Tottenham: unlucky? No, stupid
At the end, after Brendan Rodgers and André Villas-Boas had embraced each other and the public had left the stadium, the consensus seemed to suggest that Tottenham Hotspur were unfortunate to lose 3-2 to Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.
The truth, however, is that if a team can make the basic errors that Tottenham did late on, they deserve nothing. “A couple of mistakes cost us in the end but you can't be too negative after what we have done so far,” Villas-Boas said, but nobody was buying his bogus positivity. He must have been hurting inside.
For Liverpool, this victory was unique in that it marked a departure from their form hitherto. Liverpool usually play well against teams in the top six of the table and fall short. Here, they performed with less composure than usual and somehow managed to secure the three points.
“It is a big win,” Rodgers said, although he had the same introspective expression as Villas-Boast, so it was hard to know if the Liverpool manager was happy or merely relieved. “It is a big game when you are playing against an opponent that has been challenging for the Champions League for the last three or four years. It is a few years since Liverpool have beaten Tottenham. This is another marker in terms of our growth.”
This was a fine match, full of tempo changes, full of surprises, and full of important lessons. It told us more about Liverpool than it did about Tottenham and more about Gareth Bale than it did about Luis Suarez. This was the proof that a Brendan Rodgers team can change tactics to suit the circumstances. Liverpool were more direct up front and more disciplined in midfield, which is one reason why Bale barely touched the ball until the 44th minute, and one reason why they harried Tottenham into those telling mistakes when it mattered most.
The irony is that Liverpool’s most wasteful player, Lucas Leiva, was also their most important. Without Lucas’ dexterous fortitude at the heart of the midfield, Bale would have dominated. In the event, while Bale produced the telling crosses from which Tottenham scored their two goals, he was less effective than usual and reduced to the role of consummate drama queen.
Bale in 2013 is the Luis Suarez of 2011 – too eager to dive and too eager to play-act. The Luis Suarez of 2013 is out of this world; brilliant, hard-working and breathtaking. It would be an injustice, surely, if he did not win the PFA Player of the Year. He might play for a team that will probably not qualify for the Uefa Champions League, but he has been more consistent than either Bale or Robin van Persie. (Suarez will not win it, of course, but the reasons have nothing to do with football).
With the impressive Philippe Coutinho now part of the equation, Liverpool look impressive going forward, but they are the opposite of what they were under Rafael Benitez. Then, they were strong at the back and unplayable in midfield. Now, they are good going forward but vulnerable at the back.
While Tottenham deserved to take a 2-1 lead early in the second half, there is no doubt that Liverpool defended badly each time. Jamie Carragher is not the defender he was and Daniel Agger is better on the floor than he is in the air. Liverpool have become too susceptible to the high ball into the penalty area. Had Tottenham been better up front, they might have sealed the points before Liverpool had a chance to respond. Defoe seems in decline. Tottenham’s best player was Jan Vertonghen, the Belgium international defender, who scored both goals but did much more.
Liverpool began well and ended well, with Tottenham dominating the 20-minute period before half-time and the 20-minute period after half-time. This is certainly a better Liverpool team than the one that began the season last August. It is a team that can grind out results, as they did here against Tottenham, and a team that can adapt to changing circumstances, as they proved with a more direct style.
If Liverpool were lucky, they deserved it – and they earned it. But just because Liverpool might have had luck on their side in the latter stages does not necessarily mean that Tottenham were unlucky. They were not unlucky, they were stupid.