A: Are we allowed to mention the ‘i’ word yet? I think we are. There was plenty of talk about Manchester City replicating Arsenal’s astonishing unbeaten league season when, in 2017/18, they began the campaign with 20 wins and two draws, but City finally lost — at Liverpool — on January 14.
On the corresponding weekend of this season, Liverpool face another test of their ability to repeat the feat. It is still unlikely — that must be said. Although Liverpool have breezed through this Premier League season with embarrassing ease, that means that they will likely have wrapped up the title by early April. With the Champions League quarter-finals semi-finals and final all to play in April and May, if Liverpool progress, Jurgen Klopp will naturally prioritise European competition at the expense of the Premier League.
That will open the door to opponents who are left with much to fight for. But there is a chance.
If Liverpool can go a full year without Premier League defeat then they can go another 18 matches too. Their next three league fixtures — Tottenham, Manchester United, Wolves — provide a stern test, but we have grown accustomed to Liverpool clearing these hurdles with space to spare. Their dismantling of Leicester City on St Stephen’s Day was arguably their most complete performance under Klopp.
A: These are early days in Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham tenure, but those early days have always mattered to him. Mourinho’s modus operandi is to quickly create a bubble around his squad, a siege mentality that persuades his players to prove the doubters wrong. That bubble comes with typical improvements: better defensive record, more fight, and a jolt of on-pitch energy.
The pertinent question was whether Mourinho could instigate such change without a summer to work with his squad; so far the answer is no. Tottenham’s results have improved from Mauricio Pochettino’s final months, particularly away from home, but we have hardly witnessed a Spurs renaissance under their new manager. If anyone ever really thought that Pochettino was the biggest driver behind Tottenham’s Premier League decline, they can’t anymore. We are already seeing the telltale signs that Mourinho is getting ratty.
The mono-syllabic interview answers have returned, one or two players appear to have been castigated from the first team and Mourinho has blamed fringe actors for his team’s poor results — he blamed the ballboys at Southampton and got into a heated argument with their goalkeeping coach.
That is not to say that this can’t work out. Mourinho will use this summer’s transfer window to overhaul Tottenham’s squad and will still believe a top-four place is in reach given the flaws in the clubs around them.
But his insistence that Tottenham supporters would welcome a revitalised, changed Mourinho had already been disproven.
If this is going to work, Mourinho must be allowed to do it his way.
A: Of course, Tottenham will miss Harry Kane. He is their talisman and their goalscorer, so often their ‘get out of jail free’ card. Even during the last five months, when Tottenham’s creativity has been starved by Christian Eriksen’s desire to leave and the lack of midfield creativity, Kane has made it work. He scored 17 goals by the turn of the year. If that’s a bad season...
Yet there is a theory — however optimistic — that Tottenham might actually be better without Kane against Liverpool. Under Mourinho, the midfield has often looked to play direct, longer balls to their centre forward in a bid to relieve the pressure and bypass the problems with creativity described above. Virgil van Dijk would surely have dealt with that direct threat.
Without Kane, Tottenham will probably pick both Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura, neither of whom will appreciate direct balls to their chest and head. Both will instead look to drop deep and drift wide to drag Liverpool’s central defenders out of position, creating space for Dele Alli to surge into. If Son and Moura can find space on the flanks with Liverpool’s full-backs pushing up, Tottenham could find some joy on the counter-attack.
A: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gets plenty of merited criticism, but in October his Manchester United side came closer than anyone to beating Liverpool in the league this season. Solskjaer picked a back three for the first time in six months, looking to match Liverpool’s front three and soak up pressure before hitting them on the counter. Mourinho might well try exactly the same thing, a 3-5-2 with Ryan Sessegnon and Serge Aurier as wing-backs and Moura and Son as a fluid front two and Dele Alli as the most advanced central midfielder.
When under pressure, that will become a five-man defence with two central midfield screens who will be told to move the ball forward quickly when possession is won.
‘Parking the bus’ was one argument made by concerned Tottenham supporters against appointing Mourinho. It wasn’t just the success Pochettino oversaw at the club, but the alluring high-intensity, pressing style that he achieved it with. But against the best team in the country, when missing their best player, defending deep makes more sense than any other plan.
A: Yet there is a sense of futility when discussing any plans Tottenham have to stop Liverpool. Their two playmaking full-backs will surely have the better of Aurier and Sessegnon (or Jan Vertonghen, if Mourinho goes back to that plan), their central defenders are not playing well enough to go toe-to-toe with Liverpool’s forwards and Paulo Gazzaniga’s form fails to give those in front of him any confidence.
But it is in midfield where Liverpool are most dominant. Mourinho has pushed Harry Winks to the fringes of the squad, Moussa Sissoko is injured and Tanguy Ndombele’s fitness has been called into question by his manager.
In the defeat to Southampton, Mourinho picked a central midfield pair of Eriksen and Ndombele. Play the same against Liverpool and they will surely be overrun. It’s no hyperbole to say that the ability of Eric Dier to produce far better than his usual best could just be the deciding factor in Spurs’ chances of holding Liverpool at bay. That’s a deeply depressing thought for most Spurs supporters.