Tottenham remain Tottenham and Liverpool, it seems, might be Liverpool again. Spurs had won its first two league games of the season, as well as both Europa League games so far, and had impressed: could it be that, with this squad and this manager, it had at last shaken off the flakiness that has afflicted it for decades. Of course it couldn’t.
Liverpool had struggled in the second half at Manchester City on Monday leading to doubts about how it could both cope without Luis Suarez and begin the process of accommodating all its new signings. This, though, was Liverpool back to the thrillingly rapid attacking style of last season and Spurs, yet again, wilting under the first semblance of pressure.
Tottenham’s last three meetings with Liverpool have now resulted in 5-0 (under Andre Vilas-Boas), 4-0 (under Tim Sherwood) and 3-0 (under Mauricio Pochettino) defeats. A high line, whoever has organised it, is susceptible to pace.
The center-back Younes Kaboul, in particular, had an afternoon to forget, never able to deal with the pace or movement of a Liverpool front three that, for the first time, included the new £16million signing Mario Balotelli. The Italian, having dominated the build-up, almost struck after three minutes of his Liverpool debut, peeling away at the back post to meet Daniel Sturridge’s cross with a firm downward header that Hugo Lloris did superbly to keep out, diving low to his left. If Balotelli’s uncertain jab at the rebound was a little disappointing, there were at least very early signs that he and Sturridge could form a workable partnership.
Brendan Rodgers had lined up with a midfield diamond, something that threatened to leave his full-backs, Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno, exposed, but never quite did, perhaps because of the tendency of the Spurs wide men to cut infield. Raheem Sterling was deployed between and behind Balotelli and Sturridge, who regular pulled wide, creating space for the teenager to charge into. It was just that movement that led to the opening goal, after eight minutes, Sturridge drifting right and sliding a pass through for Jordan Henderson, who pulled a perfectly weighted ball across the box for Sterling to tuck in with the minimum of fuss.
Last Monday, Liverpool’s back line had looked worryingly leaky in losing 3-1 at Manchester City; here it was Spurs that creaked in the face of Liverpool’s pace and movement. Balotelli, meanwhile, added another layer of mystery to his enigma by producing a thoroughly unstereotypical performance: he worked hard, played selflessly, and finished abysmally. After that third minute effort, he had two further chances to score in the opening half-hour, putting a free header wide form a Steven Gerrard free-kick and then smashing a shot wildly off-target after Lloris had charged out of his box and presented him with possession. He was withdrawn after 61 minutes for Lazar Markovic having given a performance that augurs well; that said, the tendency has been for Balotelli to start well at clubs only for his enthusiasm subsequently to wane.
Liverpool last season regularly raced into a lead – often by two or three goals – and then spent the rest of the game hanging on, so that the sense was something that if it didn’t take an early lead, it struggled. Pochettino’s Southampton, meanwhile, although the slenderness of its squad meant it faltered towards the end of the season, was widely recognised as one of the fittest around. Brad Friedel, the Spurs reserve goalkeeper, has spoken admiring already this season of the effectiveness of the conditioning work Pochettino has done in pre-season. So perhaps it was no great surprise that Spurs came into the game increasingly as the first half went on, although in terms of chances that amounted to nothing more than an awkward bouncing volleyed chance for Nacer Chadli from an Adebayor knockdown, the judicious use of the long forward pass becoming as much a part of Tottenham’s game this season as it was of Southampton’s last season.
Any chance that those vague threats might coalesce into something more significant disappeared within three minutes of the restart. There wasn’t a huge amount of contact as Eric Dier tugged at Joe Allen, but it was a clear pull and Steve Gerrard converted the penalty – his 43rd for Liverpool, taking him clear of Jan Molby’s record.
Twelve minutes later came the third, Alberto Moreno, having cut such an uncertain figure at the Etihad on Monday, dispossessing the substitute Andros Townsend and charging 50 yards before thumping a low finish past Lloris. With that, the game was done, and any advantage in fitness Spurs may have had been rendered redundant.
Both Spurs and Liverpool look better going forward than they do at the back and, while that is good for general entertainment, it will probably undermine both in the long term. Liverpool, at least, is back on track after Monday’s set-back, but for Spurs the thought lingers that they are doomed always to be this way, forever flattering to deceive.