If Andre Villas-Boas thought that his Tottenham Hotspur team were contenders, that they were moving in the right direction, or even that they had a coherent team, they received a brutal lesson from Liverpool yesterday in what that all means.
This was one of the most comprehensive victories of the season, and even the six-point, five-place gap between them now feels insufficient. It owed just as much to Spurs’ abject poverty as to Liverpool’s skill and intensity. Even though three of the five goals came in the desperate mess of the last 15 minutes, against 10 men, the score-line was a fair reflection of the whole match. Liverpool made enough good chances to reach double-figures. Sebastian Mignolet did not have a save to make.
From the first minute to the last, Liverpool were far superior. Brendan Rodgers said it was “the most complete performance” of his time in charge. Both Rodgers and Villas-Boas are managers with clear ideas of how football should be played, and while Spurs looked like a team who had never trained or played together before, Liverpool executed Rodgers’ plans perfectly.
“The model of our game was outstanding,” Rodgers said. “We were like animals without the ball.” Liverpool were relentless throughout, ripping through Spurs with their aggressive 4-3-3 formation. They knew, as Manchester City did three weeks ago, that there is a softness to this Spurs team, that with enough pressure they will collapse. Liverpool pressed high, won the ball back quickly, and attacked into the gaping space behind Spurs’ back four.
Leading all of this, as ever, was Luis Suarez, who scored two and set up two others. He now has 17 league goals from 12 goals this season. As Spurs know very keenly since Gareth Bale departed, there are only so many world-class players and it is better to have them than not. Liverpool had to fight to keep Suarez this summer but he captained them today, and Rodgers was delighted with his example. “I wanted someone who could represent me and the club in that tunnel before we step on the pitch. If Luis Suarez is standing with the armband on, everyone knows this is a team who's ready to go out and fight.”
Leadership was not the only thing Spurs were lacking yesterday – there was no control, precision, application or threat either – but it was striking just how easily they folded under Liverpool’s pressure. Villas-Boas mentioned their injuries after the game but their back four – thrown-together then torn-apart – was dismal.
With no Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen, Younes Kaboul or Vlad Chiriches, Spurs had Michael Dawson and Etienne Capoue at centre-back with Kyle Naughton at left-back. Naughton had to be withdrawn for Ezekiel Fryers, making his first league appearance for Spurs, at half-time.
It was Naughton’s one-sided battle with Raheem Sterling which made it immediately clear that Spurs would find it difficult. Stationed on the right of Liverpool’s front three, Sterling soon realised that he was faster and sharper than Spurs left-back Kyle Naughton, beating him three times in the first 15 minutes, drawing free-kicks, causing problems and lacing panic in the Tottenham back-line.
So it was no surprise when, 18 minutes in, Suarez put Liverpool ahead. Dropping deep into space, he played an incisive pass forward for Henderson’s run. Dawson slid in to tackle and the ball rolled loose. Suarez, with his instant instincts, charged forward, Henderson touched it to him, Suarez skipped past Capoue’s desperate lunge and found the bottom corner.
Liverpool knew that Spurs’ back four were playing too high and there was space for them to exploit. A long Martin Skrtel clearance brought Lloris out, but his header was poor, Suarez reached the ball first but uncharacteristically turned down the chance to score. He waited too long, Lloris got back into position and the moment was gone.
Liverpool need not have worried. Five minutes before the interval they had their second after another move that was just too quick for Spurs’ flat stranded defence. Sterling played a brilliant diagonal pass to Coutinho on the left, whose lay-off was perfection. Henderson shot, Lloris came out to save, Suarez shot, Lloris scrambled back to save, but when Henderson picked it up again Lloris could not stop him from making it 2-0.
Spurs needed to be a radical improvement after the interval but all they could muster was Soldado hitting one over. Liverpool soon re-asserted their control, and could have scored their third far sooner, when Mamadou Sakho headed against the bar.
The towel was thrown in soon after, when Paulinho planted his foot in Suarez’s chest and was sent off. Villas-Boas said it was “an extremely poor call”, that was the “key to the result”, as two minutes earlier he had replaced Mousa Dembele with Andros Townsend, his final change, now leaving him with just Lewis Holtby and Nacer Chadli in the middle.
Suarez and Coutinho missed more chances, but both were involved in making the third. Coutinho rolled the ball down the channel to Henderson, on another forward charge, and he reached the by-line and back-heeled it to Suarez. His chipped cross to the far-post was perfect and Jon Flanagan, the 20-year-old left-back, was there at the far post, volleying it in off the underside of the bar and gleefully charging over to the away fans.
It was not easy before, it was very simple now, Spurs’ 10 tired men providing little resistance as Liverpool revelled in one of the greatest away wins for years. Suarez soon scored his second, taking a pass from substitute Luis Alberto, facing no challenge, and lifting it with the outside of his right over Lloris from the edge of the box.
Suarez even turned down a chance of a hat-trick with two minutes left, choosing instead to roll the ball through to Sterling, who did not have any difficulty scoring Liverpool’s fifth.
It was a special afternoon for Liverpool. “Obviously you dream,” said Rodgers, when asked if he ever thought about the title. “That was my dream. I didn't come here to be fourth, third or second. Eventually you want to win.”
Tottenham (4-2-3-1) Lloris 3; Walker 4, Capoue 3, Dawson 3, Naughton 3 (Fryers, 45, 5) ; Sandro 4 (Holtby 30, 6), Dembele 4 (Townsend, 61, 4); Lennon 4, Paulinho 4, Chadli 5; Soldado 4
Liverpool (4-1-2-3) Mignolet 5; Johnson 6, Skrtel 6, Sakho 6, Flanagan 7; Lucas 7 (Luis Alberto 79); Allen 7, Henderson 8; Sterling 7, Suarez 8, Coutinho 7 (Moses 90)
Man of the match: Suarez