Both sides have their eyes on the ultimate prize at the end of the season: Champions League qualification. Harry Redknapp is so focused on regaining 4th place in the league this season that he went for wholesale rotation for Tottenham’s Thursday-night Europa League 1-1 draw with PAOK Salonika.
This early-season clash is significant for both sides: Dalglish’s Liverpool will be keen to bounce back after a disappointing 0-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium last weekend, while Redknapp will be desperate to reverse the recent run of poor results which is looking increasingly Juande Ramos-esque.
But Harry will be without the injured Steven Pienaar, Michael Dawson, William Gallas and Sandro Ranieri, while Aaron Lennon is only just recovering from an injury, and Rafael Van der Vaart’s fitness is also in doubt. Without the Dutchman, Tottenham will probably stick with their expansive 4-4-2, with wingers stretching the play, and a front-pairing of Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermaine Defoe.
A few Liverpool starting places seem to have been nailed down already this season: Reina, Carragher, Agger, Enrique, Downing, Adam, Lucas and Suarez have all featured whenever fit and available. It seems likely that, presumably at the expense of Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll will regain his starting place on Sunday having spent the last two league games on the bench. The Reds missed the Geordie’s big physical presence to occupy the two centre-backs against Stoke. Dirk Kuyt will probably move to the right, where he will have to do a diligent job of limiting the attacking threat of Benoit Assou-Ekotto and also Gareth Bale. Steven Gerrard still doesn’t seem to have recovered fully from his groin injury, so he will probably have to wait until the League Cup clash with Brighton to make his return. At right-back, Glen Johnson is injured, Martin Kelly is doubtful, and John Flanagan seems to have fallen out of favour after a couple of poor performances, so it seems likely that Martin Skrtel – a natural centre-back by trade – will continue at right-back.
Although the two likely team-shapes, crudely notated as 4-4-2, are relatively similar, a major factor in the outcome of the match will be the relative unpredictability and fluidity of the Liverpool attacking players’ movement. That’s not to suggest that Tottenham’s players are unimaginative, but Bale, Lennon, Defoe and Adebayor are more conventional wingers/strikers, whereas Downing, Kuyt and especially Suarez can use their creativity and intelligence off-the-ball to terrorise defences.
Having said that, winning the central-midfield battle will also be key because Luka Modric, despite having had his head turned by Chelsea’s transfer interest this summer, is an absolutely exceptional midfield playmaker and will need to be dealt with, probably by Lucas Leiva (who has made more tackles in the league than any other player over the last 12 months). Equally, Tottenham’s Summer-signing Scott Parker will need to make sure he denies Charlie Adam the space he can use to dominate proceedings.
Also, I had pointed out in my pre-season preview that Dalglish likes to use a lopsided shape to break down rigid opposition defences. This was very much in evidence against Stoke, especially in the first half. See this heatmap, courtesy of ESPN Soccernet:
Notice how Martin Skrtel at right-back (number 37) had more defensive protection from Jordan Henderson (14), while Downing (19) pushed much higher up on the left wing in support of Luis Suarez, making space for Enrique (3) to push up front the left wing-back position. Agger was comfortable moving across to the left, while Skrtel could tuck in from the right, making Liverpool’s formation into more of a 3-5-2. This three-at-the-back strategy can be effective against a team playing two out-and-out strikers, as we saw against Chelsea last season, for example. It will be interesting to see if this asymmetry continues tomorrow at White Hart Lane.
Also, Jamie Carragher, a player who has been the subject of much discussion this week, will want to put in a strong performance. He has been directly responsible for two of the three league goals that Liverpool have conceded this season. A deeply unflattering statistic – that Carra has scored as many league goals for Tottenham as he has for Liverpool – has been doing the rounds, and with competition from the likes of Martin Skrtel, Martin Kelly and Sebastian Coates, he will need to step up if he is to keep his starting place in the long term.
Spurs have leaked goals at home this season (indeed, they have conceded more shots on target than any other team in the league), and with injuries to various defenders, coupled with Redknapp’s famously attacking managerial style, a high-scoring match could be on the cards.
Also, it is interesting that each of the last four matches between these two sides has seen a penalty awarded, and with Suarez especially adept at getting goalside of defenders and causing havoc in the box, the inexperiened Kyle Walker or the creaky Ledley King could be punished on Sunday.
Follow Phil on Twitter @CrowdGoBananes