What’s not to love about defending

Ahmed Walid
8 min readMay 9, 2022

“I’m sorry, I’m the wrong person for that. I don’t like this kind of football.”

Jurgen Klopp was pretty clear after dropping two points at home to Tottenham Hotspur when Charlie Eccleshare asked him if he was impressed with the way Spurs defended.

Klopp’s preference for another way of defending in terms of the high line, pressing and counter-pressing is his personal taste, and each to his own. But on the night, that “kind of football” managed to limit Liverpool’s “monster” as Antonio Conte called Klopp’s team — in a good way — after the game.

According to FBref.com, Liverpool recorded their lowest non-penalty xG per shot in the Premier League this season (0.06). Nearly half their average non-penalty xG per shot (0.12).

via Daniel Katona

Liverpool’s threat mainly came from set pieces and counter-pressing situations, but from open play possession situations they faced a well drilled Spurs team which limited the quality of Liverpool’s shots.

Conte’s side didn’t just sit back in their 5–4–1 and waited for Liverpool to attack, they closed down Liverpool’s passing options and forced Klopp’s side into undesirable passes. Passes that ensure Liverpool still have the ball, but without any threat.

To do so, Spurs needed to be dynamic in their defending. Knowing when to push, when to drop and when to switch markers. This started with Harry Kane who, when Tottenham weren’t pressing high up the pitch, dropped onto Fabinho to block any passes into the Brazilian defender….

….making sure that when Liverpool needed to progress they had to go wider or backwards instead of playing it into Fabinho to connect the Liverpool structure.

In the line behind Kane was Dejan Kulusevski, who has been a shining light since his arrival in January. The Swedish had two main roles out of possession. The first was that when Liverpool had the ball on their right side, he would tuck inside to mark Thiago Alcantara to prevent Liverpool, namely Trent Alexander-Arnold, from fizzing a quick pass to switch the play.

Here’s an example, with the ball at Alexander-Arnold’s feet, Kulusevski’s making sure he’s inside the pitch rather than wide. This frees Rodrigo Bentancur to mark the dropping Sadio Mane….

….which forces Alexander-Arnold to go down the line to the marked Salah. Ryan Sessegnon is there, and forces Liverpool into a throw-in to reset their attack. Had Salah managed to square the ball here to Fabinho or Thiago, the positioning of Kulusevski and accordingly Bentancur puts them in a place to close down Liverpool’s attack.

The other role was to support Emerson Royal against Luis Diaz, even if Andy Robertson didn’t advance. This benefited Tottenham in two ways. First, Emerson isn’t left alone in a 1 v 1 against Diaz and secondly, Cristian Romero maintains his position in the box without needing to move out to support Emerson.

Before we dive into the roles of Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, it’s important to note Eric Dier’s awareness of Mane’s positioning. At times when the Spurs midfield duo were busy with other tasks, Dier would move out to deny Mane any form of linking up in-between the lines….

….or on the few times Spurs decided to press high up the pitch.

Tottenham’s midfield duo were the main obstacle against Liverpool’s ball progression. Their job was to deny passes inside the Spurs block especially those from Alexander-Arnold on the right and Thiago on the left. The idea was that when Alexander-Arnold had the ball, the one on the left from Bentancur and Hojbjerg — Bentancur here — would move up to press while the other sits centrally to track Mane with the help of Dier…..

……and once Liverpool circulated the ball to the other side, the one which was tracking Mane — Hojbjerg here — moves up to press Thiago, while the other (Bentancur) drops to get closer to Mane. You can see here Dier pointing out to Bentancur to pick up Mane.

An example here further illustrates the operation. As Robertson is preparing to pass the ball into Thiago, Bentancur moves up to press the midfielder. And Hojbjerg who wasn’t that close to Mane….

……moves closer to the Senegalese…..

…..this forces Thiago to circulate the ball to the other side. Alexander-Arnold then spots a tight passing lane to find Mane, but Bentancur is already on his way back…..

