Tottenham Hotspur Fail Season's First Top-Four Test in Latest Liverpool Loss

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2014

Same old Tottenham Hotspur? As far as their competitiveness with the Premier League's top four is concerned, the 3-0 scoreline of Sunday's loss to Liverpool would suggest as much.

Last season, they lost 5-0 and 4-0 to Brendan Rodgers' side, and they were battered by Manchester City (twice) and Chelsea too.

Sunday's performance itself was a little less condemning than those encounters with the Reds in 2013-14. Yet the conclusion that Tottenham still have ample ground to make up on them—and the division's elite—cannot be ignored.

Spurs' first 45 minutes was promising enough in some respects, concerning in others.

Raheem Sterling's opener came after Jan Vertonghen veered left to cover for full-back Danny Rose, who was caught upfield when Liverpool dispossessed Spurs at the halfway line. Jordan Henderson broke into the space vacated by the Belgian and found Sterling clear at the back post after the attacker had pulled away from both Eric Dier and Younes Kaboul.

It was a disappointing goal to concede. Being kind, it could be considered a concession to the aggressive approach Pochettino is working to implement—they tried to play out from the back and got caught out—and the sparkling movement at the the heart of Liverpool's swift counterpunch.

Similarly lax marking before and after hinted at it being symptomatic of nobody in the Spurs defence taking enough responsibility and a lack of good judgement—familiar gripes during last season's humiliations.

At the beginning and end of the first half, an unmarked Mario Balotelli twice threatened the Spurs goal. The Italian also had a good opportunity from long range after Hugo Lloris misjudged one of his trademark forays off his line.

Nonetheless, Spurs' midfield worked hard to ensure Liverpool did not have things all their own way. Christian Eriksen, in particular, showed a sense of responsibility not always apparent in big games last season.

Pitching in with the defensive effort, the Dane won a couple of tackles and made four interceptions to stop the Reds in their tracks (numbers tallied by Squawka). On one of these occasions, he almost sent Emmanuel Adebayor through on goal.

Spurs had ambition in making something of their defensive successes and in general too—both Adebayor and Nacer Chadli had chances. While they did not work out, heading into the second half there was at least a suggestion of a confidence almost entirely absent in the two losses to Liverpool last season.

Pochettino rued a lack of luck post match, but his team were no worse off in the bounce of the ball than in any other matches. Ultimately, like at Anfield in March, Spurs handed the advantage to a superior team with bad mistakes.

Joe Allen went down as theatrically as his former team-mate Luis Suarez was often prone to doing, but young Dier was asking for trouble grabbing him in the penalty area. Steven Gerrard converting the subsequent 49th minute penalty was all but a given.

The right-back's attacking approach has served Spurs well in recent weeks, but it partly undermined them for Liverpool's third goal, when he relayed a pass to the just-arrived substitute Andros Townsend before bursting down the wing.

He wouldn't have expected Townsend to immediately give the ball away or for Alberto Moreno to then make it all the way through to the Spurs area and score. Perhaps with a bit more experience, the 20-year-old might have opted to hang back with a number of red shirts in dangerous proximity.

Spurs may not have found a way through a well drilled and adventurous Liverpool side anyway. Yet, prior to the third and especially second goals, they were not completely out of the game.

It was only in the last half hour that Tottenham's efforts carried a notably dispirited air. They had robbed themselves of the chance to compete with their Merseyside opponents in the "key moments" Pochettino alluded to above.

With a safe lead established, Rodgers' men were able to dig in even further defensively—and they had already been solid throughout. The outlets of Sterling and Daniel Sturridge helped ensure they would not be pegged back too dangerously.

The Liverpool defence were aided by a Spurs attack lacking the imagination of the Manchester City forward line they faced last week.

Breaking down the visitors was always going to be a tough ask. Still, the general lack of urgency in their movement and passing in the second half especially will have been all the more frustrating for Pochettino, given there were times they did summon it to positive effect.

In the 73rd minute Adebayor, Chadli and Lamela combined on the edge of the box to almost free the striker in on goal. Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho snuffed it out, but the threat was there, and all the more tantalising for its rarity.

From back to front, Tottenham clearly have plenty to work on, then.

They failed their first top-four test, but it could be argued it was as much to do with early-season kinks rather than the inferiority complex that haunted them so damagingly in the previous campaign.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

It is early days in the Pochettino regime, and there will almost certainly be better to come as his new players familiarise themselves with the details and demands of his oft-cited philosophy. Old wounds have not quite healed, though, and may yet fester without the right treatment.

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