White Hart Lane was always going to prove a good early test for both clubs, as Liverpool returned to the ground that essentially unlocked their title-contending season.
Dispatching Spurs with an emphatic 5-0 battering that triggered a second Premier League mid-season sacking for Andreas Villas Boas, this time looked to be different. Yet the opening ten minutes might have had everyone rethinking just how different would it be.
In the second minute Daniel Sturridge sent a dangerous cross from the left wing into his new strike partner Mario Balotelli, who headed it down on goal but into a scrambling Spurs’ keeper Hugo Lloris. A minute later Gerrard sprayed the first of a number of deep diagonal passes into Spurs final third, this one to new boy Alberto Moreno in the left corner who would lose it and spark a short run of play for Spurs as they tried to get a foothold in the match.
Then in a precision sequence reminiscent of last year’s Liverpool, Jordan Henderson won a scramble deep in the right side midfield, playing Sturridge forward down the wing. Sturridge made a slippery run feinting inside and beating two down the wing, returning it to Hendo, making a scything run deep into the penalty, where he would slot it across the area to an onrushing Raheem Sterling to wrap it up with a clean and tidy finish.
Within a couple of minutes, Emanuel Adeboyor nearly equalized, catching Dejan Lovren unable to cover and Simon Mignoet in no-man’s-land, but lofted it on to the roof of the net.
Again, a couple of minutes later Sturridge wriggled away from a couple of markers to flash one past the right post, capping what was a bracing first eleven minutes with Liverpool up 1-0.
Soon, the match settled and Liverpool let Spurs have the ball for long stretches, content to break with the lightning counter pace that became their hallmark in the last campaign.
Around a half an hour, debutant Balotelli started to show why he was brought into the fold, playing a nifty backheel to Sturridge who then took a speculative left footed curler from just outside the right corner of the penalty area. Then he showed his power and strength, holding up Younes Kaboul before turning him hard and flicking a ball to advance Sterling, which brought Lloris far outside his area for a errant clearance that fell back to Balotelli. Unfortunately, Balotelli hooked the return far wide of the mark, but his presence was an obvious positive.
This likely looked like the defense that many a Reds fan has been waiting to see with Alberto Moreno, Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, and Javier Manquillo across the back line. Despite a few errant passes and miscommunication between Sakho and Lovren, to be expected in their first pairing, the defense held firm. Collectively, as a team, the Liverpool pressing continued to slow Spurs attack into the break.
Conversely, Liverpool effectively beat Spurs’ pacey pressing, moving the ball at speed to beat the Spurs press sliding up the pitch repeatedly.
A couple minutes after the break, Spurs’ Eric Dier naively pulled at Joe Allen, as Allen broke behind in the in the penalty area, giving an arguably soft but certain penalty. After Gerrard cooly slashed the ball into the lower left corner past a correctly guessing Lloris, Liverpool stood 2-0 after 47 minutes and went into cruise control.
While new hope manager Mauricio Pochettino made a couple of substitutions, Andros Townsend for Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele for Nabil Bentaleb at 59 minutes, it would all unravel. On Townsend’s first touch, Moreno, at his pick-pocket best, stole the ball, streaked down the left side, angling into the box, and pinged it off the right post for the third goal. With that, the game was nearly sealed.
Then Brendan Rodgers countered with two substitutions of his own, subbing Lazar Markovic for Balotelli and Emre Can for Allen at 60 minutes for the restart.
Quickly warming to the action, Markovic made an early splash working a break down the flank with Manquillo that resulted in a corner. Then remained fairly quiet.
However in minute 69, Can made a ruggedly, strong run straight up the middle, finding Sterling, who then went on an exceptionally poised run, slashing open Spurs entire four player back line in the area, only to come up empty without a finish. With an end product it would have been the goal of the season already, but he may just have had too much time to think.
Beyond that there were a couple of near chances, but Sturridge seemed to lack some shooting sharpness today, despite being able to work the ball for a lane in tight spaces.
Liverpool always looked to get forward in possession but showed great progress in maintaining their defensive shape as a group, routinely getting ten men behind the ball and forcing Spurs into a predictable pattern of swinging the ball from one side of the field to the other with no real effect.
As the match wound toward an end, Spurs Ben Davis came on for and injured Danny Rose in minute 71. And Jose Enrique came on for a cameo, giving Sterling a breather after 85 minutes.
It was an impressive rebound for Liverpool, away from Anfield, especially after a tough loss to defending champions Manchester City. Better still, this match showed glimpses of the team that Reds fans have been waiting to reappear this campaign. Plus, the clean sheet should give Rodger’s newly minted defense and a slightly shaky Simon Mignolet some confidence as they head into an international break. Not quite the shelling of last season’s mid-season clash, but a decisive victory nonetheless.