31 August 2014

Liverpool 3-0 Tottenham

Sterling 8'
Gerrard 49' (pen)
Moreno 60'

Welcome back, Liverpool. That was the comprehensive performance we'd become used to over the last five months of the last campaign.

Reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond with Balotelli coming into the XI immediately, Liverpool looked more potent up front and more cohesive in midfield. Liverpool took 17 shots, after taking just 12 and 11 in the first two matches. Sterling was much more destructively dangerous through the middle, the link between midfielders and strikers but also scoring the crucial opening goal. Henderson and Allen gave Gerrard much more protection, especially needed with the captain struggling in the first half, and Henderson was probably the only one who could challenge Sterling for man of the match award.

With Skrtel and Johnson injured, Liverpool started three defenders signed this summer and one who made all of 19 appearances last season. But Liverpool somehow kept a clean sheet, frightening a few times but only truly threatened once, when Spurs failed to capitalize on one of Liverpool's few mistakes. They held their opponents to just seven shots, with just one on-target.

Maybe it helps that Liverpool were facing Tottenham, who've they now outscored 12-0 over the last 270 minutes.

Once again, a Liverpool win began with an early goal. The away side should have struck within two minutes, Balotelli's first touch a header from six yards sent straight at Lloris, but did strike within eight. Pressing and a quick transition again leading to the break-through: Henderson and Manquillo combined to win possession on the halfway line, Henderson sent Sturridge scampering down the right, passed back inside to Henderson, centered perfectly for Sterling's tap-in at the back post.

Liverpool had chances to extend the lead in the first half: Balotelli missing the target with another close-range header, this time from a free kick, and slashing a shot from 40 yards wide with an open goal after Lloris charged out but failed to fully clear; Sterling and Sturridge countering wonderfully but the latter just missing the target after shrugging off two defenders. But Spurs' one chance, just before halftime, was Spurs' lone shot on-target: Chadli through after both center-backs charged out but failed to clear, but Mignolet making the needed save.

Yes, those are the fine margins that decide matches; Manchester City punished Liverpool's mistakes five days ago. Yes, Liverpool made fewer today, but had Spurs capitalized on that one, it might have been a very different result. Still, Liverpool very much deserved their win because of the way they started the second half.

Within 15 minutes of the restart, Liverpool had put the game completely out of reach. Sustained Liverpool possession ended with Allen cleverly winning a penalty off Dier after less than three minutes, when the right back stupidly tried to tug the midfielder back to keep him from getting to the byline and Allen promptly fell like a sack of bricks. Sure, Allen probably could have stayed on his feet, but why should he? Dier fouled him, Dier deserved the penalty. And Gerrard, yet again, made no mistake from the spot, now the first Liverpool player to score in 16 consecutive seasons.

Spurs tried to respond, but were decently smothered, and then Liverpool's pressing again paid dividends. In contrast to when Manchester City scored its third on Monday, Moreno got tight to the opposition's right winger. This time, he stole the ball from Townsend rather than letting Navas pick a pass to Agüero, and charged into acres of empty space, lightning speed preventing any Tottenham defender from getting close, Kaboul backing off and sticking to Sturridge rather than closing down. And at full pace, Moreno hammered a perfectly placed shot into the far corner from the top of the box. Magical. It's worth noting that was Townsend's first touch of the match, having come on less than a minute before. A proper impact substitution. Also, Tottenham must love letting a Liverpool left-back score the third at White Hart Lane.

From there, cruise control. Can and Markovic came on, demonstrating Liverpool's new found impressive strength in depth, the latter again a live-wire substitute. Liverpool had more chances to extend the lead on the counter than Tottenham had at Liverpool's goal despite near-constant possession, highlighted by Sterling's jaw-dropping miss after he and Can did all the hard work, the midfielder bull-rushing up the middle, the winger dancing around and through Tottenham's defenders but then shooting tamely at Lloris from point-blank range. For the first time in a long time, Liverpool's defensive shell worked to not-quite-perfection-but-close-enough.

There's an awful lot to be happy about today, there's very, very little to complain about. Not to downplay anyone else's contributions (especially Henderson and Sterling's), but I guess I'm most pleased with Liverpool's fullbacks. Manquillo was again a defensive rock – six interceptions, four successful tackles, two clearances and a blocked cross, despite picking up a first-half yellow again – Moreno was almost as good on the opposite flank and much, much more impressive going forward. It's weird seeing two competent Liverpool fullbacks on the pitch at the same time, one 20, the other 22 and both new to the Premier League.

Liverpool are much better than Tottenham's previous opponents, but Spurs have been free-scoring in their previous three matches, only winning by a single goal in their first contest because of a man-disadvantage for two-thirds of the game. That Liverpool's defense, this Liverpool defense, blanketed Tottenham so thoroughly is promising, to say the absolute least. The only worry was that Lovren looked a little rash at times, again, but the defense should continue to improve with further match time together. It'll be interesting to see whether Skrtel comes straight back into the side. Or, I guess, what happens when Skrtel comes straight back into the side.

Of course, Liverpool have kept just 11 clean sheets in the league since the start of last season. Three of those 11 came against Tottenham. So maybe we need to see Liverpool do it against different opposition as well.

Still, six points from the first three matches, matches against teams that finished in the Top 8 last season, two of those matches away from Anfield, seems a good enough start. The new-look Liverpool was always going to need some time to settle. It certainly looks as if they've started to do so.

1 comment :

Aaron Wallis said...

Absolutely loving these write-ups. Well done.