Jose Mourinho probably couldn’t have wished for a worse time to be playing the best team in the world. The mask is slipping for the new Tottenham Hotspur manager and, in the midst of a three-game winless run, already some supporters are beginning to wonder if Mourinho has jumped straight to his third-season antics.
It is far too early to judge his tenure, yet if it only takes a couple of bad results or spiky press conferences for the sheen to come off then perhaps Mourinho, so reliant on his charisma to inspire players to buy into unpopular tactics, really is finished at the highest level.
Liverpool will certainly force Tottenham to play on the back foot and, most likely, will record another three points. Consequently the post-match reaction to Spurs’ performance and result could be more important than the game itself. To park the bus and to lose would be a pretty bad look for Mourinho.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Spurs v Liverpool:
1) Will we see Mourinho ‘park the bus’ in a 3-5-2?
This could be the first time Mourinho lives up to his tactical reputation since being appointed Tottenham manager. Liverpool’s strength, coupled with Spurs’ ongoing issues coping with injuries and transitions (more on that later), means the hosts won’t even attempt to play a higher line or match their opponents. Liverpool will pin Spurs back whether they like it or not. It makes sense, then, to anticipate it.
That means stoic defending in their own third, pinpoint positional discipline, and compression between the lines in a way Tottenham fans have not seen before. Mourinho could seek to do this in a 3-5-2, continuing the system used in the 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough despite its failure then. The extra centre-back means the wing-backs can push up to meet Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson without exposing their teammates to narrow forwards Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah – in theory at least.
What’s more, Mourinho will know he needs to match the number of bodies in Liverpool’s midfield, while without Harry Kane Tottenham will need two forwards close together to counter-attack effectively.
2) Will Spurs’ passivity in midfield allow Liverpool to dominate?
Not that a deep-lying 3-5-2 solves many of Spurs’ problem, the most pressing of which is a general passivity in midfield. There is growing unease about how the players are taking to the tactical shift from Mauricio Pochettino to Mourinho, although in reality their ambling performances – failing to apply pressure to the ball or move freely when building attacks – is a hangover from the final days of the old regime.
It hasn’t helped that Mourinho keeps changing his midfield selection. This weekend he will likely go for Eric Dier, Christian Eriksen and Giovani Lo Celso, although whatever combination takes the field it will sorely miss injured pair Tanguy Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko. The Tottenham midfield lacks fight, athleticism in the tackle and an assertive player willing to risk a vertical pass.
That passivity, exacerbated by a tactical setup that isn’t one thing or the other of late, hands a big advantage to Liverpool’s swirling midfield three. Klopp’s side are getting better and better in this department; as Chelsea’s did on December 22, Liverpool’s midfield should swarm and dominate the hosts’.
3) Do Tottenham’s clumsy transitions leave them open to Liverpool’s full-backs?
This passivity could be even more problematic should Liverpool bypass midfield altogether. Klopp’s side have increasingly relied on longer passes to score against deep-lying teams, contributing significantly to winning games that would have ended as draws in 2018/19. The chief creator in this capacity is Virgil van Dijk, who lofts balls into the channels to catch defensive opponents on the rare occasions they are in a slightly higher starting position.
Tottenham are particularly vulnerable to this: partly because they won’t be closing down effectively; partly because they are unable to re-compress in the transition from attack to defence; and partly because their full-backs/wing-backs Ryan Sessegnon and Serge Aurier are the weakest components in the team. As Spurs hesitate, giving Liverpool time to pick a pass, Sessegnon and Aurier will likely get caught out by Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
It is a pretty glaring mismatch, but with a whole week on the training field perhaps Mourinho’s defensive coaching will have improved his team’s organisation. If not, Liverpool will surely win.
4) Does Kane’s absence improve Tottenham’s counter-attacking?
No Kane could be a blessing in disguise for Spurs given they will struggle to get out for long periods of the match. Mourinho will be relying on rapid counters that look to expose Liverpool’s very high defensive line and the spaces behind the two visiting full-backs. The league-leaders’ record of 14 goals conceded in 20 Premier League matches suggests it will take something special to catch them out.
Heung-min Son and Lucas Moura started together up front against Middlesbrough and though largely unsuccessful should begin this one too. The two contests could hardly be more different from a tactical perspective; Lucas and Son making runs either side of the Liverpool centre-backs presents a problem for Klopp, and certainly more so than if Kane was dropping deep into the congested midfield area.
How Spurs make a long pass towards one of these two is another question. Liverpool’s superb press doesn’t often allow the likes of Eriken or Alli space to do so. Instead, look out for Toby Alderweireld punting the ball into the channels.
5) Will three-man Spurs defence give Mane the advantage?
Assuming Mourinho does go for three at the back that means either Dier or Juan Foyth on the right side of central defence, creating the game’s most important – and lopsided – individual battle. Sadio Mane is the best player in the Premier League at squaring up to an opponent and taking them on. Hell, at the minute he’s the best player on the planet altogether.
Foyth made an error against Norwich, giving the ball away ahead of their opener, while Dier (more likely to start in midfield) is too flat-footed to play against someone as nimble as Mane. Given the speed with which Liverpool’s front three interchange passes, suddenly upping the tempo around the edge of the box, any lack of sharpness from Dier or Foyth would be enough to give Mane the advantage.
Alex Keble is on Twitter