Such a heavy defeat represents a significant setback for the new Tottenham head coach, Mauricio Pochettino, whose system involves playing high up the pitch, pressing intensely and recovering possession as quickly as possible. This approach worked excellently in the previous weekend’s 4-0 win over QPR but against a Liverpool side boasting slick passing and intelligent running, Spurs were torn apart.
The pre-match focus was inevitably on Mario Balotelli – and his partnership with Daniel Sturridge – but Liverpool’s new strike duo acted as facilitators rather than goalscorers. Balotelli’s movement, link play and work-rate were impressive but he was wasteful in front of goal, missing three very presentable chances.
Balotelli and Sturridge played a crucial role in the triumph, however. With Brendan Rodgers playing a midfield diamond, as he often deployed during last season’s run-in, the Spurs centre-backs were two-against-two at the back.
With the full-backs, Eric Dier and Danny Rose, pushing forward, Jan Vertonghen and Younès Kaboul were exposed. They struggled enough with Balotelli and Sturridge but the real problems came against a ‘third man running’, a Liverpool midfielder breaking past the forwards, and in behind the Spurs defence. Etienne Capoue, the Spurs midfielder tasked with protecting the defence, often failed to track these runs sufficiently.
The first man to exploit this was Jordan Henderson, who came of age in this fixture last year with similarly well-timed runs, and his burst between Spurs defenders and past Capoue created the opener, finished at the far post by Sterling.
Sterling, who caused Spurs most problems with his mazy dribbling, started from the top of the diamond and charged forward into space, with and without the ball. When he saw Balotelli and Sturridge pulling Spurs’ defenders out of position, he started his runs, and he was the game’s best attacking player in this central position. Only a poor finish prevented him scoring a wonderful solo effort in the second half.
Joe Allen is a less dynamic midfielder than Henderson or Sterling but made a similarly penetrative run, again past Capoue, to win the penalty for the second. The only worry was the fact Henderson and Allen’s adventurousness asked a lot of Steven Gerrard in the deep-lying role – he struggled to get to grips with Christian Eriksen early on and his passing was extremely wasteful. Nevertheless, that was not enough to prevent Liverpool’s dominance. The third goal, scored by Alberto Moreno, was a different move – a brilliant direct solo dribble – but again highlighted Spurs’ inability to deal with runners from deep.
Tottenham’s impressive start to the campaign is over, although fans can rest assured the new system will become more cohesive given extra time on the training ground, and few opponents will exploit their deficiencies as ruthlessly as Liverpool.