Tottenham tactical adjustments undone by own goal against Liverpool
The headline match of the weekend saw Liverpool host Tottenham to Anfield in Premier League action. Liverpool came away with the 2-1 victory thanks to a Roberto Firmino header and a 90th-minute own goal by Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld. The victory put Liverpool ahead by two points in the standings to title favourites Manchester City. The important Liverpool points kept the title pressure on as Manchester City have a game in hand. The loss dropped Tottenham into a tie for fourth with Manchester United.
While the match turned on the scoreboard on an own goal, the game was a clear tactical battle of two halves. The first half was dominated by Liverpool while Tottenham made important half-time adjustments to swing the play in their direction. Using tactical analysis and statistics we will look at the cause of each team dominating a half.
The home team, Liverpool, came out in a 4-3-3 formation. Alisson was in goal with a back four of Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. The midfield consisted of James Milner, captain Jordan Henderson, and Georginio Wijnaldrum. The dynamic attacking trio of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah completed the lineup.
Tottenham countered with a 5-3-2 lineup with Captain Hugo Lloris in goal. Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose were positioned as wing-backs. Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sánchez, and Jan Vertonghen lined up centrally in defence. Moussa Sissoko anchored the midfield with Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. Harry Kane and Lucas Moura led the front line.
First-half dominance from Liverpool
From the off, Liverpool had control of the first half. Possession statistics for the half showed 56% in Liverpool’s favour. Liverpool were able to control the play due to Tottenham’s strategy for dealing with the dynamic movement of Salah. It was clear that Danny Rose was keyed in on the Egyptian.
Here we see Rose pulled completely out of shape fearing the speed and movement off the ball of Salah. Rose is way behind his teammates hugging Salah’s run.
Five minutes later, we see a similar picture. Henderson is on the ball in midfield and Salah is making a darting run in behind. Rose is woefully out of shape with his backline.
Tottenham were fortunate to stop the previous two chances as the backline cut out the penetrating through-ball. It was clear that Tottenham were struggling to cope with Salah’s movement off the ball and it was a matter of time before Liverpool got free. That moment came in the 15th minute. Robertson received the ball in the half-space. Salah and Firmino queued up for runs into the box.
Tottenham made the mistake of giving Salah too much attention as Rose and Vertonghen stayed near Salah leaving Firmino free at the top of the six-yard box to head home the opening goal.
A scant four minutes later saw Salah’s movement again pull Tottenham out of sorts. Below we see Robertson on the ball entering the box. Salah is at the top of the box making a diagonal run, which is quickly tracked by Rose.
Rose tracks Salah all the way across the box as Sánchez stays connected to Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Salah’s movement again completely drags Rose out of shape leaving the entire right side of the pitch open. Salah has time to drop the ball to Wijnaldrum at the top of the box.
From the top of the box, Wijnaldrum has two great options. He can play Alexander-Arnold in on the right or square to Mané. He chooses the latter, opening up a curling shot for Mané that blazes just wide.
The entirety of the first half was a story of the Tottenham back five being pinned back by the movement off the ball of Salah. With the Liverpool attack keeping the Tottenham wing-backs pinned, the Tottenham midfield had a terrible time keeping the ball. Tottenham finished the half with zero shots on goal and 46% possession.
Salah absolutely dominated the half through his movement off the ball. Even though he finished the match with only 17 completed passes and took four shots with one on target, he was constantly dragging the Tottenham defence out of shape with Rose being the biggest victim.
Tottenham second-half adjustment
After being dominated in the first half, the momentum and play swung Tottenham’s way in the second half. A successful half-time adjustment was the key. Tottenham came out of the half-time talk moving from a 5-3-2 formation into a 4-5-1 setup.
As we see below, Rose is pushed up into the midfield with Vertonghen taking up the left-back position. This adjustment gave Vertonghen the role of dealing with Salah and freed Rose to get high up into the attack.
The new back-four tactic for Tottenham allowed the team to better keep the ball in attack via having an extra player in midfield. The other knock-on effect allowed better shape against the Liverpool attack as the hosts were no longer on the front foot the majority of the time.
Here is an example of build-up in the second half showing Tottenham utilising the extra man, Rose, in midfield. Alderweireld in a natural back four centre back role plays a penetrating pass to the free midfielder, Sissoko.
Sissoko is free to turn and drive forward with the ball. Rose is high up the field drawing the attention of Matip, and Van Dijk is pushed onto Kane. By going to a back four, Tottenham were able to be the aggressors and get Liverpool pulled out of shape.
Rose is played into the channel by Sissoko. Kane, Moura, and Eriksen are all willing runners to get into the box.
Rose squares to Kane who hits a hard shot straight at Alisson. The Brazilian leaves the rebound in front, but Liverpool’s Robertson throws his body in front of the Eriksen shot to save a clear goal.
The second-half adjustment to push Rose forward and move to a back four was a great success. Rose was no longer dragged around the pitch by Salah. He also provided the extra player in midfield that Liverpool had trouble dealing with. The second half saw Alli, Eriksen, and Moura all have more space and time.
Tottenham had a 61% possession advantage for the half, a complete 15% swing from the first half. More importantly, they got the equaliser in the 70th minute from Moura getting on the end of an Eriksen assist.
The entertaining tactical battle was unfortunately, for Tottenham, undone by an own goal. Salah put on a masterclass in off-the-ball movement in the first half. His movement along with Tottenham’s insistence on Rose marking saw a dominating Liverpool performance. The suspended Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino, pivoted expertly to a back four that saw the tactical tide turn completely.
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