Champions League Final 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Tottenham Hotspur vs Liverpool
On Saturday 1 June 2019, two English Premier League teams will face off in the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid in a bid to become crowned the Champions of Europe.
Tottenham Hotspur will take their place in a European Final for the first time since winning the UEFA Cup in 1984, as they pursue their first ever Champions League title.
Liverpool take their place in the final for the second consecutive season, chasing their 6th Champions League (Or European Cup) triumph, which would be the Reds first since the 2005 success in Istanbul.
This tactical analysis preview will examine the familiarity between both of these sides, and the tactical themes that could occur in Madrid.
Pochettino vs Klopp
Since Jurgen Klopp arrived in the Premier League in 2015, it commenced a fascinating rivalry between his vibrant Liverpool side and Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. Indeed the German’s first game in the Premier League was a 0-0 draw with Tottenham.
Since then the two sides have locked horns eight times in the Premier League.
Spurs 0 Liverpool 0
Liverpool 1 Spurs 1
Spurs 1 Liverpool 1
Liverpool 2 Spurs 0
Spurs 4 Liverpool 1
Liverpool 2 Spurs 2
Spurs 1 Liverpool 2
Liverpool 2 Spurs 1
Liverpool lead 11-10 combined, with Understat’s expected goals model suggesting 12-10 in favour of the Reds. In terms of individual games, Liverpool edged six of these eight games, with Spurs best two games both coming in the 2017/18 season.
Importantly, the tactical battles that have defined these games provide a fascinating basis for how this Champions League final will play out.
Spurs struggle with the counter-press
In the earlier days of Pochettino, Spurs were a dynamic press and possess team, and would adapt their tactics to nobody. The upside of this meant Spurs had a clearly defined style of play which each player knew inside out, the downside, however, was that they had a habit of running headfirst into trouble against teams who could press, and counter-press well.
In 2017, Spurs were humbled 2-0 at Anfield, where they simply could not handle Liverpool. This image shows how Spurs set-up in their familiar positional play type structure; with three advanced midfielders positioned in between the lines, Kane occupying the last of defence and full-backs high and wide, albeit one of whom played slightly withdrawn. With both full-backs advanced, in particular Ben Davies who is positioned in line with the advanced midfielders, Spurs were consistently caught with just four players behind the ball, and even with the one man counter-pressing machine in Mousa Dembele, they struggled to contain the reds on the break.
Spurs also discovered the ferocity and efficacy of the Liverpool counter-press. Klopp is famous for claiming counter-pressing to be the greatest playmaker, and Spurs did not heed that particular warning. After just 20 minutes Spurs had conceded twice after being counter-pressed and turning the ball over centrally.
For the second goal, James Milner plays an innocuous-looking long ball towards Eric Dier. As soon as the ball is lofted up however, both Firmino and Mane immediately press Dier as his attention is solely on dealing with the aerial ball.
Dier attempts to control the ball but before he knows it Mane has stolen the ball as he and Firmino spring forward and score the decisive second goal. Dier here is simply adhering to Pochettino’s philosophy at the time, which was simply not set-up to cope with this level of coordinated and proactive counter-press. If a similar situation arises in Madrid, expect to see the long ball being headed straight back to where it came from.
The strength of this philosophy was also its weakness – the unyielding devotion to one way of playing allowed Spurs to become very good, very quickly, but it also made them extremely vulnerable to Klopp’s system which in 2017, was just starting to take shape.
In 2017/18, the pendulum swung back towards Tottenham as Pochettino decided that in order to break the elite, Spurs would need to adapt to certain challenges. In a statement of intent in the autumn of 2017, Spurs thrashed Real Madrid 3-1 followed by a 4-1 demolition of Liverpool themselves.
For the first time under Pochettino, Spurs were content to allow the opponent to have the ball, defending in a 5-3-2 block with the counter-attack as their primary strategy.
Liverpool were entirely unprepared for this change in strategy from Spurs, as Hugo Lloris collected a cross and instantly found Kane with a long throw. Kane beats Lovren with ease which triggers Son, who remains Spurs main counter-attacking weapon, to make a run into depth and create a 2v1 against the sole Liverpool defender charged with defending half a pitch on his own.
Son’s anticipation to break before the Liverpool defence could react coupled with his sheer pace meant he stole ahead to steer in Harry Kane’s inch-perfect pass. As Spurs attack with just the three players against a disorganised Liverpool defence, with Dele backing up Kane and Son to arrive late to pick up cut-backs and second balls, this could be a key reference point for Spurs tactical plan in Madrid.
One of the first things Liverpool did to remedy these defensive frailties was to sign the imperious Virgil van Dijk in the next transfer window, however.
Spurs dominate at Anfield
Later on in the 2017/18 season, Spurs arrived at Anfield with the expectation that they would continue with the counter-attacking strategy that had delivered their 4-1 win earlier in the campaign.
