Spurs and Liverpool both had a patchwork look about them at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but this didn’t make their match any less fun.
1) So the last Premier League match before Christmas has now been played, and it might yet turn out to be the last Premier League match to be played this year. With the Omicron variant continuing to rip through this country and infections predicted to rise as high as 1m per day, it continues to be a possibility that Jurgen Klopp might get the winter break for which he has long advocated. Still, if there is worse coming from the pandemic, then this game, a breathless end-to-end battle between two well-matched but flawed teams, could only be considered a perfect way in which to sign off, whether it’s until Boxing Day or for longer.
2) The virus had already taken its toll on proceedings on both teams before a ball was kicked. Spurs have already lost two Premier League games that will have to be rescheduled and are likely to be kicked out of the UEFA Conference League because they won’t be able fit in their final group match against Stade Rennais before the end of the year. Dele Alli, Ryan Sessegnon, Tanguy Ndombele, Emerson Royal and Harry Winks all found themselves drafted into a distinctly patchwork looking Spurs team for this match.
3) None of this is to say that the virus – and other illness, in the case of Jordan Henderson – hadn’t got to Liverpool as well. Tyler Morton, James Milner and Naby Keita replaced Henderson, Thiago Alcantara and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool’s entire first choice midfield was out for this game, and it showed. Liverpool pulled and stretched at times in a way that has become extremely unfamiliar over the last two or three years or so.
4) Spurs looked more threatening every single time they broke than they had for a very long time, and only some poor finishing prevented them from putting the match completely out of sight by half time. It was a very unfamiliar sight indeed, seeing Liverpool getting overwhelmed in midfield and behind their extremely high-pressing full-backs as much as they did, and with wide open spaces behind that midfield for Spurs to move into.
And then, thirteen minutes in, Harry Kane scored a goal. In the Premier League. For Spurs. A goal. The second half of the year hasn’t been especially happy for the England captain, what with the Manchester City transfer not happening and finding Premier League goals hard to come by, but he will at least get the opportunity to enjoy Christmas with one under his belt. He may choose to overlook the fact that he might have scored three or four. As it’s the season of goodwill, we’ll keep quiet about that.
⚪️Tottenham Hotspur press and win the ball back with a great sliding tackle from midfielder Harry Winks.
— Last Word On Spurs 🇮🇹 (@LastWordOnSpurs) December 19, 2021
5) Both teams had started at a frantic pace, with Andy Robertson almost scoring for Liverpool within a minute and Keita’s block tackle nicking the ball away from Son to block a chance at the other end. The first Spurs goal was a demonstration of Liverpool’s strange defensive frailty. Tanguy Ndombele slid a pass through to Kane, but got through just ahead of Ibrahima Konate and slid the ball past Alisson. There was a hint of offside about it at first viewing, but the replay confirmed him as just onside.
6) Kane might not have been on the pitch for that much longer after his goal. Just six minutes later, and with Son having already missed a chance to double their lead, he slid in on a challenge on Andy Robertson with a foot off the ground. What was the rationale for not giving it? Because he ‘only’ had one foot off the ground? Because he’s ‘not that sort of player’? Who knows? Klopp was furious at the decision, and he certainly seemed to have a point. Kane could have had few arguments had he been sent off.
7) After half an hour, Spurs broke again with pace and purpose. This time, Kane provided the dummy, taking Konate out of the game and opening up a space for Son to play a diagonal ball across to Dele Alli. When Dele’s shot ended up squeezing just wide, the Sky Sports commentary team were quick to jump in, only for the replay to show that Allison made a quite superb save to keep the lead at 1-0.
This big chance rather masked the fact that Dele put in a perky shift, looking as sharp as he has done in several seasons. There has been much talk recently about whether he would even survive the January transfer window at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but his performance in this match hinted that he should. He struggled with his final ball and his finishing at times, but this was a performance which hints that he still has a future with the club, and when he was finally withdrawn with ten minutes to go, following a performance that was some way short of perfect but which was still confirmation that rumours of his demise as a player may have been somewhat exaggerated, it was to warm applause from the home supporters.
8) For all the (deserved) attention that Liverpool’s more celebrated players get, their most important player throughout this particular match was Diogo Jota. Robertson picked up a loose ball on the left and crossed with ten minutes of the first half to play, and Jota strained to guide a header in to bring Liverpool level. Then two minutes after the goal, he was released by a Sadio Mane and went down under a clumsy tackle inside the penalty area which didn’t result in a penalty kick being given. Klopp was furious, and earned himself a yellow card for his reaction to referee Paul Tierney. He was all smiles again by the end, but there were points during this match where it felt as if Klopp’s head might explode, if one more decision was to go against his team.
