With Saturday’s Champions League final on the horizon, here are three burning questions that will help determine whether Liverpool can put last season’s continental heartache behind them, or if Tottenham will hoist the European Cup at the first time of asking.
Is Harry Kane fully fit?
The elephant in the room.
The fitness of Tottenham talisman Harry Kane has been the predominant storyline heading into Saturday’s contest, and with good reason. Though Spurs have proven resourceful in using the likes of Fernando Llorente and, most notably, semifinal hero Lucas Moura to overcome the absence of their oft-injured captain, there’s no way to truly replace one of the best all-around forwards in world football.
Kane hasn’t played since April 9, when he suffered the latest in a long line of ankle ligament injuries against Manchester City. He’s declared himself “ready to go,” though Mauricio Pochettino has yet to confirm his availability from the opening whistle.
If Kane is fit – even if he’s not quite 100 percent – leaving him on the bench would be criminal. His scoring exploits are well-known, but, in a similar vein to the role Roberto Firmino plays for Liverpool, it’s his ever-improving impact as a facilitator that makes him irreplaceable.
Moura offers a different type of threat – the Brazilian is both quicker and a better one-on-one dribbler – but he can’t replicate Kane’s passing ability, which often sees the England international drop deep and instigate the attack rather than finish it off. Spurs have prospered plenty this season when Kane drags a center-back with him into the midfield hole before quickly whipping a ball around the corner for Heung-Min Son to rush onto.
He’s strong enough to withstand the physical contact of a burly defender, crafty enough to keep the counterattack humming with the right pass, and, if necessary, sly enough to time his run into the area and become an option inside the penalty area if the winger decides to cut the ball back.
If Tottenham’s going to have success, that tactic, which could prove doubly effective against the eagerness of Liverpool’s ultra-attacking full-backs, will be crucial. And only Kane makes it work.
The possibility that he aggravates his ailment and forces Spurs to burn a precious substitution looms large, but in this case, the reward outweighs the risk.
What system does Pochettino use?
Liverpool, barring an extraordinary departure from their tried-and-tested 4-3-3 formation – which will sometimes look like a 4-4-2 diamond when Firmino drops deep to operate in his customary false 9 role – aren’t going to offer the same level of tactical intrigue as their peers. There will be interesting wrinkles to their beloved system, as the Reds will need to balance their full-backs’ innate attacking nature with the need to protect themselves against Son prospering on the counterattack.
But Pochettino’s willingness to throw a curveball with his lineup – for better or worse – is the most fascinating element of Saturday’s clash in the Spanish capital; the Argentine has chopped and changed his setup frequently, often out of necessity, as injuries ravaged his squad.
With the closest thing he’s had to a full complement of players in months, the in-demand bench boss should have the luxury of picking a team that will allow Tottenham to impose their desired style instead of simply playing damage limitation and reacting to what Liverpool want to do.
In the first meeting between the two sides this season, back in September, Pochettino started Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele. The former has made just two appearances in the past month, and the latter is now plying his trade in China. Let’s forget about that one, shall we? Their most recent clash, a 2-1 victory for Liverpool in April, should offer a much better indication of what’s in store Saturday.
Pochettino opted for a three-man defense in the opening half but scrapped that approach at halftime after the defensively suspect Kieran Trippier was overrun in the opening stanza at Anfield. The right-back is a superb crosser of the ball, but his indecisiveness in his own end can be exploited; in trying to prevent Sadio Mane from getting behind him in space, he left acres of it for Andy Robertson, who duly set up a goal with a pinpoint cross.
Noticing that his full-backs had too much ground to cover on their own, Pochettino flipped to a 4-2-3-1 and saw his team finish the match well, only to be undone by an unfortunate own goal in the 90th minute. That setup, or a 4-4-2 diamond, gives Tottenham the best chance of pulling off the upset.
The benefits of rolling with a four-man backline are twofold.
It should, to some extent, help mitigate the extreme talent advantage Liverpool have in the wide areas – Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who combined for an obscene 23 assists in the Premier League this season, are simply better than their counterparts, Tripper and Danny Rose. Sheer talent skews the way of the Merseyside outfit in many areas of the pitch, frankly. Pochettino needs to get creative to combat that problem. Pushing Son right up alongside Kane in a 4-4-2 could also force Liverpool’s full-backs to be more cautious, as they’d be wary of leaving Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip alone in a two-on-two situation with little support.
Secondly, with so much play set to be funneled through the middle of the pitch, controlling that area is critical. Dropping a center-back gives you an extra body to use in midfield.
Who that body ends up being, exactly, is another question entirely.
Who will dictate tempo in midfield?
That Moussa Sissoko has developed into a vital contributor for Tottenham is one of the most surprising developments of the campaign. The Frenchman has gone from derided deadwood to the club’s player of the season.
The January sale of Dembele to China could’ve been a death knell for Tottenham. The elegant midfielder, who broke through overeager defensive lines with the suave of a salsa dancer and the poise of a bomb defuser, was for so long the primary release valve when Spurs faced an aggressive press.
Sissoko, remarkably, has assumed the bulk of that responsibility, using his robust, direct dribbling style to break the lines. He’s every bit as rambunctious as Dembele was smooth.
Asking him to do that consistently against Liverpool, though, is risky.
Liverpool’s press, while not as gung-ho as last season, has been successful in funneling the opposition through the middle, cutting off passing lanes to the full-backs and forcing the opposing center-backs to play the ball out to the midfielders instead. Mane and Mohamed Salah instigate this with their positioning – they’re mindful of their angles to ensure the pass out wide is cut off – and then the likes of a retreating Firmino, Georginio Wijnaldum, and whomever else is in midfield can pounce to win the ball back and quickly get the Reds on the attack against an unbalanced, out-of-synch backline.
The heavy-metal gegenpress that Klopp is so fond of may not be as prevalent this year, but that midfield press remains a stalwart of the Reds’ success. For a team that lacks a true midfield creator, that’s the great equalizer – Klopp famously believes that no playmaker is greater than a good counter-press.
And that brings us back around to Sissoko.
If he’s the only option to receive those passes from Alderweireld and Vertonghen, Liverpool will feast, regardless of whether it’s Jordan Henderson or James Milner starting alongside cult hero Wijnaldum and stalwart Fabinho.
In an ideal world, Pochettino would likely opt for blossoming Englishman Harry Winks, who’s working his way back from groin surgery. Calm and composed with the ball amid the midfield chaos, the 23-year-old would be the ideal partner for Sissoko. Victor Wanyama is a better tackler, but his sloppiness in possession outweighs his defensive contributions in this particular matchup.
Spurs need to progress the ball cleanly through midfield to have a chance, and playing both Wanyama and Sissoko, either as a double pivot or in a diamond, isn’t the path to success on that front.
Either Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli could also drop back into a deeper midfield role – both have done exactly that, to varying degrees of success – in Winks’ absence, but doing so would take one of Spurs’ primary attacking threats out of their most effective position.
Can you afford to do that against a Liverpool side that, for all its attacking firepower, is one of the stingiest defensive units in Europe this season? The Reds’ Expected Goals Against total (29.15) was third-best in Europe’s top-five leagues this year, behind only Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
So how, exactly, do you craft chances against the Van Dijk and his mates?
Just one more question that needs to be answered Saturday.