Pride of place in the television schedule for Sunday has been given to Tottenham Hotspur against Liverpool. The astute viewer will know not to miss the opening minutes, when the away team are 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 an impression they are under strict instructions to spend most of the first hour of matches in a cautious wait-and-see posture, saving their proactive football for later.
Their victory at Olympique Marseille would be seized in stoppage time thanks to a Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg goal after Clement Lenglet had cancelled out Marseille’s half-time lead.
“We need to try and play all the 90 minutes at the same level,” admitted Cristian Stellini, the assistant coach who was the night’s acting manager, with Antonio Conte serving a touchline ban.
Over at Anfield, Conte and Stellini’s compatriot, the Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti made a telling observation about the late-game stamina of another English club.
Liverpool had inflicted a first defeat of the season on Spalletti’s dazzlers thanks to Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez’s 85th and 98th-minute strikes, making some amends for the 4-1 defeat at Napoli on match day one.
Although the victory was not enough to knock Napoli off top place, it is a feather in Liverpool’s cap. “If you look at the last 10 minutes, it was almost as if my players felt we had reached the objective [Liverpool needed to win by a four-goal margin to leapfrog Napoli in the table],” reckoned Spalletti. “Our level dropped a bit. Maybe that’s an aspect of this team’s character. Liverpool always play flat-out – that’s part of their character.”
It was meant as praise for Jurgen Klopp, his counterpart, and for a Liverpool who chased four trophies right up to the finish line in their remarkable, 63-match 2021/22 campaign. But they now sit ninth in the Premier League partly because they have been so sluggish in reaching the upper gears.
Liverpool 2 Napoli 0: player ratings
When a weakness like that becomes so signposted, opponents devote themselves to plotting an early ambush. Will Tottenham? The negative view of Spurs as they mark the first anniversary of Conte as manager is that they are like a diffident teenager who needs to be coaxed down to the breakfast table in the hope he might start expressing himself by lunchtime.
Tuesday in Marseille presented a familiar opening 45 minutes, especially in European contests: a Tottenham concerned chiefly with maintaining their defensive shape, conceding possession, a back five with three retreated midfield players deep in their own half.
Granted, the mathematics of Group D meant an impeccable defensive performance at Marseille would be enough, with Spurs needing a point to progress. When Marseille scored from a set-piece, the plan misfired.
Tottenham allowed their hosts, a team occupying fifth place in France’s Ligue 1, enough sights of goal that the Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was named man of the match.
And for the third time in six days, Lloris, the Spurs captain found himself in a half-time team-talk where a rousing readjustment was required. They have had to recover from losing first halves against Sporting Lisbon, when they came back to draw; against Bournemouth, when they won from 2-0 down; and against Marseille.
Marseille 1 Spurs 2: player ratings
Conte would like to see fewer first-half errors, but will not apologise for a formula of containment and counter-attack. It has served him well through a stellar career as a club manager, at least in domestic leagues.
“Sometimes it is normal to give the possibility to the opponent to play,” explained Stellini, his deputy, “and to use the energy you have in the second half. It can be a strategy.”
With the fixture schedule so condensed, some pragmatic time-management within games is inevitable. Energy needs to be preserved. Both Klopp and Conte have had to balance stamina levels with diminished options of smooth squad rotation.
Tottenham’s indifferent October, after they had dropped only four points in an unbeaten seven-match start to the Premier League campaign, coincided with the absence through injury of Dejan Kulusevski and, later, Richarlison. Son Heung-min, taken off in the first half in Marseille with a head injury, underwent surgery Wednesday to stabilise a fracture around his left eye and is unlikely to feature.
Liverpool likewise have 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 Liverpool, the side capable of winning against high-flying Napoli and Manchester City and yet losing to Nottingham Forest and Leeds United, will be in the top half of the Premier League.