Following on from the Europa League final in Baku, all eyes are now firmly focused on Madrid, where one of Tottenham or Liverpool will be crowned European champions.
Tottenham will be hoping the familiar saying “the form book goes out the window for finals” will hold some weight. Of the two teams last ten matches, Tottenham have won just four, with their counterparts winning nine.
The Premier League table paints a similar picture, with Liverpool finishing a staggering 26 points ahead of their trophy hungry rivals. The two sides head-to-head record doesn’t make for any better viewing from a Tottenham perspective. Of the last six meetings, Liverpool have won four and only lost once.
All signs point to a win for Jurgen Klopp’s side, but familiar sayings become that for a reason, and all the above factors are just indicators that Liverpool are the better team when measured over a period of time. A time longer than one game. The teams head-to-head record, their recent form and even the league table all count for nothing once that whistle blows in Madrid on Saturday night.
Tottenham’s remarkable two-legged win against “the greatest Premier league team ever™” Man City emphasizes the point, only this time it’s a one-off game, adding more randomness to the outcome.
There are many ways this game can be won or lost, and if enough people explain enough ways then some people will look prophetic and some stupid. Hoping to land on the prophetic side, I have outlined three key areas where I think the game will be decided.
How will the players handle the nerves and the occasion? Which manager got his tactics and approach right? Will the Liverpool press force Tottenham into early mistakes? All these questions are crucial in seeing which team embraces the occasion and dictates the momentum of the game.
When these sides met two months ago, the Liverpool high press strangled Tottenham’s momentum early in the game. They could not build play up from the back, resorting to long hopeful balls to Kane and Lucas, who were too far from the midfielders to be effective. Credit to Kane and Lucas that they managed to create a couple of half chances, with Liverpool showing unusual signs of frailty at the back. The Reds have shown a stark improvement in form since that game, and any early signs of weakness on Saturday from Tottenham won’t be dealt with in such a sterile manner.
The big decision Pochettino faces is whether to give the 3-5-2 another chance, after it failed in their last meeting. He eventually changed to a flat back four, which was followed by a much improved second half. On several occasions recently, Pochettino has been flexible and humble enough to realise early in the game that things had not panned out as he expected. His tactical tweaks generally work to his favour, but in a match of such importance, intensity and pressure, incorrect team selections or slow starts will surely be punished. The opening period of the game will reveal who is ready to capitalise and write their names in history.
Battle of the full backs
The formation dilemma mentioned above feeds into a key area that will play a major role in deciding who returns with the spoils. Both sides play without traditional wide players, leaving the ability to stretch the game and provide danger on the outside to the full backs.
Liverpool will play their usual way, as Tottenham and Kieran Trippier learned early on in their last meeting. Trippier lined out at right wing-back in an unfamiliar 3-5-2, facing the impossible task of Mane cutting inside him and Robertson attacking on the outside. The lack of cover from Erikson only added to the difficulty and eventually led to the opening goal as Robertson whipped in an unchallenged cross onto Firmino’s head.
Whatever formation Tottenham play, they need consistent quality of delivery from Rose and Trippier, something severely lacking this season. For example, Trent Alexander-Arnold has averaged 6.9 crosses per game in the Premier League, only 0.1 more than Trippier. Yet, from those crosses, Trent has returned 12 assists and 11 big chances created, with Trippier only managing three assists and eight chances created. It’s a similar story when you look at Rose against Robertson, with Robertson returning 11 assists and 15 chances against Rose’s three assists and four chances created.
The long ball approach that got Tottenham to the final in the second leg against Ajax won’t work against the likes of Van Dijk and Matip, which only adds to the importance of well-timed delivery from dangerous crossing areas. The full backs who come out on top are sure to lead their team to glory.
Number 10 vs False 9
The lack of midfield creativity was briefly mentioned above, and this is where the two sides link men will play a crucial role. With Firmino in their team and on form, Liverpool raise their attacking game to almost unplayable levels. One of the main reasons Mohamed Salah has not hit the dizzying heights of last season has been due to Firmino’s slight drop in form. He starts high and drops deep where defenders don’t want to go and helps to surround opposition midfielders. This frees up lanes for the speed of Salah and Mane to occupy. When Firmino is on top form, his deft touches and selfless running helps to link the hard work of the midfielders and the clinical brilliance of Sadio Mane and Salah, creating a dynamic system that is incredibly difficult to play against.
Christian Eriksen plays a similar role, in a different manner. Starting deep, he floats around the pitch, creating havoc for the opposition’s midfield. He can act as a deep-lying playmaker or a traditional number 10, often doing both continuously during the 90 minutes. Like Firmino, Eriksen is at his best when he is getting the best out of his teammates.
Eriksen stamps his mark on the game differently, looking to get on the ball and feed the likes of Son Heung-min and Harry Kane with precision. He has managed 12 assists this season, double the number of Son in second, while also registering the most key passes per game. The difficulty will be getting him on the ball in areas where he can do damage, and if he is forced back to help defensively like he did in the first half of their previous meeting, then Tottenham will struggle massively to create enough meaningful chances.
Any rational person will make Liverpoolfavourites based on this seasons evidence, but Tottenham and Pochettino have proved time and again that they are the real deal. Their two-legged win against Man City being the case in point.
The game will be decided by individual battles all over the pitch and who can provide that moment of genius when it’s most needed. For my money, Liverpool should edge it by a goal. But I have been wrong many times before, and will be again…