Mario Balotelli's first Premier League goal since 2012 gave Liverpool a 3-2 win over Tottenham in a game that twice saw Spurs come from a goal behind to draw level. The win crucially puts Brendan Rodgers' side just 3 points behind 4th place Arsenal and just a point behind Spurs in the race for Champions League places. A win would have seen Spurs go third at least briefly with Southampton and Manchester United still to play tomorrow.
This was an immensely entertaining contest for the first hour with with two quite different formations that created some really intriguing tactical battles. With both sides having played important derby matches just two days ago, fatigue seemed to set in on the hour mark and the energy fell until Balotelli's 83rd minute winner. Rodgers' second half substitutions made the difference- Balotelli replaced the excellent Daniel Sturridge, still regaining fitness from the thigh injury that has seen him miss most of the season, in the 74th minute and was set up with an assist from Adam Lallana who came on for Lazar Markovic in the in the 79th.
What proved to be the key tactical feature on the day occurred down Liverpool's right attacking side. Rodgers opted for the same 3-4-2-1 formation he's used in recent matches with Jordan Ibe given a second successive league start at right wing back after his excellent performance at Everton Saturday. Ibe was instrumental in setting up both Liverpool second half goals and proved a tactical nightmare defensively for Spurs left back Danny Rose and left midfielder Christian Eriksen.
Markovic and later Lallana operated in a narrow right-sided attacking midfield position. The left side of Spurs defense was confused throughout about who was responsible for picking up this inside right attacking midfielder and who was responsible for tracking Ibe. Ryan Mason played as the left-sided holding midfielder in a double pivot with Nabil Bentaleb (in the 69th Paulinho replaced Mason and Bentaleb moved into Mason's left-sided position). He pressed Henderson, Liverpool's right sided holding midfielder, when Liverpool were in possession. This left Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder with space behind Mason and in front of Rose and left-sided center back Jan Vertonghen (Figure 1).
Rose and Vertonghen therefore had a difficult decision to make about their positioning. Vertonghen could step out from the back line to get tight to Markovic/Lallana but it would have opened up space in behind for the pacey Daniel Sturridge to make a diagonal run in behind (Figure 2).
Alternatively, Rose could have tucked inside towards Markovic/Lallana, leaving space down the channel for Ibe to run into behind Eriksen (Figure 3).
Spurs opted more for the option in Figure 3 with Rose tucking inside. The problem that arose for Pochettino's side was therefore that Ibe was happy to take that space near the touchline behind Eriksen. To effectively deal with that threat, Eriksen would have had to been asked to track Ibe's runs all the way into the Liverpool attacking third. Such a strategy would have had its own drawbacks- Spurs wouldn't have wanted their most creative attacking player pinned 80 yards from the opposition goal.
When Ibe got the ball in advanced wide positions his direct and incisive decision-making were extremely effective. By receiving possession near the touch line he forced Rose to sprint wide to close him down. Spurs left-sided holding midfielder (Mason and then Betaleb when Mason was subbed) would drift to that channel to offer defensive support for Rose, vacating space in the middle of the pitch that Markovic and then Lallana could exploit.
The screen shot below shows the buildup to the penalty won by Sturridge that resulted in Liverpool's second goal. Ibe gets the ball wide, forcing Rose to the touchline. Bentaleb offers defensive cover leaving space at the right edge of the box Sturridge to move into on this occasion. Ibe finds Sturridge with the next pass who dribbles past Mason and is taken down by Rose in his effort to make a recovery tackle.
The buildup to Balotelli's winner was remarkably similar. Here, Ibe receives a pass from Lallana on the touchline. Once again Rose is forced wide to close him down with Bentaleb providing cover. Lallana drifts into the space left vacated by Bentaleb and provides a well-weighted ball across the face of goal for Balotelli to tuck in.
Markovic's opener was slightly different- Simon Mignolet's long punt toward Sturridge ultimately fell for the Serbian in space to dribble forward, but like the other two it resulted from a Liverpool player finding space just inside the right channel.
Pochettino's side created their share of difficult tactical issues for Liverpool. With Markovic, Coutinho and Sturridge all staying high up the pitch Liverpool were outmanned in the middle of midfield where Gerrard and Henderson often found themselves trying to defend Bentaleb, Mason and Dembele as well as Eriksen and Lamela tucking inside. Spurs' fantastic opener came when Lamela and Eriksen tucked insideto overload that zone and played a tidy 1-2 before Lamela laid off an inch-perfect reverse pass for Harry Kane.
One final interesting feature of this contest was Liverpool's first half pressing of Bentaleb and Mason, an approach that differed from that taken by Arsene Wenger in the North London Derby Saturday. Arsenal sat deep and allowed Bentaleb and Mason plenty of time on the ball. The two midfielders looked excellent, Bentaleb providing the cross for Kane's winner, and Spurs controlled the game. Today the two looked extremely uncomfortable with the pressure they were being put under and struggled to move the ball forward to the front four. Both Mason and Bentaleb played poor back passes that nearly led to one v. one opportunities at the Spurs goal for Ibe and Sturridge. The difference in strategy between Arsenal and Liverpool could be attributable to the fact Arsenal were the away side Saturday and therefore more cautious, but it's difficult not to wonder if Arsenal couldn't have come away from that contest with something had they put the two rather green Spurs midfielders under more pressure.