Why new-look midfields will decide Liverpool’s clash with Tottenham
The Reds and Spurs are unbeaten this season after very different rebuilds over the summer
Meetings between these two clubs last season came at difficult times for each, though, with the exception of perhaps a month at the start of 2022/23 for Tottenham Hotspur and two months at the end of it for Liverpool, that doesn’t narrow matters down much.
The first came in November, where the Reds’ success in north London meant the dwindling months of Antonio Conte’s tenure were in the midst of a run of two wins in seven, and both of those somewhat fortunate victories earned in stoppage time. For Liverpool this would be a good win, but already the campaign had more than stuttered and, following the return from the World Cup, they’d embark on their most atrocious run of the season, Jurgen Klopp chopping and changing formations in search of a winning formula as they failed to win seven of ten.
By April and the return meeting at Anfield, the Reds were in better shape and had rearranged their build-up play and the centre of the park thanks to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s roving involvement; a crazy 4-3 victory made it six unbeaten, while Spurs were by then onto their second interim manager of the new calendar year.
Elite European football for 2023/24 was, by then, looking improbable for both; both clubs were looking to the future, albeit in very different ways – and their subsequent summer activity showed as much.
And yet, they now both arrive at the first meeting of the new season with plenty of similar circumstances: new optimism, new faces, unbeaten in all competitions and, most notably of all, with entirely rebuilt midfields.
For Liverpool, that has come in the form of transfer reinforcements, a totally revamped group containing four new signings and one not just repurposed player, but almost revitalised in Curtis Jones.
He ended last term as one of the Reds’ best performers and has quickly picked up where he left off, playing superbly from the left of the middle three to bring control, diligence, final-third supply line and – in the midweek cup win over Leicester – versatility while wearing the armband. Even with the No 17’s much-improved show of consistency of late, and even with the impact Alexander-Arnold had prior to his injury, there’s a different name on the lips of most watching on at Anfield this term.
Dominik Szoboszlai has not so much hit the ground running as outright barnstorming his way through every challenge, opponent and defence, smashing in two goals from outside the box and being the pick of the bunch in multiple matches already.
Highlights reels will showcase his drive, carrying the ball and penetrative passing, but his non-stop approach sees him equally important in the defensive half of the pitch too, where fellow new arrival Alexis Mac Allister has been more habitually stationed as the team’s deepest midfield operator.
The trio had, obviously, never lined up together before the start of the campaign; in the last three league fixtures they have done so and it’s no coincidence they have been the first fixtures where the Reds’ attacking play was matched by off-the-ball control and overall match dominance.
But while in previous seasons fans had, at times, been crying out for more attacking thrust, more box runs and more final-third productivity from midfield, the additional technical edge gained this season is perhaps notable for coming at the expense of an element of physicality. That’s not to say the Argentinian, the Hungarian and the Scouser have none. They are aggressive, make tackles and at least two of them are powerful runners. But if Klopp’s peak midfield was the Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson triumvirate, there was more defensive-minded athleticism there, more aerial ability for sure and more natural instinct to be in covering positions first.
In isolation, the change isn’t better or worse, merely different -– and it now comes up against another much-changed midfield which has unquestionably added far more physical and technical prowess since last season, where it looked lethargic, uninspiring and safety-first on a far too regular basis. Different to Liverpool again, though, is that Spurs have found this midfield from within.
Ange Postecoglou has quickly settled on Yves Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr as his preferred double pivot, two who were completely – at times bizarrely – on the fringes last season under a troika of head coaches. Bissouma has played more league minutes so far than any Spurs outfielders other than Dejan Kulusevski and Micky van de Ven; Sarr was initially subbed on or off more frequently but played the full 90 against Arsenal last time out. It could change once Rodrigo Bentancur makes a full return after the next international break, but both are unquestionably ahead of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp right now.
Both are comfortable ball-winning in either half of the pitch, Bissouma in particular is showing his ball-carrying ability on a regular basis and Sarr averages more shots per 90 minutes than any semi-regular Spurs player aside from Brennan Johnson so far this term.
Bissouma, meanwhile, is top ten in the Premier League for tackles per 90 (among those with at least 300 minutes so far on the pitch).
If it points to an all-action style in the middle, it’s accurate, but it more pointedly highlights the way they have quickly formed a partnership, one which can both set a platform and support the stellar attacking cast higher upfield, even one without Harry Kane.
Spurs are far more attack-minded than last year, possess far more cutting edge about their play and a lot more pace and intent about their gameplan. Liverpool, on the other hand, suddenly look once more entirely capable of dominating long stretches and supplementing an already excellent attack with - at long last - a midfield which can offer a very similar threat of creativity and goalscoring.
It makes the weekend match-up an incredibly intriguing prospect, one which will surely be settled by whichever newly-formed centre of the park manages to out-wit the other. It might not definitively tell us which new approach is best for the long haul, but those differences in approach could certainly determine the result in 90 minutes.