WHITE HART LANE, LONDON — Another year, another chastening lesson for Tottenham to endure (at their own home) at the hands of a rampant Liverpool side.
To differing extents, this was a match between two teams still defined by players they no longer own. This Spurs squad very much remains "the team that Bale’s sale built", while of the 11 players who started Liverpool’s famous 5-0 win at White Hart Lane last season, only five remained for Brendan Rodgers this time around.
Luis Suarez was the most noticeable absentee from the match, with many of the signings his sale helped finance—such as Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren and Mario Balotelli—brought into the fold instead.
In the end it was two familiar faces, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, who set Liverpool on the way to victory, with new boy Moreno eventually rounding off a 3-0 win in which the Reds rarely looked in any real danger.
“We were excellent,” a satisfied Rodgers said afterwards, pointing to his side's tactics as the key: “We set out with a midfield diamond. The three guys behind the striker [for Spurs] play as No. 10s, so they are inside the game.
"So [the diamond] allowed us at worst case to equal them inside and allowed the full-backs to move forward in the space.”
1 - Spurs had 1 shot on target v Liverpool; the only game in which they recorded fewer than 2 in 2013/14 was v Liverpool (home). Flashback.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 31, 2014
Rodgers' opposite number, Mauricio Pochettino, admitted his disappointment with the result of what was arguably his first real test as Spurs boss—pointing to his relative lack of time with the players as one of its primary causes.
The Spurs players are still adapting to the Argentine's particular tastes and philosophies, and Liverpool certainly looked the more organised and well drilled in midfield on Sunday, depriving their opponents of the time and space they needed to settle and ensuring they could not find a rhythm either before or after Sterling’s eighth-minute opener.
Spurs, in contrast, tried to be similarly compact in the middle of the park but were unable to hit their marks in quite the same way. Flummoxed slightly by Rodgers’ tactical change—Sterling, at the tip of the diamond, was influential all afternoon—Nabil Bentaleb and Etienne Capoue lacked the awareness to solve that issue themselves and Liverpool took advantage.
“We are a team still improving, still learning,” Pochettino explained. “Liverpool have a very good team, and they have built their team over more than two years and that is a big advantage, but that is not an excuse for today. We were unlucky but in the key moments we lost the game.”
Rodgers seemed to agree with the sentiment, noting: “It’s important for me that [my attacking players] have the intelligence to play all those positions. Mauricio is a brilliant coach, give him time to get that system in place and he will do well.”
Pochettino may also argue that Liverpool required a fair slice of luck to build what ended up appearing a decisive scoreline. Eric Dier’s inexperience was exposed when he foolishly tugged at Joe Allen’s shirt to concede what Pochettino derided as a "soft" penalty, which was dispatched into the bottom corner by Steven Gerrard.
Then, just moments after coming on, Andros Townsend gave the ball away to Moreno down the right, the full-back scampering into the open space behind the winger before drilling his low shot across Hugo Lloris.
"I think we showed we are a very good side, and we clicked back into where we were last season," Rodgers concluded.
Impressive 3-0 win for Liverpool, based on superior quality and creativity. Good hour from Balotelli. Spurs' easy win over QPR misleading.— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) August 31, 2014
Yet the biggest contrast between the two sides seemed to be their attitude on the pitch. Liverpool appear to be a team stacked with leaders; Spurs devoid of even one. Steven Gerrard has the armband for the Reds but Lovren, Mamadou Sakho and Jordan Henderson also exude a certain aura.
When the latter slapped 19-year-old Javi Manquillo on the back and cried out “good lad” after one seemingly insignificant intervention down the right, it underlined the spirit and drive within this collective.
It's unknown whether the Spaniard understood the words, but the sentiment was obvious. With Daniel Agger leaving during the week, there is a vacancy to be Gerrard’s vice-captain. Rodgers is not short of options, with Henderson a contender.
“I think he’s taken on board those leadership qualities,” Rodgers said. “He has great stature on the field, and other than Steven, he has played the most games since I’ve been in the club I think. So I obviously rate his contribution.
“But I haven’t really given it a lot of thought. I’ll take my time over the international break to think about that one.”
Spurs lost one of their primary on-pitch leaders this week, when club captain Michael Dawson departed in search of regular first-team football at Hull City. As a result Younes Kaboul wore the armband on Sunday, but his direction and drive was conspicuous in its absence, with centre-back partner Jan Vertonghen also a quiet, almost meek presence.
Spurs appeared jittery from the first whistle, with no-one there to shake them from their reverie. When they went behind, the heads of many of the home players seemed to drop, with the lack of an obvious leader in their midst perhaps a contributing factor in a sustained rally never materialising.
“After tomorrow we will start to talk about the captain with the group, yes,” Pochettino said. “I am proud of the players because they tried, because it is not easy to believe and try to play in the different way that we demand.
“Maybe the team felt some pressure from last season, after the two defeats [to Liverpool]. I am disappointed with the result but they tried, and I think we need to improve and we need to learn.”
This had been a game where Balotelli was expected to be the centre of attention, especially after Rodgers threw him straight into the starting line-up. Before his arrival, the general fear seemed to be that injecting the Italian into the undoubtedly positive atmosphere of the Liverpool dressing room would upset its delicate balance and slowly poison the team.
Perhaps we were looking at it the wrong way, though; perhaps Liverpool’s strong team spirit is exactly why Balotelli could be brought into the fold. They will rub off on him much more than he will rub off on them.
“He’s a good man,” Rodgers said of his No. 45. “If you take away the circus that surrounds him—and that he invites himself sometimes—and get him concentrated on his football, you’ll see.
“He’s at an age where he’s got to show maturity. For the first time in his life he marked at a corner. [We will] treat him like an adult and give him responsibility.”
You question whether that would have been the case if he had joined this Spurs squad. This defeat should not undermine the improvements and possibilities Pochettino's style and system of play seem to offer, but it perhaps highlights that it will require his squad's perfect understanding of his tactical methods to bring success in the biggest games.
Rodgers has plenty of leaders to choose from; Pochettino must find one. The sooner the better.