What a difference a year makes. When Liverpool arrived Wembley last season, they brought with them a back-five of Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez. At the weekend, Gomez will be the only player to start against Tottenham and, as such, the impression is of a visiting side built on something sturdier than sand.
Virgil van Dijk has been integral to the creation of the stability, but perhaps – as far as perceptions go – nothing has been more important than the addition of Alisson Becker.
Without question, Spurs’ view of Liverpool influenced their approach in 2017-18 – across both of the games they played. As formidable as Jurgen Klopp’s forward line was, even before it caught fire for real later in the season, there was an assumption that his defence would always give an opponent a chance. Not just because they were liable to make mistakes, but because the anxiety which lingered within it gave great encouragement to opponents. Games Liverpool were leading were never over.
Teams knew, for instance, that if they conceded a goal and fell behind, that there was always a chance that a channel between full-back and centre-half could be exploited or that someone would miss a marking assignment at a corner later in the game and, intangible defect though that was, it was a source of constant rejuvenation. Particularly if the team in question was stocked with players like Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung Min.
Think back to the 4-1 game at Wembley last season. When Mohamed Salah pulled a goal back to make it 2-1, Tottenham suddenly started to buckle. Salah would be denied by Hugo Lloris again just minutes later and, really, the teams should have returned to the dressing-room at half-time with just a goal between them. But they didn’t – and primarily because Spurs knew that the best approach in that situation was not to drop into a holding formation and settle for that slender lead, as they might have done against Chelsea or Manchester City, but to be aggressive in pursuing opportunities which would inevitably fall their way.
And they did: Emre Can fouled Dele Alli in first-half stoppage-time, Matip botched the clearing header from the resulting free-kick, and Alli then followed up to volley in the game’s fourth goal – and, really, to end the match as a contest.
It would be easy to interpret that as misfortune but, in hindsight, it doesn’t seem like a goal Liverpool would concede with their current side. Not because the players who have replaced those who were culpable are less likely to make errors, although they are, but because Spurs would have had an entirely different emphasis in that situation.
Previously, nobody respected Liverpool’s defence. Correctly, because it could never be relied upon and, more often than not, it would end the week as a punditry topic on Match Of The Day. Now though, opposing sides see the calm. It’s not an easy point to make after his mishap against Leicester, but much of that comes from Alisson – he’s more stable, he doesn’t provoke the same fear in the defenders in front of him, and that reflects not just in only one goal having been conceded in four games, but also the manner in which Liverpool retreat behind the ball too. Now, any team who found themselves in Tottenham’s position – having a two-goal lead halved against the run of play – would worry more conceding again than they would restoring their advantage.
That’s attributable to the group, of course. Van Dijk is a tremendous player, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold both offer improvements at full-back, and Gomez is a much more natural centre-half. But Alisson is the core of the unit; he’s the one who settles the collective pulse and creates the conditions for calm.
The difference that breeds can be subtle, but it is important. One of the advantages of having a strong defence is that, over time, its success becomes almost self-fulfilling. The meaner they are, the more pressure that tends to exert on an opponent and the greater the focus becomes on the inaccuracies within their game.
That’s a tremendous asset to have in marquee fixtures against direct rivals and, Spurs being in such lukewarm form, it should be the difference between the two sides this time around.