A team not so long ago considered an unstoppable force meets one now deemed an immovable object when Liverpool host Tottenham on Wednesday, a battle of the Premier League top two in a race that feels like it will be a case of survival of the fittest.
The Reds have won the previous four league meetings between the teams, all by a solitary goal. However, that was then – now they are stretched by injuries amid a demanding schedule that is only getting busier in the coming weeks.
This is also the first time Spurs have visited Anfield during Jose Mourinho’s reign. The Portuguese has had his successes at the ground in previous roles, though a 3-1 defeat on Merseyside ended his Manchester United tenure.
If there were any concerns that Tottenham were appointing yesterday’s man when choosing for Mourinho to replace Mauricio Pochettino, they have been dismissed by results so far in the 2020-21 season.
The north London club stuttered out of the gate with a home loss to Everton, but since then are unbeaten in the league. That run has included victories over both Manchester clubs, as well as rivals Arsenal. There was a draw – including a clean sheet – at Mourinho’s former employers Chelsea, too.
Mourinho has devised a cunning plan: defend in numbers, deny space through the middle and yet still maintain a consistent threat on the counter, utilising runners against defensive lines pushing high due to a dominance of possession to sucker punch opponents. Liverpool, minus Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, may be ripe for the picking.
Jose looks ahead to Liverpool
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) December 15, 2020
KANE ABLE TO SCORE AND CREATE
It is hardly a surprise that Harry Kane holds the key for Spurs. The talismanic striker has scored nine league goals this term. His long-range strike against Crystal Palace on Sunday means he has been involved in 14 (eight goals and six assists) in his past eight away league games.
The England international’s playmaking abilities have garnered plenty of attention, and rightly so. He is creating 1.9 chances (including assists) per 90 minutes in the 2020-21 season so far, more than double his tally for the previous campaign.
In part, this has been a function of continuing the pattern of dropping deeper into midfield, as demonstrated with the opener he created for Son Heung-min against Arsenal.
Per Opta’s zonal maps for time spent in certain areas of the pitch, Kane has spent 19.11 per cent of league games in a central position between the opposing team’s penalty area and the halfway line. That is actually a slight decrease from 2019-20, when the figure was 20.91 per cent.
He is spending slightly less time inside the box (5.93 per cent compared to 7.08 per cent), yet his total shots have risen – 2.8 to 3.9 – along with his goals ratio, sitting at 0.8 per 90 minutes through 12 appearances.
And on top of that, Kane’s 18 Premier League goals (excluding penalties) since Mourinho’s appointment is a significant 5.1 increase on his expected goals (xG) figure, further highlighting his ruthlessness in attack.
But that’s not to say Spurs are relying only on the England star. Son’s relationship with Tottenham’s talisman has proven vital so often, with their 12 goal combinations this term already just one off equalling the all-time record for a single campaign.
The South Korea star’s dynamism in the final third makes him the ideal partner for Kane: as he drops deeper, Son’s pace and off-the-ball movement frequently helps create overloads and goalscoring opportunities.
Mourinho has managed to exploit this, though Son’s finishing ability has also proven a key factor as evidenced by the fact his 18 Premier League goals under the Portuguese manager is, remarkably, almost double his xG rating of 9.3.
The Reds will almost certainly have to get a handle on them if they are to see off Spurs on Wednesday, but whether they have the defensive capabilities without Van Dijk remains to be seen.
SALAH MAKING UP THE SLACK
It’s fair to say Liverpool haven’t quite met expectations this season, but let’s not get carried away – after all, ahead of Wednesday’s match they are only behind leaders Spurs on goal difference.
Additionally, they have clearly been impacted by a spate of injuries to key players, and regardless of Mourinho dismissing the importance of such a situation at a big club, one cannot expect a team not to be affected.
Nevertheless, the Reds are not quite as fluent in the final third as they were last term.
The focus of many Liverpool critics – and even fans – has been the form of Roberto Firmino, who, while still able to be influential, does appear to be struggling to reach the heights most expect of him.
The Brazilian has two goals in 12 league games at an average of 0.19 every 90 minutes, which is down from 0.27 last term. He is also producing fewer assists (down from 0.24 per 90 mins to 0.19) and seen a decrease in key passes (1.56 per 90 mins to 1.12).
Sadio Mane’s productivity has also declined somewhat, his goals per 90 minutes down to 0.4 from 0.6, while last term he was creating just shy of two chances every game – that’s now at 1.6.
But the same cannot be said of Mohamed Salah, whose 10 Premier League goals in 11 games has him netting at a frequency of 0.94 per 90 minutes (up from 0.59) and his chance creation has increased from 1.9 to 2.16.
Diogo Jota has proven a welcome addition as well, though long-term injury robs Liverpool of the Portugal international’s flexibility.
Defensively, Liverpool aren’t as impressive as they were either. While Van Dijk’s loss is clearly a factor, he did also feature in the 7-2 drubbing by Aston Villa in October.
Only four times this season has Liverpool’s expected goals against (xGA) figure not surpassed 1.0 in Premier League games, and that is surely a worrying omen with Kane and Son coming to town.
A dramatic afternoon at Anfield…
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 15, 2020