…..and the presence of Dier forces Mane into an abysmal pass towards Salah after which Tottenham regain possession.

The Tottenham back five were also alert to the different movements of Liverpool’s forward line. Whenever Mane tried to drop into the right half space, Ben Davies was ready to go towards him in case the pass was played. You can see here Dier pointing out towards Mane because he’s occupying another zone that another defender should cover.

Another example here where Mane is dropping into the right half space to receive the ball behind Hojbjerg and Bentancur….

…..sees Davies breathing down his neck, and Dier is the one picking up Jordan Henderson’s run in the central lane. Here, Mane loses the ball because of the pressure from Davies and Hojbjerg collects it.

Here’s also another example of how smart the switching of markers was from Spurs’ back line. When Diaz made a move inside the pitch…..

…..he was initially picked up by Davies, but that could have caused Spurs a major issue because it meant that Sessegnon would be in a 2 vs 1 situation against Salah and Henderson with the diagonal from Thiago on. So, Dier pointed to Davies that he will pick up Diaz….

…..leaving Davies to mark Salah, which meant that Sessegnon was free to move out towards Henderson when Thiago played the diagonal pass. The pressure from Sessegnon meant that eventually the ball was cleared into a corner, it could have been worse if not for Dier deciding to pick up Diaz.

All of these defensive parts worked together as seen here. In this sequence of play the ball starts with Ibrahima Konate. Kulusevski is moving inside to pick up Thiago, and Bentancur is adjusting his positioning to prevent Mane from receiving comfortably in between the lines. Behind Mane, Dier is ready to pounce in case the ball was played into the Liverpool forward….

…..Konate then moves the ball wide towards Alexander-Arnold, so Hojbjerg leaves Henderson and makes sure he’s blocking the passing lane into Mane. Meanwhile, Dier and Kulusevski are maintaining their same stances.

Liverpool then go all the way back to Van Dijk, who passes the ball to Thiago, who plays it to Roberston before the left back plays it back to Thiago. As the last pass is being played, Bentancur rushes out towards Thiago while Kane drops onto Fabinho and Hojbjerg moves closer to Mane. Now that Thiago’s progressive options are out, he goes back to Konate….

…..and when the ball reaches Alexander-Arnold, the same conundrum is there. Hojbjerg moves out to press Alexander-Arnold, Kane is blocking the passing lane into Fabinho and Bentancur is doing the same for Mane. Eventually after many passes the ball moves out to a Tottenham goal-kick — albeit it being cleared by Davies.

A second sequence to show is from the second half. By now you know the drill, Bentancur is moving out to press Alexander-Arnold with Dier ready to move out towards Mane….

….this forces Alexander-Arnold to play it to Henderson, who can only go backwards again to Alexander-Arnold….

……and with Fabinho taken out by Kane’s positioning and Kulusevski marking Thiago, the only way is backwards….

….towards Van Dijk, who passes the ball to Thiago. When that happens, Hojbjerg moves up to press Thiago as Kane maintains his position and Bentancur shifts across to mark Mane. Thiago, without a clear progressive option, overhits his pass into Robertson for a Tottenham throw-in.

In the second half with Liverpool playing an aggressive 2–3–5 in possession, that only became more aggressive with Klopp’s substitutions, Tottenham retreated deeper into the penalty area. However, their heroic box defending meant that Liverpool still couldn’t create a big chance from open play.

Liverpool’s equalizer came from a possession of the ball after a counter-pressing situation. Salah’s chance in the 72nd minute, which Davies blocked, was a result of Thiago and Diogo Jota counter-pressing Hojbjerg and Heung-min Son in the center of the pitch. From this attack Liverpool sustained possession to score their only goal in the game.

Tottenham’s defensive performance when in their block was impeccable. And that earned them a deserved draw at Anfield, that on another day could have been more than just one point.

Klopp certainly didn’t like the way Conte’s team defended, but for others beauty lies within making opponents helpless as they try breaking down the walls of the defence.