Spurs were out of the contest. For the first hour, anyway. Playing against Liverpool, who were coming off a spectacular flop against newly-promoted Burnley, things were not looking good. They were 1-0 down, not creating any chances, and being exposed time and time again in defence. An injury to Kyle Walker threw Mauricio Pochettino’s pre-match plans out the window, and in the centre of the park Victor Wanyama and Dele Alli were unable to keep the ball out of their opponent’s hands. Tottenham’s attack received no delivery, and the defence was more than a little shaky.
Eric Dier had started the match playing in central midfield, but he was moved into right back after Walker went off. Throughout the ninety minutes it was like watching Jekyll and Hyde; sometimes he was composed, most of the time he gave the ball away in very bad positions. Jan Vertonghen was not much better. He looked frazzled when he came under pressure from Senegalese winger Sadio Mane, who nearly took Spurs apart on a number of occasions with his pace in behind. Toby Alderweireld was a rock at the heart of the defence, and Michel Vorm was ensuring not many goals were scored, but those two couldn’t do everything.
Under pressure: Eric Dier (left) is challenged by James Milner.
Liverpool, on the other hand, looked completely rejuvenated. Coming off a loss in which they had over 80 percent of possession, they had learned from their mistakes. Mane had come in for Daniel Sturridge, a player who wants to be at the heart of absolutely everything and had expressed annoyance at playing on the right wing. Mane tore Tottenham to shreds on a number of occasions, sliding in behind Danny Rose and beating Vertonghen for pace. He received good support from Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, both of whom had been out of action against Burnley, and he generally boosted everything about Liverpool’s attack. Against Burnley they had played with all the pace of a funeral procession. Now, they played with purpose, taking advantage of the extra space available and looking for more opportunities through quick ball movement.
Liverpool had a plethora of great chances in the first half as they were able to exploit the extra space in Tottenham’s defence. No longer suffocated by Burnley’s rigid defensive structure they found their niche against a side who looked to attack them back, and they had nearly opened the scoring within five minutes. Vorm made an excellent save to deny Coutinho from close range after Firmino had played him through, with a well-placed foot trapping the ball on the line and allowing the Dutch keeper to gratefully reel it in.
Mane looked most dangerous on the break, when Tottenham players lost the ball after some errant passing. Vorm was up to the test, even as Mane broke the defensive line on multiple occasions. Vorm risked being booked or even sent off more than once by coming off his line to clear the ball, but he was able to keep it level. Finally, just minutes before the break, Liverpool broke the deadlock. They scored from the spot, with a very soft penalty being awarded to Firmino after a minute clip on the heels from Erik Lamela. The contact was there, but ultimately the Brazilian fell after tripping over his own feet. Either way, the penalty stood, and James Milner was there to stroke it home.
If Pochettino was hoping that his side would recover after the break, he was very much mistaken. After a brief settling in period, the game resumed its familiar rhythm, but with a slightly different beat. Liverpool had reached their zenith, and it was in this short period just after half time that they came closest to sealing a win. Things happened very quickly for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Joel Matip brushed the bar after getting his head to Milner’s corner, and shortly afterwards Vorm had to make an excellent save to deny Nathaniel Clyne, who had marauded into the box from right back. Then came the disallowed goal.
Georginio Wijnaldum, who had been much improved due to increased time on the ball, intercepted yet another poor pass from Dier and started off down the left wing. He had plenty of support, but he kept running to the edge of the area before feeding Adam Lallana with an excellent through ball. Lallana played Mane on the near post, and the ball was promptly blasted into the back of the net. It appeared to be the death knell for Spurs, the sign that Liverpool had finally sealed the victory. But the linesman’s flag said otherwise. It was a very tight call, with Lallana in an offside position by the barest of margins, and it gave Tottenham the lifeline that they needed. Perversely, the disallowed goal acted as a turning point in the match, as Spurs sputtered into gear, albeit belatedly.
Finish: Danny Rose (in white) levels the score.
It was Wanyama and Alli who stepped up. The solid pairing in central midfield started to cope with Liverpool’s pressure, and the attack found more of the ball and more space. Harry Kane started to pick it up in dangerous positions, and Vincent Janssen looked like a big threat. The hosts started to look like their former selves, stringing together great passing moves and creating some excellent chances. Lamela’s free kick had to be tapped over the bar by Simon Mignolet, and another top-drawer save had to be made moments later as Alderweireld got a head to Christian Eriksen’s corner. Spurs were starting to probe again, and suddenly it looked as if they could punish Liverpool for their missed opportunities. They did.
It started with a brilliant ball over the top from Alderweireld, with Milner completely misjudging it as it flew over his head to the feet of Dier. Milner was beaten again with a good touch, and while Lamela could not get a solid connection on the cross the ball fell to Rose at the back post. It was not an easy finish, but the left back made it look easy. He bundled the ball past Mignolet, and Matip, who had gone in behind to protect the line, had no chance as the shot rolled in next to the post. Liverpool looked to get an equaliser straight away, but the moment had already passed: Liverpool’s momentum was gone.
Liverpool had some chances late as the game opened up, and Alderweireld had to make an incredible challenge to deny Lallana in injury time. The Belgian was Tottenham’s last line of defence, and he risked a penalty by sliding in and blocking Lallana’s effort straight of the boot. The game trailed on, with some meaningless substitutions and a yellow card to Matip only delaying the finish as injury time drew to a close. Liverpool were the better side on the day, but they could not capitalise on the opportunities they created, and Tottenham’s porous defence did not prove costly in the end.
London – White Hart Lane
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Rose 72)
Liverpool 1 (Milner 43 pen)
Referee: Robert Madley
Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Vorm – Walker (Janssen 28), Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Wanyama; Lamela, Alli, Eriksen (Winks 90+3); Kane (Onomah 83).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana (Stewart 90+4), Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane (Sturridge 88), Firmino, Coutinho (Origi 69).
1. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
Alderweireld was excellent at the heart of Tottenham’s defence, staying unfazed under heavy pressure and often covering up the defensive mistakes of his teammates. He created the goal with a pinpoint pass over the top of Liverpool’s defence, and he made a brilliant challenge to deny Lallana as the game drew to a close.
2. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane made all the difference for Liverpool after coming into the side to replace Sturridge. He cut swathes through Spurs with his pace and ability to get in behind, and he was unlucky not to score. He was the most dangerous attacking player on the ground, and he will be a big threat as the season progresses.
3. Joel Matip (Liverpool)
Matip provided a much-needed solidity for Liverpool in central defence, making life very difficult for Spurs and ensuring that not much got through. He was a significant threat at set pieces, and he came very close to scoring after beating his man in the air early in the second half. He played well in his Premier League debut, and he will want the good form to continue.
4. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur)
Rose was Tottenham’s best attacking player, and while Mane often caught him out when his teammates carelessly lost possession he was fairly solid in defence as well. He created problems for Liverpool with his ability to go forward and put in incisive crosses, and he finished with excellent precision when he was given the opportunity.
5. Michel Vorm (Tottenham Hotspur)
Vorm had less to do in the second half as Liverpool’s influence waned, but he was excellent in goal throughout and did well to only concede once. His decision making was first-rate, and he saved a number of goals by coming off his line and clearing the ball away. He will only start until Hugo Lloris comes back, but he will take comfort from his early season form.