Ken Early: Tottenham’s gradual decline takes sudden dip against Liverpool
Klopp’s 2018 signings made the difference, while Pochettino signed no one that summer
Liverpool’s Fabinho in action against Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur during their English Premier League game at Anfield on Sunday. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
Jürgen Klopp’s first game in English football was a scuffly 0-0 draw against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, and for most of his first three years at Liverpool, his team were looking up the table towards Spurs. But Tottenham’s edge disappeared in a manner that reminds you of Ernest Hemingway’s line about how bankruptcies happen: “Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.”
A look at the last three meetings between the sides at Anfield tells the story. In February 2018, Spurs dominated Liverpool in a 2-2 draw, with 66 per cent possession and six shots on target to Liverpool’s three. Mohamed Salah scored twice against the run of play and Spurs would have won if Harry Kane hadn’t missed a penalty in front of the Kop.
Spurs’ next trip to Anfield in March 2019 ended in a 2-1 defeat, yet the game was quite even, with Spurs having 51 per cent of the ball and again more shots on target than Liverpool, who won thanks to a late Toby Alderweireld own-goal. Sunday’s match saw Spurs lose by the same scoreline, but the story of the match could not have been more different.
Klopp said afterwards that Liverpool had prepared with particular focus on counter-pressing since “it was clear that we probably might be dominant – but then you lose balls”. Klopp was right to expect Liverpool to be dominant, but the extent of that dominance – 70 per cent of possession and 13 shots on target to four – must have surprised even Liverpool’s analysts.
Part of the reason was that Spurs scored early and then retreated to defend the lead, handing the initiative to Liverpool. But the mismatch that unfolded was depressing from a Tottenham point of view. For long stretches they looked like a lower-league side desperately trying to cling on in a Cup tie at a top-division ground, and only Paulo Gazzaniga’s saves kept it respectable.
The other big difference-maker for Liverpool was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who hit 20 crosses and created seven chances for team-mates
What made the difference? In this match the key player was Fabinho, who towered above everyone else in the midfield and kept Liverpool on the front foot while snuffing out many potential Tottenham counter-attacks. Fabinho, whose 91 passes were more than the combined tally of Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks and Christian Eriksen, was signed for £40 million three days after Liverpool lost the 2018 Champions League final. That was the summer when Tottenham famously signed nobody.
The other big difference-maker for Liverpool was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who hit 20 crosses and created seven chances for team-mates in the kind of display that makes you wonder how much longer he will be content to play at right-back. Players with this rare level of quality usually play in the middle where they have more chances to influence the game, and if Alexander-Arnold sustains this kind of form he will probably soon want to metamorphose back into the midfielder he was in the Liverpool youth sides.
For now he is still one of the world’s best right-backs and, until recently, Tottenham’s answer to him was Kieran Trippier, who still somehow keeps Alexander-Arnold out of the England team. But Trippier left for Atlético Madrid in August after Daniel Levy decided an offer of £20 million was too good to turn down. Tottenham didn’t sign a replacement, calculating that Serge Aurier, Juan Foyth and Kyle Walker-Peters could handle the responsibility between them. It was Aurier who brought down Sadio Mané for the decisive penalty.
Neither should the contribution of Alisson to Liverpool’s win be overlooked. Klopp credited him with forcing an important miss from Son Heung-min just after half-time, when his challenge forced the South Korean wide and onto his weak foot. Alisson’s composure in the final minutes, holding onto shots lesser keepers might have spilled back into the danger area, recalled his ice-cold demeanour in the last 20 minutes of the Champions League final, when he made several important saves as Spurs flung everything into the pursuit.
Without Champions League money, it’s hard to see how Tottenham can rebuild a team worthy of gracing the new stadium
Alisson was signed for £57 million that same summer when Spurs signed nobody. He, Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho are the main reasons why a gulf now separates two teams that were evenly matched as recently as 18 months ago. Tottenham have been starved and now you are seeing the results.
Daniel Levy would defend his decision to choke off recruitment by saying that it was the result of hard choices: they prioritised funding the stadium over funding the team. Now Tottenham are down to 11th in the league, and FiveThirtyEight.com gives them just a 23 per cent chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League – a figure that sounds generous considering they are already seven points behind fourth place.
Jan Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Eriksen are all in the last year of their contracts and, barring some dramatic U-turns, will be leaving the club in 2020, with Danny Rose also likely to leave. Without Champions League money – €100 million for being runners-up last season and €61 million for getting to the second round the year before – it’s hard to see how Tottenham can rebuild a team worthy of gracing the new stadium.
There is only one obvious source of ready cash, but accessing it means making the hardest choice of all. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that if Spurs are going to fund the rebuild they need, they’re going to have to sell Harry Kane.
Roy Keane talked on Sky last week about how the problems at Manchester United could easily be solved by signing Kane. “He’ll score you 30 goals a season blindfolded . . . they’re in disarray – go get him.” One of his co-panellists, José Mourinho, had already tried to sign Kane when he was the manager of Manchester United. At that point Kane wasn’t interested – he believed that Spurs were going places. But that was in 2017.
When Pochettino was asked about Keane’s comments before the Liverpool game, he dismissed it with some complimentary fluff about Keane, saying only that he agreed with him that Kane was a fantastic player and “we more than agree Harry Kane deserves everything”.
Kane remains England captain, the golden lion, and as such would command a transfer fee of up to £150 million
Maybe one of the things he deserves is a fresh start. Kane might already be the best centre-forward ever to play for Spurs, but how much longer can he keep it up? He’s had five ankle injuries in the last three years, and, while Tottenham’s general deterioration over the last year can’t have helped him to produce his best form, there is reason to believe those injuries have taken their toll. After 10 matches this season, his numbers across a range of indicators – shots per game, expected goals, etc – are at their lowest levels since his first full campaign in the Spurs team in 2014-15.
Yet Kane remains England captain, the golden lion, and as such would command a transfer fee of up to £150 million. Either he’s worth that kind of money, or he’s not. If he is, then Spurs no longer have a team suitable for a player of his level; he’s out of place there. And if he’s not, then it’s past time for Spurs to cash out.
Either way, selling him now makes sense, and Spurs should hope that Manchester United’s recently revamped recruitment department is convinced by Keane’s logic. Losing Kane would hurt, but it could do for Spurs what selling Philippe Coutinho did for Liverpool: fund the signings that make their next team great.