Spurs and Liverpool prepare for battle looking to overcome sluggish starts

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool has taken pride of place in Sunday’s television schedule. The astute viewer will know not to miss the opening minutes, when the visiting team is notoriously vulnerable. But the close student of Spurs will wonder if the hosts have the instinct to exploit Liverpool’s jittery starts.

On Tuesday, Tottenham joined Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League, the full quartet of English clubs progressing from the group stage, but did so without correcting the impression that they are under strict instructions to spend most of the first hour. of matches in a cautious wait-and-see stance, saving their proactive football for later.

Their victory at Olympique de Marseille would come in stoppage time thanks to a Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg goal after Clement Lenglet had canceled out Marseille’s half-time lead.

“We have to try to play the whole 90 minutes at the same level,” admitted Cristian Stellini, the assistant manager who was the caretaker manager on the night, with Antonio Conte serving a suspension.

At Anfield, Conte and Stellini’s compatriot Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti made a pointed observation about the late-game resilience of another English club.

Liverpool had inflicted a first defeat of the season on Spalletti’s dazzlers thanks to goals from Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez in the 85th and 98th minutes, making up for a 4-1 defeat at Napoli on matchday one.

While the win wasn’t enough to knock Napoli out of top spot, it’s a feather in Liverpool’s cap. “If you look at the last 10 minutes, it was almost like my players felt we had achieved the goal. [Liverpool needed to win by a four-goal margin to leapfrog Napoli in the table]”, said Spalletti. “Our level has dropped a bit. Perhaps this is an aspect of the character of this team. Liverpool always play full, that’s part of their character.”

It was praise for his counterpart Jurgen Klopp and a Liverpool side that chased four trophies to the finish line in their remarkable 63-game 2021/22 campaign. But they now sit ninth in the Premier League partly because they have been so slow to hit the top speeds.

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In more than half of their games in 2022/23, Liverpool have conceded the first goal. Against Napoli in Italy, Brighton, Arsenal and Leeds United all went behind in the first five minutes.

When a weakness like this becomes so flagged, opponents devote themselves to planning an early ambush. Will it be Tottenham? The negative view of Spurs as they mark Conte’s first birthday as manager is that they are like a shy teenager who needs coaxing at the breakfast table in the hope that he will start to express himself at lunchtime.

Tuesday in Marseille featured a familiar first 45 minutes, especially in European competition: a Tottenham mainly concerned with maintaining their defensive shape, ceding possession, a back five with three midfielders withdrawn in their own midfield.

Of course, the maths of Group D meant that an impeccable defensive performance in Marseille would be enough, with Spurs needing a point to progress. When Marseille scored from a set piece, the plan failed.

Tottenham allowed their hosts, who were fifth in French Ligue 1, enough shots on goal for Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to be named man of the match.

And for the third time in six games, Spurs captain Lloris found himself in a half-time team talk where a rousing readjustment was needed. They had to recover from the defeat in the first half against Sporting Lisbon, when they drew again; against Bournemouth, when they won from 2-0 down; and against Marseille.

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Conte would like to see fewer mistakes in the first half, but will make no apologies for a formula of containment and counter-attacking. It has served him well during a stellar career as the club’s manager, at least in the domestic leagues.

“Sometimes it’s normal to give the opponent the chance to play”, explained Stellini, his assistant, “and use the energy you have in the second half. It can be a strategy.”

With the fixture schedule so condensed, pragmatic in-game time management is inevitable. Energy must be conserved. Both Klopp and Conte have had to balance resistance levels with reduced options for soft squad rotation.

Tottenham’s indifferent October, having dropped just four points in a seven-game unbeaten start to the Premier League, coincided with the injury absence of Dejan Kulusevski and, later, Richarlison. Son Heung-min, withdrawn in the first half in Marseille with a head injury, underwent surgery on Wednesday to stabilize a fracture around his left eye and is unlikely to feature.

Liverpool have also seen their attacking options reduced, with Diogo Jota joining Luis Diaz in treatment. When that pair return to action in December, there is no certainty that Liverpool, the team capable of winning against Napoli and Manchester City and still losing to Nottingham Forest and Leeds United, will be in the top half of the Premier League.

Updated: November 3, 2022 at 06:29

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