Anfield witnessed its finest afternoon this 2012-13 English Premier League season on Sunday as Liverpool came back from a goal down to beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-2, marking a first win against top-four opposition under Brendan Rodgers.
Luis Suarez opened the scoring for the Reds, and while a Jan Vertonghen double took Spurs ahead, Stewart Downing capitalized on an errant back pass from Kyle Walker to equalize. Steven Gerrard won the game with an 81st-minute penalty after Benoit Assou-Ekotto fouled Suarez in the box.
We presented our Liverpool player ratings in the immediate aftermath of the game on Sunday. Now let’s take a look at 10 positives and negatives from the Reds’ best result this season.
Enjoy and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
One overwhelming positive from Liverpool’s win was Stewart Downing’s performance.
Liverpool fans have noticed Downing’s improvement in recent months since forcing his way back into Brendan Rodgers’ plans, but a complete display as a goalscoring defensive winger put Sunday afternoon as Downing’s finest appearance yet in a Red shirt.
Often tracking back to help his defence deal with the multi-dimensional threats of a dangerous Spurs midfield, Downing also showed plenty of encouraging off-the-ball movement, intelligent anticipation to capitalize on Kyle Walker’s mistake and composure to steady himself before notching the equalizer.
Previously a prime candidate for the Anfield exit door, Downing might now be considered part of Liverpool’s strongest XI—a turnaround to mirror that on Sunday afternoon.
Contrast Downing’s improvement with Lucas’ worrying recent form.
The background, and the oft-repeated story, is Lucas’ impressive journey from timid youngster to Liverpool’s first-choice defensive midfielder and an important cog in the Reds machine. The context is that Lucas is still finding his full match sharpness following his return from a length injury layoff.
But an afternoon lacking in pace, distribution and physicality will not have been encouraging watching for Rodgers, who will have seen a Liverpool midfield, supposedly marshaled and orchestrated by Lucas, blown apart time and again by a rampant Gareth Bale and a marauding Mousa Dembele.
The main worry isn’t Lucas’ form per se; it’s Liverpool’s lack of a competent stand-in or replacement in the Premier League run-in.
Back on the positives, and Luis Suarez was one big positive.
Not that this should come as a surprise anymore, but Suarez’s relentless running in all three positions across the forward line posed problems for the Spurs defence. Suarez, of course, put the finishing touch to a flowing move involving Philippe Coutinho and Jose Enrique and earned the penalty that won the game for the Reds, a contribution fast becoming customary.
It was almost as if we all forgot about the existence of Gareth Bale for an afternoon. But while Bale didn’t get on the scoresheet himself, he made both of Tottenham’s goals possible, providing the assist for the first and sending in the free kick that led to the second—Not bad for an afternoon’s work.
But a goal, a (semi-) assist and the three points strengthened Suarez’s grip on the Golden Boot and also ensured that he won the battle between two of the Premier League’s outstanding talents.
A good guy he may be, but an excellent goalkeeper Brad Jones is not.
That was made painfully obvious on Sunday, when an afternoon of inactivity in the box and standing on his line saw uncomfortable moments in the penalty area as, particularly in the opening 15-20 minutes of the second half, Tottenham assumed control of the game.
Jones did get a crucial touch to a Gylfi Sigurdsson shot that deflected it onto the post with the score 1-2, but he simply did not show the assertiveness and aerial dominance that a Premier League keeper—even a No. 2—needs.
If Liverpool are to continue their momentum heading into the final nine games of the season, Pepe Reina must return to inspire more confidence between the Anfield sticks.
Given a calamitous few transfer windows, January 2013 must rank as one of Liverpool’s finest in recent years with their acquisition of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, both of whom have started their Reds careers with a bang.
In the case of Coutinho, though, it has just been the start of games that has been a bang, as he has shown to still be lacking in the fitness and stamina department. An impressive first-half showing led to the opening goal, but he faded badly in the beginning of the second period trying to battle through a physically imposing Spurs midfield.
For Sturridge, back from a minor injury layoff, Sunday was not his best afternoon in a Red shirt as he opted for the eye-pleasing, losing possession and halting Liverpool attacks frequently. Given his previously explosive appearances up front for Liverpool, Kopites have every reason to expect, and look forward to, better.
But simply looking at the bigger picture reveals a much-improved situation than the preseason problems facing Brendan Rodgers in terms of shortages up front.
Now this is a Liverpool team well stocked on forward options and able to call on Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson from the bench, while three youth-academy graduates were perhaps too heavily relied on in the opening few months of the season.
The Henderson substitution served best to illustrate this point: Having found form and confidence in recent weeks, Henderson looked to have been a fine choice from the start as a workhorse attacking midfielder, but instead he played third fiddle to Downing and the lighter-weight Coutinho.
Options abound. The Reds are truly a world apart from just three months ago.
The Joe Allen substitution, on the other hand, served to illustrate Brendan Rodgers’ eye for a tactical switch.
Approaching the hour mark, the second half had been all Spurs’. Coutinho was being crowded out and muscled off the ball, Lucas was being found out in terms of pace and physical presence, and the Tottenham midfield strolled into the final third at ease while dominating possession.
Cue a substitution, while midfielder for midfielder, to put the focus back on ball retention, on composure and on simple passes to and from the back. Allen might not have added much to the Liverpool attack, but his presence offered another outlet and another option.
In short, it was a tactic that worked. In hindsight, perhaps it’s not too surprising that Liverpool’s equalizer and subsequent match-winner both came after Allen arrived on the field.
While just a few months ago the forward and midfield departments at Anfield looked most in need of strengthening, suddenly now it is the defence that needs massive improvement.
Lucas featured prominently in a defensive setup that was simply not equipped to handle with the relentless and energetic attacking movement from Gareth Bale, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembele. Jamie Carragher, while still fighting an admirable cause, held a deeper defensive line perhaps to compensate for his lack of pace, which invited the Spurs attack onto Liverpool.
Jose Enrique fought an admirable battle out on the left flank, but Glen Johnson contributed a mixed performance that saw him support the attack well but commit defensive mishaps leading to the Spurs goals.
The fortunate saving grace was that the forwards and midfielders rescued all three points from zero, but there is major work to be done yet.
To seal the victory over an in-form Tottenham team was impressive enough; to seal it in such circumstances was all the more impressive.
For all of the negatives that we can pick out of the game, it is important to note the possible significance of the comeback win. That Liverpool have threatened and probably deserved many three points this season is no longer news. That they have lacked wins against top-quality opposition has been written about too frequently.
After Sunday afternoon, Liverpool fans can be forgiven for being hopeful. After all, this is a Liverpool team in good form, managing to sustain its momentum.
But when the dust settles from a fine victory, the defensive issues still remain. Liverpool are still vulnerable to relentless pressing and quick counterattacks, even if the Reds attack seems to be firing on all cylinders.
The goal is invariably to finish in the European places come mid-May.
The blueprint has been laid; the first steps have been taken; now it is a matter of Liverpool taking pride and confidence from this win over Tottenham Hotspur and maintaining a winning run until the end of the season.
Who knows, then, what might happen?
Follow me @theredarmchair.