10 March 2013

Liverpool 3-2 Tottenham

Goals: photo spursformation3-10_zps58ebc580.png
Suarez 21'
Vertonghen 45' 53'
Downing 66'
Gerrard 82' (pen)

I'll readily admit it. I lost faith after Vertonghen's second, with Tottenham all too easily overhauling an early deficit after Liverpool's strong opening 30 minutes. Two soft free kicks leading to two cheaply conceded goals. We'd seen this movie before. I hadn't liked the ending.

But not this time. A Liverpool substitution that initially baffled but worked perfectly. Mistakes from Walker and Lloris allowing a fortuitous equalizer. And then the required Liverpool onslaught culminating in a deserved penalty given by a referee who'd given Liverpool little joy up to that point, wonderfully taken by Liverpool's captain.

And all against a side that's tormented Liverpool over the last few seasons, winning four and drawing one of the last five meetings, a side playing some of the best football in the division. We've been fooled by so many false dawns and turning points in the last four seasons. Once, twice, thrice burned, forever shy. But this truly feels like a turning point.

Three of those four losses came with Spurs scoring in the first ten minutes. Which made Liverpool's start even more impressive, an attacking lineup taking the game to the opposition. Bale forced an awkward save from Jones – starting in place of Reina due to a calf injury – with a serpentine free kick in the 12th minute, but Liverpool were asking more questions of Tottenham, attacking directly, bypassing the midfield but involving everyone in the front four, supplemented by Enrique's forays forward.

And it was a quick transition from defense to attack followed by gorgeous interplay between Coutinho, Enrique, and Suarez which led to Liverpool's outstanding opener. Johnson won the ball deep in Liverpool's defensive third, charged past two Spurs players, and hammered a 50-yard pass to Coutinho with his weaker foot. Closely marked by Walker, the Brazilian deftly controlled then back-heeled to the onrushing Enrique, who retained possession despite Dembele's attention, passed back to Coutinho, and immediately made an intelligent run between two defenders. Coutinho, to his credit, recognized it straight away, threading the throughball in behind. Enrique controlled, shrugged off Walker, and passed it on for Suarez's run, the finish cheekily toe-poked under Lloris. Liverpool have seen some incredible team goals in the last few weeks – Downing's opener against Wigan and Enrique's against Swansea among others – and this was in the same category. Direct football, clever footwork, cleverer passes, and a remarkable finish. It seemed a nice precedent.

But it didn't last. To their credit, Spurs quickly regrouped, its stronger midfield increasingly exerting control. Bale twice missed the target, Sigurðsson shot into the side netting, and Assou-Ekotto shot directly at Jones. And then came the stomach punch. Gerrard collided with Bale, winning the header, albeit with a forearm in Bale's back but with Bale dropping like a stone holding his head. He dives when he wants. And when Liverpool couldn't fully clear the set play, Liverpool were punished. Bale, amazingly recovered, popped up on the right to deliver an immaculate cross for Vertonghen, still forward following the free kick and beating a static Johnson with a strong run.

The equalizer on the stroke of halftime soon looked a blow Liverpool wouldn't recover from. The second half was all Tottenham from the whistle, a flurry reminiscent of those first half onslaughts we're all too familiar with. And it culminated with another set play goal after another soft free kick won by Bale, this time for a Lucas foul despite barely making contact with Bale's shoulder. Sigurðsson arguably fouled Carragher as well, preventing the vice-captain from heading away, but two other Liverpool defenders (Agger and Johnson) still failed to clear, allowing Vertonghen to ram in his and Tottenham's second. Oh no. Not again.

Spurs should have stretched the lead before the hour mark. The best opportunity came on when countering from a Liverpool set play, Bale's storming run setting up an open Sigurðsson at the back post, his shot somehow saved onto the post, but Jones also did well to deny Dembele while Defoe fired wide when allowed to turn in the box.

Allen replacing Coutinho just before the hour seemed a desperate gambit. Yes, Liverpool needed to regain the midfield, but it was surprising given that Rodgers had announced Allen would need shoulder surgery and with Jordan Henderson in good form. But I guess that's why we're sitting in front of computers and Rodgers is in the bootroom.

