only to focus on keeping things tight at the other end and a result could be handed to them on a plate.