Tottenham have spent most of this season grinding out results while not playing well, so there was an irony in Antonio Conte’s side going down to Liverpool after one of their better performances of the campaign.
Spurs were ultimately undone by familiar shortcomings against a big-six rival, and the match was decided by individual errors, notably from Eric Dier, and quality in both boxes, with Mohamed Salah setting the standard, as well as another slow start by the hosts.
Nonetheless, Spurs were not nearly as meek nor brittle as in the defeats by Manchester United and Arsenal last month, and had more than enough chances to take at least a point either side of Harry Kane’s 11th League goal of the season.
Conte appeared almost vindicated by his side’s display, starting his post-match press conference with a dig at Jurgen Klopp, who had criticised Spurs’ counter-attacking football in the 1-1 draw at Anfield in May. “Before I answer the question, Jurgen was happy with the way that we played? Yeah? It was important to know his opinion,” he said.
Criticism of Conte’s approach has extended to some Spurs fans, who have been frustrated by the lack of ambition shown in this season’s stodgier victories, but an improved display in defeat should be reason for optimism, particularly in the circumstances.
Conte reminded fans, some of whom booed at half-time, that Spurs need “time and patience” to reach the levels set by Liverpool under Klopp and one way of looking at the match was a side near the start of a rebuild falling narrowly short against a team who have already reached the top.
Plainly, Spurs still find it difficult to compete in this type of game without key players, and the absence of Cristian Romero, Richarlison, Heung-min Son and Dejan Kulusevski, who returned from injury for the final 20 minutes, was again significant. Pre-Conte, a similar injury list would have crippled Spurs’ chances of competing at all, but they were the better side between Salah’s goals and after the interval.
They took the game to Liverpool with a clear plan, which nearly came off, despite the lack of creativity and firepower outside the makeshift front two of Kane and Ivan Perisic.
Salah capitalised on sloppy defending to fire Liverpool ahead inside 11 minutes — the 13th time in 20 matches that Conte’s side have conceded first — and Dier gifted the Egyptian a second, before Kulusevski set up Kane to fire into the far corner, seconds after the Swede’s introduction.
Dier is one of Conte’s most trusted lieutenants, but he has been run into the ground this season, and the game again demonstrated the glaring deficiencies in the Spurs squad. For all the brilliance of Kane and Kulusevski, Conte needs more quality in his back five.
With key players returning and everyone aware of where Spurs need to improve, fans can look ahead to the second half of the campaign with renewed optimism
Their lack of conviction and end product from the wing-backs was particularly noticeable yesterday, with the final ball from Emerson Royal and Ryan Sessegnon too often missing. The latter generally won his duels with Trent Alexander-Arnold and was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty at 1-0, when he was shoved to the ground by the England full-back.
Perisic was eye-catching and he struck the bar at the start of the second half, having earlier forced Alisson to turn Kane’s cross onto the post at 1-0. These were the fine margins which did not go for Spurs. Yves Bissouma was also impressive at the base of midfield, and the sense that Conte’s summer signings are finally start to click is another reason for optimism. Upgrades at wing-back and centre-half, and an understudy for Kulusevski are next on the shopping list.
Before a ball had been kicked in north London, Arsenal’s win over Chelsea and United’s defeat at Aston Villa had opened up a gap between the top two and the clubs chasing a top-four finish. The results guaranteed that Spurs will end the first half of the season in the top four, regardless of what happens against Leeds next weekend, but means they will restart the campaign on Boxing Day looking over their shoulders, rather than up the table at Arsenal and Manchester City.
That said, there was more to take from yesterday’s defeat than from many of the uninspiring wins that characterised their late summer and autumn form. With key players returning and everyone aware of where Spurs need to improve, fans can look ahead to the second half of the campaign with renewed optimism.