Liverpool Begins to Get Its Groove Back

A month removed from a fight for first, Liverpool and Tottenham jockeyed for top-four positioning, and it's Jurgen Klopp's revived Reds that look more up for the task.
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The panic can start to subside. Forty days after Liverpool last won a Premier League game–and after four games without so much as scoring a single goal–Jurgen Klopp’s side ended its drought with an emphatic 3-1 victory at Tottenham. As the second half went on, the confidence almost visibly returned to the champion, which climbed to third place with the win. In terms of the league title, the damage, though, may have been done through its slump: Liverpool trails in-form leader Manchester City by four points and has played a game more.

Quite apart from the three points, what will be most encouraging for Liverpool are the performances of Sadio Mané and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Neither has been anywhere near his best over the past month, but between them they set up and/or scored every goal.

Football has changed this season, with the compressed calendar meaning that sides have had less time to prepare for games, while also increasing levels of fatigue. The result has been that there have been 23% fewer pressures in games this season than in 2018-19, as more managers have tempered their approach and sat their defenses deeper.

Liverpool, though, has not changed, or at least not as much as others. Its defensive line is still high, even with all the absences. The flaws in its pressing were evident in the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa, since when Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have suffered long-term injuries. Fabinho was also missing at Tottenham on Thursday having taken a knock in training, meaning another new central defensive pairing of Jordan Henderson and Joel Matip. The latter was then removed at halftime for Nat Phillips, creating Liverpool’s 12th center back pairing of the league season.

Still, though, the line was high, and early on that was exposed. Only a very tight offside call denied Son Heung-min a third-minute opener. Liverpool’s problem has been that while dropping the defensive line deeper may make it more secure, it reduces its goal threat. When Klopp was still at Dortmund, he observed that Gegenpressing is the best playmaker in the world, but the deeper the defensive line sits, the less intense the press, and the fewer turnovers in dangerous positions.

The issue is finding the right balance for the new circumstances, something Manchester City seems to have gotten right over the past month. Liverpool, by contrast, has been struggling, but there were promising signs in the FA Cup defeat to Manchester United on Sunday, and those were built upon here. The longer the first half went on, the better Liverpool got, and, while it wasn’t at its most fluid or incisive and at times seemed a little ponderous, some of the old patterns began to emerge.

Its reward came in first-half injury time as Henderson, demonstrating the advantages of playing a midfielder at center back, sprung the Spurs offside trap with a perfectly calibrated ball over the top for Mané, who squared between a hesitant Hugo Lloris and Eric Dier. Roberto Firmino nudged in from close range for Liverpool's first league goal of 2021, snapping a drought of 483 minutes.

With Harry Kane forced off at halftime with an ankle injury (and he could miss multiple weeks, José Mourinho indicated postgame), the game seemed to have shifted decisively toward Liverpool when Trent Alexander-Arnold fizzed a first-time finish past Lloris two minutes into the second half, after the keeper had pushed out Mané's shot. Mourinho was noticeably furious with Matt Doherty, who had been beaten very easily by the Senegalese forward in the build-up.

In less than 90 seconds, though, the deficit was cut, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg smashing in his first goal for Spurs from 25 yards, a remarkable finish–although Liverpool will wonder how it had given him such space in such a dangerous area.

The game could have been settled just before the hour when Mohamed Salah appeared to have put Liverpool 3-1 up, only for the goal to be ruled out when VAR alerted referee Martin Atkinson to a handball by Firmino in the build-up. The decision was probably technically correct but once again exposed the silliness of the asymmetric modern handball law, given Dier seemed to be fouling Firmino at the time and may have handled the ball himself just before it struck Firmino’s forearm.

But the third did arrive after 65 minutes, with Mané stealing behind Joe Rodon to smash home Alexander-Arnold’s cross. 

From then, it was simply a matter of playing out time against an oddly flat Tottenham, something Liverpool did with comfort and no little style.

It’s probably too soon to declare Liverpool indisputably back–Matip's injury looks "serious," Klopp said–but the spiral of anxiety has been broken. The question now is whether the poor run was just a blip, or whether it was indicative of a deeper malaise.