Jurgen Klopp to referee Paul Tierney at the final whistle:
“I have no problems with any referees. Only YOU!”
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) December 19, 2021
9) If half-time brought a much-needed pause for sake of all of our blood pressure, the second half continued at much the same frantic, vaguely shapeless pace, with these huge spaces behind the full-backs. Harry Kane missed a couple of decent chances, including a header from four yards out which the replay from behind the goal made to look like one of the misses of the season, but the big controversy of the opening stages of the second half came when Joel Matip tackled Harry Winks, who went down under the tackle. Not for the first time in this game it looked like a penalty kick, but it wasn’t given again.
10) Midway through the second half, Liverpool switched to a 4-2-4, but such were the intentions of Liverpool’s full-backs that it felt like a 2-2-6 at times, and within five minutes of the change, we got to see both the costs and benefits of it. At one end of the pitch, Dele Alli was put through by a superb ball from Davinson Sanchez, but his first touch let him down a little and he went down under a tackle from Trent Alexander-Arnold which elicited loud claims for a penalty, but no whistle. The subsequent replay confirmed it would have been an extremely harsh award.
11) But with Spurs still fuming from this (non)decision, they were even angrier less than sixty seconds later, when Liverpool took the lead. A deflected cross from the left found Salah at the far post, and the striker managed to force it back across the goal, off Hugo Lloris’s wrist, and across for Andy Robertson to head in off the far post. The replay showed quite clearly that the ball hit Salah’s arm, but this was adjudged to have been unintentional.
12) But as things turned out, all that complaining was something of an irrelevance. Alisson Becker is a superb goalkeeper, one of the very best in the world, but he is capable of a mistake or two and Liverpool had only been ahead for a couple of minutes when he made one which brought Spurs back onto level terms again. Some nice inter-play on the left between Harry Winks and Ben Davies fed the ball to Son, and Alisson completely misjudged his attempt to intercept it, leaving Son with a look of bemusement on his face and an open goal in front of him into which he could slide the ball.
13) Andy Robertson’s foul, in which he booted Emerson Royal in the back the leg as hard as he could just minutes after Spurs had drawn level again, was a definite red card, although we had to wait for this to be verified by the video assistant. The obvious parallel here is Harry Kane’s first half foul on Robertson, but two wrongs don’t make a right, and the failure to send an opposing off obviously earlier in the game shouldn’t be a determining factor over a tackle made much later on. Whether two wrongs make a right over this probably depends on whether you support Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur.
14) It continues to feel as though the laws of the game as they stand and the video assistant are uncomfortable bedfellows, as though they both need to be reformed and rethought. One of football’s USPs was years was that it existed in a grey area in which everybody knew the rules, but they were fuzzy. We all understood that ‘the referee’s decision is final’, but this is a phrase that you never hear any more. Note that this phrase doesn’t say ‘right or ‘wrong’. It says ‘final’. In other words, if that’s what the referee has decided, it’s the final decision, and that’s what counts.
Somewhere along the line, probably among the fifty slow-motion replays from every conceivable angle, we have got the idea that we understand the laws of the game better than the referees. And we call for ‘consistency’ without apparently understanding that mistakes have no pattern behind them by their very definition. The game has got very fast. Much, much quicker than it ever has been before. If calls for ‘consistency’ (or it’s gammon-flavoured twin brother, ‘common sense’) don’t make any sense, then perhaps we should all start refamiliarising ourselves with the idea that mistakes are made, and decisions won’t always go our way.
15) Both teams ended with reasons to feel a little hard done by, probably satisfied with a draw without being happy about it. Spurs may feel a little happier because they had a one goal lead and a hatful of chances, only to lose it and then to fall behind. It says something for the character that Antonio Conte is breeding into Spurs that they didn’t completely fold after having gone 2-1 down. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Spurs teams of Nuno Espirito Santo or Jose Mourinho would have done.
Spurs are heading in the right direction, and their games in hand leave them still very much in the mix for a place in next year’s Champions League, although Arsenal and Manchester United both look as though they’ll be formidable opponents in the second half of the season. One crumb of comfort there for the supporters of all three of these teams is that Chelsea dropped points yet again, this time away to Wolves. Chelsea’s buffer in third place is now six points, and would be three, if Spurs won all of their games in hand.
16) But this was a very hard afternoon for both teams. Spurs and Liverpool, along with all the other clubs in the Premier League, have been plunged into another wave of Covid that no-one saw coming a month ago, and that nobody seems to have been particularly well-prepared for, and the tetchiness of coaches over whether matches should be played at the moment should be taken at face value rather than in the bad faith that is football’s common currency these days. Still, at least if there is to be a bit of a break now, whether it lasts until Boxing Day or beyond, the Premier League went out on a high. A combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, this was one of the most entertaining matches of the season, so far.