ANFIELD, LIVERPOOL—Liverpool took their place at the top of the Premier League with a 4-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Sunday as the Reds stretched their winning run to eight games in a row.
A two-point lead could be wiped out by Manchester City's matches in hand, but with both Manchester City and Chelsea yet to come to Anfield this season, Liverpool's title-winning dreams are essentially in their own hands right now. It is unlikely that the Reds will go the rest of the season without dropping a point—a 14-game winning run to end the campaign would be unprecedented—but they will not be the only side to draw or lose games during the run-in.
That Liverpool are in the conversation at this stage of the season is testament to the incredible progress made by Brendan Rodgers and his team.
That they are top, unbeaten in 2014, and absolutely full of conviction and confidence about what they can achieve this season—on the pitch and in the stands—is testament to the ability of the team and the attack mentality they take into each game.
Spurs found Liverpool's mix of technique on the ball and relentless endeavour far too much to handle. In truth, as soon as the Reds went a goal ahead after 90 seconds, it already looked like the game was over. The heads of the Spurs players dropped, while the roars from the home fans indicated the pain was only just beginning for Tim Sherwood and his men.
Midfield Shape Change Gave Space to Coutinho
Having operated with a diamond midfield for several matches in succession, Rodgers opted for a lopsided 4-3-3 against Spurs.
Luis Suarez started as a left-sided forward, Raheem Sterling right side and Daniel Sturridge central, though there was so much movement from Suarez in particular that it was often two centre-forwards and just one wider option.
Even as early as the first minute, Liverpool's shape was apparent.
The forwards stretched play wide as much as possible early on, giving themselves room to run between full- and centre-backs or else finding room by the touchline to attack.
With Steven Gerrard holding, Philippe Coutinho continually found time and space on the ball and was able to spray passes around the pitch, looking to switch play diagonally from his central midfield position or make driving runs forward into space before searching out the runners from deep.
Though Coutinho didn't actually make the final pass on any chances created himself, his handiwork was evident in much of the best work Liverpool produced in his hour or so on the pitch. He sprayed the ball out wide in the buildup for Liverpool's first goal, consistently picked out Sterling's runs and scored a fine goal himself for 3-0.
Jordan Henderson's ability to cover the entire pitch remains crucial to the likes of Coutinho exploiting space on such a regular basis. Henderson knitted passes together between both penalty boxes without being particularly incisive himself on this occasion, but his off-the-ball work was far more impressive.
The Dominant Side but Also the Harder-Working Side
Liverpool were far, far better than Tottenham.
And not only in terms of hitting the back of the net. Their shape, fluidity and confidence were far superior to the North London side, and it showed in their all-round performance. The Reds have something very real to fight for, and every player on the pitch made sure to contribute.
In a game the home team wins 4-0, it is understandable that they might have more clear chances on goal, a higher combined tally of off- and on-target shots, and a greater percentage of possession—and Liverpool did have all that.
But they also made more tackles and more clearances than Spurs.
Here's a short and otherwise quickly forgotten segment of play from around the half-hour mark. Liverpool led 2-0, which shows how much harder the home players were prepared to work. Keep an eye on the time, which displays this as being one single, unbroken passage of play.
As you can see, Roberto Soldado jogged about a mighty 15 metres or so in that 20-second passage of play, while no other Spurs player passed the centre circle in that time. Agger's crossfield pass went out of play, giving the away side a throw-in and the start of their own period of possession.
This is a perfect illustration of just why Rodgers' team so easily overran Tim Sherwood's; they simply fought far harder for the ball and then used it more wisely. The home players were more committed to the cause. They knew their roles within the team structure, and they were superior in possession. That all added up to being the better side—and this season, Liverpool have a relentless clinical edge about them to finish it off too.
The four goals scored on the day saw more records tumble, both within the club and in the history of the Premier League.
@LFCTV Liverpool now scored 4 goals or more in 11 games this season - a new Premier League record.— Ged Rea (@ged0407) March 30, 2014
Luis Suarez now holds the club record for Liverpool for goals scored in a single Premier League season (29). pic.twitter.com/qkfSpNA1rw— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 30, 2014
Getting players in support of the deadly Suarez-and-Sturridge duo is a big feature of Liverpool's game. The most advanced midfield pairing, plus Sterling wide in the attack, are always looking to join up in the final-third play after transitions of possession, giving Liverpool options and numbers as they move quickly upfield.
Tottenham, on the other hand, were cautious with their numbers going forward and rarely looked to get beyond lone striker Roberto Soldado, who was entirely ineffective by himself.
He had one shot from the left side of the area in the first half, punched clear by Simon Mignolet, but he rarely looked like a threat other than that. Even when he passed to team-mates wide, he failed to attack the penalty box from deep.
A thudding challenge from Jon Flanagan in the second half ended his appetite for the game, and he was substituted with an ankle injury.
While Soldado himself was poor, it was the lack of midfield runners to support him and be a threat in the penalty area that cost Spurs a chance at getting back in the game. Only Christian Eriksen—asked to play from the left—really had any final-third impact, but even he was thwarted by a stubborn back line in Red.
The lack of support was displayed when a rare moment of enthusiasm from Soldado saw him chase down a long, hopeful pass, outmuscling Daniel Agger on the way to gain control of the ball in the penalty area.
Unfortunately, nobody bothered to exert themselves to keep pace, and by the time any support arrived for him, Agger had recovered from his error to make the tackle and the ball was out of play.
Spurs' midfield ultimately failed to compete in the middle, were slow to get back and track runners from deep, and offered little going forward—an all-round failure on the part of, presumably, both coaching tactical instruction and of the players themselves in executing any kind of game plan.
Liverpool, meanwhile, saw another midfield shape alteration, but it worked perfectly and saw the Reds take another convincing step toward an overdue Premier League title.