It’s rare to see a team pin us back as much as Tottenham did in the second half of this afternoon’s game at Anfield. We struggled to get out of our own half, and we were on the receiving end of the kind of relentless pressing that we are more accustomed to giving out ourselves.
But that should have been cause for opportunity, not panic. Most teams wouldn’t dream of giving us that kind of space in behind, and with a 1-0 lead already in place, it was perfectly set up for us to frustrate Tottenham and then quickly break on them to add to our lead. While the visitors were dominating possession, we were defending relatively well, and they weren’t creating an abundance of clear opportunities.
But when it came to punishing Tottenham for forfeiting the ball, we struggled to get out and resorted to long balls time and time again. Admittedly, they were always aimed towards Mohamed Salah, and pitting him one-on-one against Jan Vertonghen wasn’t the worst idea. But the Belgian is an experienced centre-back who knows how to read the game and assert his strengths while nullifying his opponent’s. It was all very ‘hit and hope’ on our behalf; praying that just one lapse in concentration or misjudgement could see our number eleven in on goal.
But the fact that we were resorting to these long balls is clear evidence that our midfield wasn’t doing its job. They’re the ones who are supposed to control our play and dictate proceedings, yet they shirked the responsibility. At the first press, instead of using a bit of smart thinking or technical ability to retain the ball, they panicked and went straight back to the defenders. This then encourages the opposition’s press as they know we are rattled and have no option but to retreat. So as the press then reaches our defence, their only option is to go long, or else take a huge risk in trying to play out from the back – with a midfield that clearly has little interest in doing so.
We aren’t short of midfielders in our squad, but we’ve doubled up in a lot of areas that we really don’t need. Emre Can, James Milner, Jordan Henderson, and Georginio Wijnaldum will all happily get up and down the pitch, do the nitty gritty, and recycle possession as needed. They are capable of technical prowess on the ball, but not nearly regularly enough. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are better in possession (though the former needs to start showing it more often), but are more suited to operating creatively in the final third, and only excel as central midfielders due to their ability to support attacks from deep.
Not one of these players demands the ball off our centre-backs and asserts himself as the hub of our team who will dictate how we operate. In fact, an all too familiar sight is our midfielders looking stumped on the ball and passing it back to our defenders to decide what to do with it. Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, and recently Virgil van Dijk have all often functioned as more of a playmaker than any of our middle line.
All we needed against Tottenham was a couple of midfielders who thrive on being pressed rather than dread it. Whether that be because they’re in the ilk of today’s midfield counterpart Moussa Dembele, who utilises his physicality and close control to shrug players off and burst past them (something next season we may expect Naby Keita to be offering us), or a Xabi Alonso, who can be closed down from the left, right, and centre, and still find a pass – long or short – that cuts through them.
Either of those styles of midfielders will take players out of the game when they try to close down, and that can halt the press early and force the opposition to withdraw and get back into formation. And if you’ve left a couple of players for dead in the middle of the park through a strong dribble or a smart pass, you’ve get men over elsewhere, and the opposing eleven won’t be able to regain their shape. This can lead to players out of position, two-on-ones, or tactical fouls and names in the book as they resort to desperate measures to prevent our attack from hitting top gear.
Fabinho, Ruben Neves, Adrien Rabiot, Houssem Aouar, Bruno Fernandes, and Bryan Cristanten are just a few names I’d throw in the hat to plug this hole. Some are better than others; some are more realistic than others. But the truth is, there are many players out there who would give us that option within the squad when we’re looking to stem the flow of teams pushing us back, and give them something other than long balls to worry about on the counter-attack. It’s an issue that has been prevalent in our side for far too long, and the sooner it is addressed, the sooner we’ll be talking about games like today’s as a hard-fought win as opposed to a draw snatched from the jaws of victory.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)