Tottenham play the percentages as Liverpool play their own game to take control of crucial match – and the league

Jose Mourinho’s safety-first approach ultimately proved riskier than Jurgen Klopp’s attack-minded one 

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 16 December 2020 22:40
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Harry Kane’s goals against Liverpool

Liverpool take control of the Premier League, because they were the team actually willing to actually take command of the game.

It would at this point be foolish to dismiss Jose Mourinho’s capacity for a title challenge, particularly in a campaign as chaotic as this, but the relevant point is that this is the inherent risk to what is supposed to be a safety-first approach. That is especially true against an attack as good as Liverpool’s.

The champions once again asserted themselves as the ultimate big-game team. Roberto Firmino reminded everyone – after far too long – that he is a scorer of big goals.

That it came from a set-piece will especially aggravate Mourinho, particularly since it came in the same match as two big misses from his Tottenham side, from Harry Kane and Steven Bergwijn.

READ MORE: Premier League table and fixtures – all games by date and kick-off time

Mourinho will understandably point to those opportunities as to why the scoreline was “unfair”, and it did of course come down to such fine margins.

But that can’t quite be argued as vociferously when you willingly reduce the game to fine margins. This is the wider point. In these games, Mourinho plays percentage football. He cedes possession, and looks to catch teams on the break or – as in the case with those two second-half chances – with aerial bombardment.

It is dependent on the opposition making errors, and his side capitalising on them.

It is football dependent on the opposition.

Liverpool played football on their own terms. They take the game to the opposition and particularly took it to Spurs.

You only have to look at the shot count, or the number of passes into the opposition box. It will of course bring more luck, because you have much more of the ball in dangerous positions. Hence the deflection for Mo Salah’s goal, amid so many shots straight at Hugo Lloris. They outweighed Kane’s effort, and there was also Sadio Mane’s shot off the bar.

Such an approach is why – in a very direct way – Liverpool are English, European and world champions.

Again, this isn’t to dismiss Mourinho or Spurs. The game was a hugely absorbing clash of styles, that will hopefully set up an exhilarating title race between the two. The Portuguese has proven there is more to his team than counter-attacking this season, and that his varied approach can be hugely effective. The likely lower points threshold will aid that.

It is just that, in a world with this Liverpool, ceding the game in this way is arguably much more risky than Klopp’s willingness to push up so far.

Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool celebrates as Jose Mourinho shows his dismay

The extent of that, to be fair, did surprise sometimes. It was how Liverpool were caught out.

In Spurs’ very first attack, they took advantage of Klopp’s remarkably high line with stunning simplicity. Giovanni Lo Celso played it through, Son Heung-Min finished in typical fashion.

Minutes later, Liverpool got lucky when the ball bounced off the back of Bergwijn’s heel, sending one forward thrust backwards.

Klopp, however, persisted. They kept faith with the approach. They kept going. They took the risk.

It paid off, because they had much more of the ball around the Spurs goal.

The fact that one of Liverpool’s prime attackers found their finishing form was also crucial, and will be even more crucial going forward.

One of the issues that has threatened to disrupt their capacity to put a run together is that their attackers haven’t been anywhere their best. Mane has now gone nine games without a goal. Firmino was about to go seven, having only scored twice this season prior to this game. Diego Jota’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time in that context. So, Firmino scored at the best possible time, in so many ways.

Mourinho might well point to the fact that the game turned on two set-pieces. Kane missed a chance at one end. His defenders missed Firmino at the other.

There’s an indication there about Spurs’ recent run, too. Mourinho’s minimalist approach has been dependent on almost flawless defending and perfect finishing .

They had neither tonight, so they left themselves susceptible. Even players as good as Kane and Son can’t keep up that form indefinitely. Liverpool had an overload of possession to overwhelm them.

That will be frustrating for Spurs, because a result here – which was so close – would have been a resounding statement about their title credentials.

It would also have fostered the psychological momentum. They’ve lost that, having lost the game. 

That was because Spurs played the percentages. Liverpool just played their own game.

It is why the champions have reasserted their status as favourites for the title. This was a big win, from a big contrast in styles.

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