Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool went to the UEFA Champions League final with an incredible comeback story. But in the current information age, their stories have been too often told and retold again and again even in just a month. So, here’s something different. We’re going to talk about tactics in this tactical analysis preview.
Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp are two very good tacticians. There will be a “tactical war” between the two managers who will respond to each other in the final match at Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid. This tactical analysis will dissect deeply the tactics of both managers while predicting the course of the match.
What we learn from the previous meetings
Pochettino and Klopp have met nine times, with eight of them in the Premier League. Klopp won four times, Pochettino only won once, and the remaining four ended in a draw.
In the last two meetings, Liverpool always won 2-1. But in the two matches before that, they drew 2-2 (4th February 2018) and Spurs won 4-1 (22nd October 2017); which was Pochettino’s only victory over Klopp so far.
The history seemed to side with Liverpool. Even though the last time Spurs defeated by Liverpool (31st March 2019), Liverpool scored two goals due to the blunder of Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld. Likewise in their September 2018 defeat, Liverpool’s two goals resulted from the mistakes by goalkeeper Michel Vorm.
Both teams did not escape the “error games”, especially Spurs. Throughout this season Spurs have made 21 errors (the sixth-most in the league) which have resulted in six goals conceded. But Liverpool were also not much different by making 18 errors that resulted in four goals conceded (but the least-fourth in the league).
Spurs error was also made clear in the set piece situation. This has been reviewed by Cameron Meighan in the May issue of Total Football Analysis Magazine.
Liverpool have set-piece routines that are evident when facing “small” goalkeepers like Lloris. They overload the six-yard box (marked with a white circle in the image above), so that other areas (the yellow circle in the image above) became spacious so they could maximise it through second balls or even, in the above case, the “third balls”.
So it is not surprising that Liverpool could score 22 goals from the set play (most in the league) with 14 of them from the corner kick (most in the league). Spurs must be careful if they conceded a corner kick. So they can’t just play defensively, especially if they’re playing with the three at the back.
So if Spurs didn’t make mistakes, the results in their last two matches might be different. Unfortunately, history does not recognize presuppositions, and football is not a history lesson either.
Counter-attack vs wing play
It’s hard to predict exactly how Pochettino will set his formation. Spurs always change formation when facing Liverpool. At the last meeting, they played with the three at the back and a defensive midfielder (Moussa Sissoko).
This made Spurs defend with 5-3-2 while leaving a lot of space in the flank area in the middle third. This emptiness was maximised by two Liverpool full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson when they’re building up the attacks.
It is understandable why Pochettino defend with five defenders, because the trio of Liverpool forwards (Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané) often play inward, while Alexander-Arnold and Robertson became the more active winger.
The Spurs mission is clear. They’re targeting counter-attacks when both opponents’ full-backs were in an advanced position. Unfortunately Klopp also cleverly responded to Pochettino’s tactics by squeezing attacks from one particular side: the right flank.
This has become Klopp’s patron, because of the 422 chances that Liverpool created in the Premier League (the third-most after Manchester City and Chelsea), as many as 40.5% of them were recorded from the right flank (second-best in the league).
Important roles for both Liverpool’s full-backs
By concentrating the attack from the right, Klopp dropped James Milner as an impromptu left-full-back (covering Robertson’s space while he overlaps), in anticipation that Liverpool would not be outnumbered when Spurs launch a counter-attack.
This also made Liverpool have more options when they want to change the direction of the attack from right to left flank. Robertson and Mané could exploit the right side of the Spurs several times with only Kieran Trippier occupying the area.
The problem is, if Trippier follows Mané’s movement that often moves wide, Robertson will get enough space to launch a cross.
In that match, Firmino managed to head the ball to score. But on another occasion, Liverpool’s crosses were not always on target, but could still be maximised because of second balls.
Not surprisingly, with such a gameplan throughout this season, Liverpool recorded 173 successful crosses (the third-most), although they were more often launched from the right (55.8%). Alexander-Arnold (12 assists) and Robertson (11) also became the most defensive players to record assists.