Allen did exactly as hoped; Tottenham had 57.6% possession at halftime and dominated the 15 minutes after the restart, but Liverpool still out-possessed Tottenham 51.8-48.2% in the second half. And while the change settled Liverpool, the equalizer came because of dreadful decisions by Walker and Lloris. Walker, trapped on the right touchline near midfield, hammered a hopeful back pass in the direction of his keeper. Lloris, rather than hoofing clear, tried to control, allowing Downing to sneak in, charge into the box, and coolly finish with his right foot between Vertonghen's legs. Given how often we've criticized Downing for taking the easy option, it was a heartening display of confidence from the winger.

Liverpool were in the ascendancy, but each side had chances to take the lead before Gerrard finally struck. Sturridge headed narrowly wide at the back post from Downing's excellent cross, quickly followed by Bale heading wide from Walker's excellent cross, put under just enough pressure by Carragher.

Then, in the 81st minute, Tottenham only half-cleared a Liverpool free kick, crazily sent back into his own box by Defoe, leading to Assou-Ekotto barging over Suarez in front of the baying Kop. Oliver immediately pointed to the spot – even he couldn't ignore the challenge – and Gerrard stepped up, most certainly with memories of West Brom still fresh in the memory, sending Lloris the wrong way.

The final ten minutes felt like decades, but Liverpool restricted Tottenham to a single chance at an equalizer, from yet another free kick, this one just outside Bale's range. The nearly-40-yard effort landed on the roof of Jones' net, and Tottenham's inability to otherwise trouble Liverpool after going behind again was highlighted by Bale's more-than-speculative shot/cross (I'm not sure he knows which is was) sailing well wide of Liverpool's goal in the last minute of injury time.

Then relief. Blessed, blessed relief.

Liverpool's passing accuracy – 75% – was abysmal. Liverpool's control of the match was nonexistent for far too long, at least until Allen's entrance. Spurs took more shots, had more on-target, had 10 more successful dribbles, and made more tackles and interceptions. I expect tomorrow's infographic will highlight the statistical disparity, which was the opposite of how these fixtures have often played out.

Downing deservedly won man of the match from the official site, finally playing to the form we'd hoped to see 18 months ago. Allen truly changed the game, adding much-needed composure and control. Suarez's finish was one from the league's top scorer, and a fitting 50th goal for the club. Coutinho and Enrique were outstanding in attack during the opening 30 minutes, although both faded going forward. Lucas, despite conceding far too many free kicks, kept Bale quiet for long stretches, limiting him to opportunities from set plays and that one cross from out wide. Sturridge disappointed but still frightened Spurs' defense into retreating, while Gerrard fittingly scored the winner after bombing from box to box. As is needed when facing a side like Tottenham, it truly was a team performance.

It's just the second league match Liverpool have won by overhauling a deficit and scoring the winner in the last 15 minutes, as they did at West Ham three months ago. And yes, it's finally a victory against a side in the top four, a side with an awful lot to play for to secure a Champions League berth. And, again, a side that's taken Liverpool to the woodshed all too often in recent seasons.

But today was different. And that difference, that resolve from Liverpool, highlights the growth we've seen over the past few weeks. It wasn't domination, as against Wigan, Swansea, or Norwich, and the two goals conceded demonstrate that there's still some ways to go to get to where Liverpool should be, need to be. But this win, against this opposition and won in this manner, is even more impressive than those dominations.


Biggestfandownunder said...

Excellent recap Nate, as always. Thanks for these.

kevin said...

great recap but i'm not sure i can cosign your optimism. I don't have a whole lot of faith that liverpool wins the game if downing doesn't get the cupcake goal, let alone get the draw. Like the commentator said, they needed the goal to spur them on, but i'm not sure they could have unlocked spurs defense in the last half hour if walker didn't just toss liverpool the keys. This is just speaking from experience of the torture from the last two years, perhaps I'm just unwilling to be burned, as you aptly wrote. Anyway, great match, ynwa

Phil said...

Great teams force errors. The goals wouldn't have happened if Liverpool didn't push on. And we put them both away.

suley said...

@Kevin... Like what Phil said. Great teams force errors and mature teams win when playing ugly... how many times last year and this year did we rue our luck when Manchester United seemed to have lady luck seemingly on their side every week.
This side is maturing... they are winning games they look like losing... and that in itself is a sign of good things to come... providing we can keep the team together of course and add one or two more quality players and we will be right up there.