By Ewan Roberts
Tottenham and Liverpool have enjoyed/endured opposing fortunes in recent years, as Spurs have climbed the table, the Reds have stuttered. Since finishing eighth and second respectively in the 2008-09 season, the dynamic of the fabled “Big Four” has shifted, and the Merseysiders have not placed higher than sixth while the Londoners have appeared in a Champions League quarter-final and finished fourth twice.
Now both sides have dispensed of their old school, veteran managers and brought in thirty-something head coaches whose philosophies are more continental and whose management styles were shaped by their time spent under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.
But the make-up of the two sides could have been vastly different had Harry Redknapp been appointed England boss, or if John Henry and Fenway Sports Group had opted for Roberto Martinez instead of Brendan Rodgers. Having also tussled for the signatures of Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson over the summer, Wednesday’s clash poses numerous questions of what might have been for both sides.
The White Hart Lane faithful could have been chanting Rodgers’ name, with the Northern Irishman having been sounded out by the Tottenham hierarchy as a potential replacement for Redknapp, the then bookie’s favourite for the England job; during his pre-match press conference, Rodgers intimated that contact had been made with the north London club, but evaded follow-up questions.
There is a sense that Rodgers might have been a better fit for Spurs than Andre Villas-Boas has so far proven to be. Tottenham are counterattack heavy now, and have averaged just 48% possession this year, down 8.7% on last season, whereas Rodgers has upped Liverpool’s ball retention by 0.8% to 56.3%, the fourth best in the league.
Liverpool have played on average 121 more short passes per game (35%) than Tottenham, though that is in no small part due to summer signing Joe Allen; the Welshman has averaged 69.4 passes per game, whereas Spurs’ best midfield passer, Mousa Dembele, averages just 44.5.
While Rodgers got his man in the form of Allen, Villas-Boas was deprived of number one target Joao Moutinho and Spurs’ ball retention has suffered in the wake of Luka Modric’s departure. You suspect that Rodgers, so keen to give youth a chance (from Andre Wisdom to Raheem Sterling to Suso) would have given more responsibility to the 20-year-old Tom Carroll, who has attempted 69.5 passes per game in his rare but promising outings in the Europa League.
It is unlikely Rodgers would have faced the vitriol that has greeted Villas-Boas either. Despite an occasionally unflattering documentary, Rodgers enjoys considerably more favour with supporters at Anfield – and, if reports are to be believed, his players – than Villas-Boas does at White Hart Lane.
A more affable, approachable manager, Rodgers’ reputation was on the rise thanks to an encouraging first season in the Premier League with Swansea, whereas the Portuguese joined Spurs as a failure, a Chelsea cast-off. He shares similarities with Redknapp too, particularly in terms of man-management, and would have provided a more familiar link between the old and new regimes.
Rodgers’ popularity and the success of his philosophy so far has, however, been propped up by Luis Suarez – who Tottenham and Redknapp passed on two years ago – who has scored or assisted 70% of Liverpool’s goals this year. Liverpool lack a foil for Suarez, someone to share the goalscoring burden, and their dependence on the Uruguayan would have been reduced had they managed to sign Sigurdsson or Dempsey.
Sigurdsson has made 11 appearances in the league this year for Tottenham (the majority off the bench) and has yet to record a single goal or assist. The Icelandic midfielder has looked a shadow of the player who carried Rodgers’ Swansea in the second half of the season, scoring or assisting 10 goals in 17 starts after arriving from Hoffenheim on loan.
Qualifying as a home-grown player, the Reading product was an opportunistic purchase made before Villas-Boas had been appointed, and he seems ill at ease with the Portuguese’s style. Short on confidence, his lack of mobility and pace is at odds with Spurs’ quick transition set-up and the speed merchants around him.
While Sigurdsson may regret spurning the chance to link up with Rodgers again, Dempsey is beginning to find his feet in north London. The American made a slow start to his Tottenham career, not helped by a non-existent pre-season, but has shown promise since his winning goal at Old Trafford. He gave his best performance in a Lilywhite shirt against West Ham, assisting Gareth Bale with a clever, dinked pass and rattling the crossbar.
Dempsey has admitted that he is struggled to adapt to the new central role given to him by Villas-Boas, with most of his best work at Fulham coming off the left flank. Had he moved to Merseyside, Rodgers would likely have deployed him on the familiar left wing, where the Anfield boss has instead been forced to field full-back Jose Enrique.
The Texan scored 17 goals last season (a goal every 2.1 games) and would have supplemented and relieved Suarez. In turn, the Uruguayan would likely have been a more selfless, creative foil than Jermain Defoe.
In a curious series of three-way love triangles, Tottenham and Liverpool have been batting their eyelashes at, and battling over, the same player and staff targets – a symptom perhaps of the lack of affordable high-end quality available to sides without Champions League football. And on Wednesday, all parties may be tempted to compare shades of grass and revaluate whether the choice they made was the right or wrong one.
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