26 August 2016

Liverpool at Tottenham 08.27.16

7:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 04.02.16
0-0 (a) 10.17.15
3-2 Liverpool (h) 02.10.15
3-0 Liverpool (a) 08.31.14

Last matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Burton Albion (a); 0-2 Burnley (a); 4-3 Arsenal (a)
Tottenham: 1-0 Palace (h); 1-1 Everton (a)

Referee: Bobby Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Sturridge Firmino

Let's assume the three players struggling with minor injuries – Coutinho, Can, and Origi – won't start. It seems a safe assumption. It's too early in the season for risks, no matter the opposition, and especially given those players' importance. There's an international break next week, giving them time to recover. And, because Liverpool, it's just easier to assume the worst.

It's also safe to assume Liverpool will persist with the 4-3-3 formation we've seen in every match so far. But there are questions in each section of the pitch. Again, because Liverpool.

The most worrying component is the one with the fewest options. With Can out, the midfield will almost certainly be Henderson behind Lallana and Wijnaldum. Again. Which was a midfield both good and bad against Arsenal, and bad and bad against Burnley. It's lightweight but full of running. It's often not creative enough, at least in tight spaces, but more than capable of breaking opposition lines if given room. Jordan Henderson's not a defensive midfielder, at least not yet, but still seems a safer option than Kevin Stewart. There might be a real, honest-to-goodness midfield in there, but it needs time, and we've always found it tough to give Liverpool time. Tottenham certainly won't give them time.

With Origi and Coutinho out, it pretty much has to be Firmino, Sturridge, and Mané in attack. The only other option – again, if we're not changing formations – is Lallana in attack and Stewart behind Henderson and Wijnaldum in midfield. But the question remains how those players line up. I'm well aware of Klopp's quotes about the irrelevancy of starting positions, but I still think that it makes a difference whether Sturridge initially begins on the right or through the middle: whether he's on the shoulder of the center-backs, dropping into midfield to pick up possession, or needing to track back against the opposition's wingers and full-backs. Players will interchange throughout, and with time – like Liverpool's midfield – it's certainly capable of becoming more cohesive and effective. But, as of now, it makes a difference whether it's Firmino central, Mané left, and Sturridge right or Sturridge central, Firmino left, and Mané right.

And in defense, it'll be either Matip or Klavan partnering Lovren at center-back and Milner or Moreno at left-back. As with everywhere else, there are pros and cons to each decision. Klavan's usually appeared the "safer" option, but then you re-watch Burnley's second goal last week. Matip's untested in the Premier League, and also forces Lovren to play at left center-back, where he's often vsatly less reliable. Moreno's almost always good for at least one jaw-dropping mistake, but at least he's an actual left-back who's played well in all four of his previous appearances against Spurs. Finally, the above predicted back four – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner – are all right-footed. That's obviously concerning.

*throws arms into the air resignedly*

As always, it's less about which players are on the pitch and more about what said players do on said pitch. It's an easy sport, yeah?

Meanwhile, Tottenham have a few concerns of their own. They haven't impressed in either match, but remain unbeaten – a 1-1 comeback draw at Everton followed by a late 1-0 win against Crystal Palace. Lloris is still out with a hamstring injury. Dembele's suspended for two more matches. Dele Alli has struggled with illness this week, left out of the XI against Palace before coming on for the final half an hour.

Unsurprisingly, Tottenham's XI is much easier to predict than Liverpool's. Vorm; Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Wanyama; Lamela, Alli, Eriksen; Kane. The one question is whether it's Alli behind Kane or Kane behind Vincent Janssen. Despite the narrow victory, Janssen impressed when leading the line last weekend, on the end of Tottenham's best chances before Wanyama's set play winner.

Spurs have struggled to score this season, tallying just once in each of their matches. It is, after all, a slightly revamped attack, at least when Janssen plays and Kane – well on his way to becoming Teddy Sheringham 2.0 – necessarily drops deeper. But they've remained near-impeccable at the back, last season's best defensive side continuing to impress, the best center-back pairing in the league combined with surprisingly improved full-backs.

Tottenham and Liverpool have cancelled each other out in previous meetings – funhouse mirror versions of their opponents; squint hard enough and they look alike. To be sure, there are distinct differences. Tottenham, now in Pochettino's third season, are much more cohesive and consistent. They prefer a bit more control. They're almost always more defensively secure. Liverpool are wilder, for better and worse, potentially destructive on the counter-attack but potentially self-destructive in defense.

But both sides are insane workers. Both rely on a heavy press. Both sides usually make it hard for the other to play how they want to play, at least if they want to play on the front foot. And it led to 0-0 at White Hart Lane and 1-1 at Anfield last season, both matches with barely an inch of difference between the two sides.

So, which Liverpool are we going to get? August isn't even over yet and we've bounced from high to low to high to low, stretching back to the end of preseason. 4-0 against Barca followed by 0-4 against Mainz; 4-3 at Arsenal followed by 0-2 at Burnley followed by 5-0 at Burton Albion. If this roller coaster continues, none of us will make it to May.

If the pattern holds, we're in for a long 90 minutes. It's up to Liverpool to break the wheel before it becomes even more concrete, against one of the league's toughest sides to break.

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