Wild draw shows how Conte’s Spurs can derail Liverpool quadruple hopes | Barney Ronay

It was the worst of times. And it was also the worst of times. It is easy – and also probably best – to forget the most recent spike of Premier League Covid chaos, a febrile few weeks of Omicron-mayhem either side of Christmas that has now dissolved into just another note in the mildly hallucinogenic flipchart of crises and collapses that comprises the last two and a half years.

Scroll back five months and those dark December weeks were deeply unsettled.

There were whispers of another cancelled Christmas, of surges and spikes and circuit-breaker lockdowns. And of course in the middle of all this football kept trying to happen.

Seventeen Premier League games were postponed between mid-December and New Year’s Day. The 20 Premier League managers met to discuss a “firebreak” in the Premier League. Antonio Conte used a set of mannequins to make up the numbers in Spurs training, with no obvious falling away on the standards set during the Nuno Espírito Santo era. Jürgen Klopp began to talk about clubs not signing vaccine refuseniks as Covid blanked players’ names out of the squad lists.

And in the middle of all this Tottenham Hotspur hosted Liverpool on a dark, slightly crazed Sunday afternoon, with a feeling of mix and match teams, players picked out of a hat, tactics improvised on the hoof, and everyone just glad still to be out there moving around before the world closed in again.

As Spurs travel to Anfield on Saturday night for a game that could provide a decisive edge in the closing spasms of both the Premier League title race and the Battle For Fourth Place, there are two things worth remembering about that December fixture.

First, it was a stone-cold forgotten classic, a ragged startlingly carefree game of football, and the most outrageously loose and wild Premier League game of the season. Neither team had been able to train properly. Klopp seemed to be taking daily Covid hits to his stricken squad. Conte had been around for only seven games anyway. Both teams might have scored eight but ended up with two. Andy Robertson was sent off. Harry Kane should have been. The whole game was a constant whirl of frantic, skittering movement.

Antonio Conte (left) will visit Anfield as his Spurs side take on Jürgen Klopp’s men on Saturday night – Spurs took points off Liverpool in the reverse fixture and have beaten Manchester City twice this season.
Antonio Conte (left) will visit Anfield as his Spurs side take on Jürgen Klopp’s men on Saturday night – Spurs took points off Liverpool in the reverse fixture and have beaten Manchester City twice this season. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

At the end Klopp came on to the pitch and told Paul Tierney: “I have no problems with any referees, only you; you have never played football.” And somehow five months on, in a league that has resumed its orderly state, its fine-point details, that unbound 2–2 draw could end up having a decisive effect on the season’s final standings.

Liverpool had come into that game on a run of eight wins. They left the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium having entered their one real wobble of the season. A draw with Chelsea and defeat at Leicester followed, seven points dropped in two weeks. By the middle of January Liverpool were 11 points behind Manchester City. Thirteen league wins in 14 games since then – the other a 2-2 draw at City – have transformed that two-hander at the top into the more familiar shared neurosis of tiny details, pegged out around constant high-wire weekly victories. In a title race with no air and no space those dropped points in the time of Covid look crucial.

Fittingly Saturday’s return, another slightly ominous looking night game, also has an epic feel. For Liverpool this is surely the toughest remaining league fixture. Win this one and the run-in looks doable. But they will face opponents whose own season is still entirely in the balance, and whose progress to this point has in many ways revolved around that first game in December.

Diogo Jota scored Liverpool’s first goal in the December meeting but the draw in that game was followed by more dropped points, against Leicester and Chelsea.
Diogo Jota scored Liverpool’s first goal in the December meeting but the draw in that game was followed by more dropped points, against Leicester and Chelsea. Photograph: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

It was Conte’s fifth league game in charge, and the first real sign of substance, of wheels starting to move behind the scowling, the barking, the performative energy. Looking back there was even a tactical element to the chaos.

Spurs played a deep, flat back five that day, and channeled their attacking transitions through long diagonal passes beyond Liverpool’s high defensive line, another bespoke Conte tactic. The results highlighted some obvious strengths. Kane had one league goal and one assist in 13 games to that point. He has 12 goals and seven assists in 20 since. Son Heung-min, who was Spurs’ best player in December, has been in revelatory form since, and is now only three goals behind Mo Salah for the season.

Liverpool are too good, too efficient, too hot right now to approach a league game at Anfield in anything other than blitzkrieg mode. Klopp is unlikely to alter his tactics, beyond applying greater pressure to the Spurs midfield and cutting off the supply into those spaces. There is a sense that their peak levels, the constant physical pressure, the rotations of the forward players will eventually overwhelm any opponent.

But the fact is Spurs have the weapons and the attacking patterns to find space behind the Liverpool full-backs. This is how they beat Manchester City in February. Kane’s ability to find passes into space for runners behind the defence is an ideal weapon against teams that condense the backline and midfield into a zone of control around halfway. They have the capacity to score at Anfield. There have been clean sheets, too, for Conte’s team on the current mini-run.

If this sounds like a rather hopeful prognosis for a team that lost the seven games against Liverpool before December’s meeting, then Spurs can reflect that they have been significant opponents in other ways in recent times.

Klopp’s first game in English football was a furious 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane against an early Mauricio Pochettino vintage. The 4-1 defeat at Wembley in October 2017 was a kind of flick of the switch on the full-blown Klopp era.

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Spurs had finished second, 10 points ahead of Liverpool the season before.

Virgil van Dijk arrived three months later. Salah ended the season on a wild scoring run. And those positions have been decisively reversed ever since, Klopp’s Liverpool entering their imperial phase.

They have a quadruple in their sights now. Jordan Henderson and Joël Matip are both likely to return to a full-strength team. There is a sense of irresistible momentum around this team right now, of destiny, fate, willpower and all the other things that seemed to spook Manchester City in midweek. One thing does seem certain. It’s quite likely to be wild again.