The playmaking forward of Spurs
Pochettino’s Spurs looked troubled by Liverpool’s high pressing. That made it difficult for them to build-up from behind. The problem is, if Spurs send a long ball forward, Liverpool will likely win the aerial duels because they have Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip.
Instead of sending a long ball straight to the flank, Spurs outsmarted this by allowing the forward (especially Harry Kane) to drop back to the middle third. The ball is then sent to Kane, to pass it to Bamidele Alli or Son Heung-min in the flank area.
With this kind of gameplan, Spurs were able to exploit the space in Liverpool’s flank area left by Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
If Spurs fail to get a quick counter-attack (the Liverpool players have returned to the defensive third), then Spurs will bombard the penalty box with crosses. In that match, Spurs recorded 13 crosses (Liverpool 17). Lucas Moura’s goal was created from this kind of play.
This method was effective for Spurs who lack human resources (because they were not active in two transfer windows). Chris Summersell explained it in the May issue of Total Football Analysis Magazine, where Kane used to drop back to make his marker out of position.
Combined with his passing abilities, this gameplan is often favourable for Alli and Son who have run in behind the Liverpool’s defenders, especially if Spurs play with 4-4-2 diamonds (to cram the midfield since losing Mousa Dembélé in the transfer window).
Lineups will be very decisive
The “tactical war” between the two managers will start far from before the press conference until when the teamsheet is out. Then the war will continue throughout the match. This is what makes it difficult for me to predict the starting eleven of both teams because just that simple thing can influence how both will play and respond to each other’s tactics.
First question: Will Pochettino play with three or four at the back? Next question: Will Kane and Firmino start the match?
A debate for three or four at the back is important for Pochettino. If he plays with three defenders, Spurs will defend with 5-3-2, which makes Liverpool’s attacking trio plus two full-backs have their respective markers. In this way, Spurs will be comfortable playing with the counter-attack.
While if Pochettino uses the formation of four defenders, the Liverpool forwards can play wide to stretch the Spurs defence. Or the Liverpool forwards (especially Firmino) could also drop down to lure one of the Spurs central defenders so that space can be exploited by one of the Liverpool wingers.
Next about Kane and Firmino. Both of them are reported to have been fit for the final. There will be a slight difference whether Firmino will play as a starter or not. The thing that will be a lot different is whether Kane will be a starter or not.
If Kane starts, Spurs can play with the 4-2-3-1 formation with Moura and Son wide. This gameplan allowed the two Spurs wingers to take advantage of the space behind Liverpool’s full-backs constantly.
Then when pressed, this gameplan can also make Spurs have more options to pass, either directly towards the flank or to Kane to then pass the ball to the flank.
If Kane is not a starter, Spurs are expected to use a 4-4-2 diamond formation which at any time can be transformed into 4-3-3 with Son and Moura as the forwards, and Alli as a versatile attacking midfielder.
I personally feel if Kane might be started on the bench and play in the second half, more because there is another figure who plays an important role in making them qualify for the final: Lucas Moura. The same is true for Divock Origi for Liverpool even though I’m not too sure.
The three at the back will indeed make Spurs play a counter-attack, but that is not a convenient way because Liverpool will be easy to do high-press and force Spurs to send many long balls forward. This method might be effective only if Spurs are already lead.
In various scenarios, Liverpool seems to be more in control of the match, which makes them superior and at the same time vulnerable to face counter-attack. This is a very promising match in terms of the tactics.
Uninteresting things will be presented if Spurs play defensively (if they start the match with a three at the back) and aim for a counter-attack goal that is likely to come towards the end of the match. But the choice of tactical approach was the prerogative of the two managers.
In general, Liverpool is more favoured. They could have narrowly won 2-1. Different things will happen if Spurs managed to score the first goal. If that happens, Liverpool probably will attack desperately and Spurs will wait for a gap to launch counter-attack so that Spurs can win 2-0.
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