There is a capacity that champions have to get the job done, and this Liverpool group has it in abundance.
Jurgen Klopp's side had hammered away at Tottenham. It had been frustrated. It had appeared that Jose Mourinho, yet again, would mastermind a barely explicable defensive masterclass. And then, in the final minute, Roberto Firmino powered in a header from a corner. Liverpool won Wednesday's match at Anfield, 2-1, returning to the top of the table and extending its unbeaten run at home to 66 games.
These could be three hugely significant points. Liverpool is the only side that began the week in the top seven to win. As others drop points all around it, as it drops points away, Liverpool has its home form on which to fall back. That’s seven wins out of seven there in the league this season, and that has been enough to carry the reigning champions back to the summit entering the festive season fixtures. But perhaps the most important aspect on Wednesday was that, despite fatigue, despite injuries, despite the sense that Tottenham was doing what Mourinho sides so often do, it found a way. Mourinho claims he told Klopp after the final whistle that "the best team lost," but the match's events would suggest otherwise.
The game immediately settled into the pattern that had been widely predicted for it. Tottenham sat deep, allowed Liverpool the ball and waited for opportunities to counter. The only slight surprise was that Spurs began not with their usual 4-3-3 but with a midfield four, presumably to try to combat Liverpool’s aggressive fullbacks.
It didn’t take long for the thought to occur that Spurs, by defending so deep, could not possibly survive. It may be how Tottenham has played this season, but it did seem to play into Liverpool’s hands, allowing the hosts to build a rhythm. When Fulham unsettled Liverpool on Sunday, it was by attacking. That said, Liverpool at home is very different prospect to Liverpool away this season. On the road it has won only one out of six.
Klopp has always rejected the idea of sitting deep on the edge of his own box as being akin to hoping to win the lottery, relying on opposition shots not flying in or crosses not finding their target. And the deeper you defend, the greater the likelihood of an unfortunate deflection, which was precisely what happened after 26 minutes as Mohamed Salah’s shot hit Eric Dier and looped in. Tottenham was just another side, it seemed, who had come to Anfield and been swept away on the red wave.
But there is a curious spell on Tottenham this season. Things are happening to it that do not happen to other sides. Spurs had barely been on the Liverpool half all game when Giovanni Lo Celso shaped a through-pass to Son Heung-min with the outside of his boot. The South Korean opened his body as if to shoot into the far corner and instead dragged his shot in at the near post–a superb finish for his 11th goal of the season.
It wasn't just that Son scored, it was that he scored in such an archetypal Mourinho way. Liverpool had been dominant for the first half hour, but such is Mourinho’s capacity to project himself as a puppet-master, a trait he has renewed with relish in recent months, that it was hard not to wonder whether perhaps he had only allowed us to believe Liverpool had been dominant and this was what he had planned all along.
Spurs could not remain so deep in the second half and didn’t. Liverpool continued to have more of the ball, but Tottenham’s threat was greatly increased. Steven Bergwijn was twice released down the left, striking the post with the second chance, and Harry Kane headed wide after being picked out unmarked six yards from goal by Son’s corner.
But after a more progressive half hour or so, Tottenham retreated again. After Sadio Mane had clipped the top of the bar after a smart turn, Spurs swapped Bergwijn for Sergio Reguilon, the use of a second left back making clear Mourinho’s intentions and his contentment with a point.
The result, though, was to reduce Tottenham’s attacking outlets, to draw Liverpool on. The pressure intensified, the chances mounted up. And, eventually, the goal came. Firmino has been criticized this season, having scored only two goals entering the day, but he took his chance superbly. Liverpool had the win and its place back atop the table, and perhaps the question now is whether there are necessary limitations to the Mourinho method.