Instead, Pochettino reverted to type and set up to dominate the game using the positional play that he most favours. After conceding early in the game, Spurs clawed back control of proceedings largely in thanks to the now departed Mousa Dembele.
Spurs have set up to play out from the goalkeeper, with Liverpool’s pressing strategy to tease Spurs into finding Dembele centrally with his back to goal. Salah and Mane are ready to cut off the pass between full-back and centre -back to funnel the ball inside. They then would then collapse around Dembele by using curved runs to cut off passing lanes. On this occasion Lloris, not the most confident passer of the ball, chips the ball into Kieran Trippier at right-back.
Liverpool will almost certainly look to set up in a similar fashion in Madrid, where Spurs simply do not have the same level of press resistance in central midfield to outplay Liverpool’s constricting central press. It is highly unlikely that Spurs will risk trying to progress the ball centrally in the build-up phase because of this.
Spurs dominated a majority of the fixture in Liverpool’s half, as Mousa Dembele’s ability to progress the ball against Liverpool’s press was evident – here he has attracted two opponents towards him yet he glides past them with ease. Ahead of him notice the close positioning of Kane, Son and Dele, the latter being positioned with the body shape necessary for his quick around the corner passes where he can see both the ball and his teammates positioning. Their proximity draws the defence narrow which opens up wide areas for Spurs full-backs, as well as providing possibilities for central combinations to break through the last line of defence.
Herein lies the problem for Spurs in Madrid – with Kane almost certain to start, they will boast the feared forward line of Dele, Eriksen, Son and Kane, but it is getting it too them that is rife with difficulty. Spurs have struggled to progress the ball through midfield all season. The answer may lay in the playmaking abilities of their centre-backs, Alderweireld and Vertonghen, to get the ball regularly into the final third. Once it is in the final third, Spurs can be as good as any team on the planet.
Liverpool, on the other hand, will almost certainly do all they can to invite Tottenham to play centrally through midfield, where they will look to recover the ball and counter-attack.
Liverpool back in control
In the 2018/19 season, Liverpool have asserted dominance once again in this fixture, overcoming Spurs 2-1 on both occasions. At Wembley in September, Spurs once again looked to dominate the play, but Liverpool dismantled them with ease and should have come away with a wider margin for victory.
Liverpool’s mid-block press was set to tease a central pass, or to force Trippier to recirculate backwards as Mane curves his run to block off the line ball. Even with Dembele in the Spurs side, Liverpool time and time again forced turnovers in advantageous areas and were able to attack an exposed Spurs backline. This will almost certainly be the blueprint in Madrid, and Pochettino requires a plan that enables Spurs to evade the press without simply surrendering the ball with continual long balls over the press.
This game also demonstrated a potential weakness Liverpool may want to exploit once again in the defensive positioning of Kieran Trippier.
The England full-back has perhaps been unfairly maligned this season, but he was caught out in this fixture by the brilliance of Sadio Mane. As Robertson gets his head up, this triggers Mane to accelerate away into depth catching Trippier flat-footed and in a flash, he had squared for Firmino to make it 2-0. On this occasion, Trippier is marking Mane too tightly, rather than narrowing off and denying him the option of running in behind. Trippier’s defensive positioning has been questioned so far this season, and on paper Sadio Mane could once again find joy down the Reds left-hand side.
In the return fixture in early April, Spurs were perhaps unfortunate not to come away with at least a point in another absorbing tactical battle at Anfield.
Pochettino once again sprung a surprise by reverting to the back three and counter-attacking strategy that gave them the 4-1 victory in 2017. This however backfired initially as Liverpool dominated the first half due to the 5-3-2 out of possession shape Spurs took up.
In the 5-3-2, Trippier was consistently caught in two minds due to Robertson advancing high up the pitch and the clever movements of Sadio Mane in behind him. Here Mane makes a run in between centre-back and full-back as Robertson brings the ball forward, and Trippier is not sure whether to jump out and press or to try to cover Mane’s run. Due to the three-man midfield with no wide coverage, Eriksen found it hard to shift quickly enough to cover. The result was Robertson steadying himself to deliver a perfect cross for the opening goal.
Pochettino recognised that this system was not working, and reverted to a 4-2-3-1 at the half-time break as Spurs came on strong in the second half. It is highly unlikely we will see the back three again in the final.
The second half included a famous miss from Moussa Sissoko, a miss that once again may give some hints of what to expect in Saturday’s final.
As Liverpool pushed high to seek a much-needed winner, Spurs break and show the counter-attacking potential that they possess. Sissoko initially recovers the ball and finds Kane who then demonstrates his phenomenal passing ability as he whips the ball around the corner first time for Son, whose anticipation of counter-attack opportunities is first class. Sissoko joins the attack with a third man run to receive from Son and only the supreme defensive positioning and decision making from Van Dijk averts the danger and forces Sissoko to take the shot on with his left foot.
If Spurs can generate counter-attacking opportunities, as they did in the Quarter-Final against Manchester City, then the pace and anticipation of Son and the passing range of Kane could still pose Liverpool plenty of questions.
This was also a far cry from the calamitous Liverpool back-line trying to defend counter-attacks from when Spurs dismantled them 4-1.
What to expect in Madrid?
Liverpool will enter the final heavy favourites to win the Champions League, as well as the easier of the two sides to predict on paper.
The reds will line-up in their customary base 4-3-3 system.
With Roberto Firmino confirmed available, the only real selection question is who starts in central midfield for the Reds. This will be a very tough call for Jurgen Klopp, but even so, Liverpool have the benefit of continuity – each player knows the system and their role within it.
For Spurs, it has been almost impossible to predict Pochettino’s team selection this season, but where Liverpool have the benefit of continuity, Spurs have an element of surprise. Klopp will have to plan for not only different shapes, but also for the different approach Spurs may take, and whether they set up to control and dominate Liverpool, or play on the counter-attack.
If Spurs look to take the game to Liverpool, Pochettino may be tempted to go with the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 that ended the game so well at Anfield in April.
They may, however, persist with the 4-4-2 diamond, with Pochettino cramming as many bodies into central midfield as possible.
This also allows Son to join Kane in occupying Liverpool’s centre backs, which may, in turn, affect the positioning of the Reds full-backs. Even with expert 1v1 defenders in Matip and Van Dijk, they will not want to be left 1v1 on the counter-attack against Son and Kane.
It is likely that out of possession, the diamond may become more of a flat 4-4-2, with Sissoko covering Trippier, and Eriksen covering Rose, and the aforementioned Son and Kane staying high to pose a problem for Liverpool on the counter-attack.
Key tactical theme: Liverpool’s press and Spurs ball progression
It is no secret that Liverpool press exceptionally well, and as detailed above, will most likely stick with their pressing scheme of the wide forwards cutting off the ball from centre-back to full-back and inviting Spurs to play through the centre.
This is typically how Liverpool press, as Salah has curved his run to prevent Vertonghen finding Rose at left-back, and as the Belgian turns to circulate the ball to Alderweireld this triggers Mane to begin his pressing run. Notice how Naby Keita is also primed to press Dembele on the blind-side should Spurs look to play centrally, as Milner screens Christian Eriksen.
In this scenario, Alderweireld looks to play a long pass into the final third, which may be one such route Spurs take to get the ball to their creative players. Notice the central space that Liverpool have left open, inviting a Spurs player to occupy this space where they can then press on the blind-side as he receives the pass.
This is the big problem for Spurs, whereby they need to get the ball into the final third without putting too much risk on the ball centrally, without constantly surrendering possession with long balls.
Notice also the wide rotation Spurs have used as Dier has dropped into the full-back area allowing Trippier to move higher up the pitch on the right. This momentarily causes a problem for Mane who is unsure of whether to drop back and cover Trippier or to remain in position. This may be a tactic Spurs use in the final, allowing Winks and Sissoko to receive wide of the centre-back to manipulate Liverpool’s press and to then advance down the flank.
Spurs on the counter-attack
If Spurs do look to play on the counter-attack, then they will have to create a balance between being out of possession long enough to draw Liverpool onto themselves, without being too passive and allowing Liverpool to completely dictate proceedings.
It is likely that Spurs may go for the middle ground of setting up in a mid-block and looking to regain the ball and attack the spaces in behind Liverpool’s full-backs with Heung-Min Son.
In this example of Tottenham‘s famous Quarter Final win over Manchester City, they are set-up in a mid-block. Son, Eriksen and Lucas are positioned to press both City’s centre back’s and deep-lying central midfielder, as well as screen forward passes inside. With Dele in a covering position behind the first line of pressure, they will look to recover the ball in the middle third and immediately spring forward as a quartet.
As Laporte takes a heavy touch, Lucas immediately steals in to recover the ball. Notice how even before the Brazilian has got possession of the ball, Son anticipates the turnover and is already on the move forward before anyone including his nearest opponent, Kyle Walker. Seconds later Son had the ball in the back of the net.
This may be Spurs best route to victory in Madrid.
It is hard to overlook Liverpool as heavy favourites to overcome Spurs, they are a team that is at its absolute peak and there is a huge feeling throughout the club that this side deserves a trophy. Klopp has had the benefit of time to implement his style of play, and this season they have been imperious in all facets of their play.
Spurs, on the other hand, are in many ways far from the peak they reached in 2016/17, however, they are far more tactically versatile and savvy as Pochettino has evolved into one of the finest coaches in world football. It is this tactical flexibility that will give Spurs a chance in Madrid, and any side that boasts the quality of Kane, Eriksen, Son and Dele are always likely to remain a threat to any defence.
Liverpool are expected to win, but as Spurs have shown so far in this competition, they are capable of beating anyone on their day. What isn’t in doubt, however, is that it will be a compelling tactical battle.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the May issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.