Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool: Villas-Boas’ return to a high line results in him losing his job

December 16, 2013

The starting line-ups

Liverpool were completely dominant throughout the 90 minutes in a staggeringly one-sided game.

Andre Villas-Boas selected a team very similar to the XI that drew with Manchester United recently, although injury problems at the back forced him to play Etienne Capoue out of position at centre-back, and Kyle Naughton at left-back.

Brendan Rodgers named his expected side, with Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge out injured.

Liverpool ripped Spurs apart with impressive efficiency, but it was amazingly easy for them to penetrate the Spurs defence.


Villas-Boas picked a 4-2-3-1 and Rodgers a 4-3-3 – both managers often ’tilt’ their midfield triangle, and so it was possible the formations could have been the other way around.

This meant the triangles were matched. Lucas Leiva sat deep close to Paulinho, who was again in the advanced role, with Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson higher up, pressing Mousa Dembele and Sandro. Liverpool dominated possession at the start of the game, both because their retention was better and because they won the ball quicker, too.

Both Allen and Henderson won tackles high up the pitch.

The first player to make a mark on the game was Raheem Sterling. Fielded on the right, he was constantly attacking Naughton one-against-one, and clearly dominating the clash. Later in the game, Villas-Boas asked Dembele to drift over to that side and assist the left-back – and later he brought on youngster Ezekial Fryer instead of Naughton, such were his struggles.

Spurs centre-back combination

Villas-Boas has massive injury problems, and this clearly isn’t his preferred combination at the back. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the struggles Capoue and Dawson had throughout this game – they simply had no understanding together. Neither was ever in a covering position for the other, there was a misunderstanding about when to step up for offside, and both were dragged into wider roles by the excellent runs of Luis Suarez.

Both made individual mistakes, too – Capoue looked nervous from the opening moments when he needlessly headed a long ball from in front of Hugo Lloris, handing Liverpool a goalscoring chance, while Dawson collected an early booking for a cynical tackle and spent the rest of the game avoiding tackles. His lack of pace remains a problem, too.

Spurs too high up the pitch

The main problem was obvious, though – Spurs were too high up the pitch without significant pressure on the ball. It was the defining feature of the game and the main reason Liverpool created chances so easily.

This has consistently been a real problem for Villas-Boas in England. His Chelsea back four couldn’t deal with the high defensive line and therefore was vulnerable to pace – most obviously in the 5-3 defeat to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

More important, it’s been a problem within the last month for Villas-Boas and Spurs, with the 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City. The centre-backs were left completely exposed because of the lack of protection from midfield, and City repeatedly found space both in front of, and behind the defence.

That’s why Villas-Boas completely changed his strategy for the home game against Manchester United the following week – Spurs sat much deeper, there was a flat four-man midfield protecting the defence keenly, and Spurs invited pressure but concentrated upon preventing space in the final third. United scored twice, but overall Spurs looked much more secure.

The similarity to the starting XI from that day suggested Villas-Boas wanted something similar, which is logical against Suarez – the world’s best striker at working the channels and making runs in behind. Especially, of course, with such an unfamiliar centre-back combination.

Instead, Spurs were high up the pitch, and they pressed extremely poorly. The route to goal for Liverpool was absolutely obvious – through-balls in behind for Suarez’s runs. Some of these passes were clever, although Coutinho wasn’t the force you’d expect considering the nature of the contest.

However, even a giant clearance from Martin Skrtel caused problems, with Lloris making a mistake when sweeping and allowing Suarez a chance out of nothing.

Liverpool’s task couldn’t have been simpler, and while they ruthlessly exposed Spurs’ weakness, their main attacking weapon, Suarez, simply played his natural game. There was no need for Rodgers alter the usual approach or ask the Premier League’s top goalscorer to perform a different role – he just made his standard runs, which were perfect in the situation. That sums up how bizarre Villas-Boas’ approach was.


The major tactical feature of Liverpool’s game, however, was the role of Henderson. Although he was playing as a left-sided central midfielder in a three, rather than as a number ten, he constantly made runs in behind the Spurs defence (of course, their high positioning meant he didn’t have to run particularly far before breaking in behind).

But it was a significant feature of the game, and Rodgers acknowledged after the match that he’d specifically asked Henderson to make these runs, knowing that Spurs are vulnerable to them. Henderson is a peculiar player, difficult to categorise or compare to a similar midfielder, but his best performances often seem to come in big games, against strong opponents, when handed a specific task. He was excellent away at Arsenal last year in an advanced role, for example, helping to start the pressure. He’s not necessarily the type of player you’d want as the most advanced player when trying to break down a packed defence, but his energy and directness was crucial here.

Crucially, however, he wasn’t just a headless chicken. He timed his runs effectively, and spent equally as long in deep midfield positions, retaining the ball carefully.

Still, he made runs in behind the defence for Liverpool’s first three goals.

Spurs midfield problems

Spurs’ midfield became gradually weakened as the game went on. First Sandro had to depart through injury – he had been the deepest midfielder. Lewis Holtby came on to play at the top of the triangle, with Paulinho moving deeper, but this made Tottenham more open.

Then, after an hour, Villas-Boas introduced Andros Townsend, a winger, in place of Mousa Dembele. Nacer Chadli moved higher up with Townsend left, but this meant Holtby and Paulinho were the midfield two, against three Liverpool midfielders who seemed likely to simply play around them, further taking advantage of the lack of compactness from the home side.

But Paulinho’s red card made the problem even worse – now Spurs had to play 4-4-1 with Chadli as a makeshift central midfielder alongside Holtby. Spurs’ entire three-man midfield didn’t finish the game – one injured, one substituted, one dismissed.

Further goals were guaranteed, and Liverpool actually had a 15-minute period where they kept playing the wrong pass, and failing to break through on goal. With enough practice they eventually got it right, and added three goals against ten men. Amazingly, they weren’t even particularly clinical in front of goal – the margin of victory could have been even greater.


Villas-Boas enjoyed great success with a high line at Porto - although even there, the high defensive line seemed very risky at times. It’s the defining feature of his coaching style, and while it’s not a flawed tactic in itself, Villas-Boas repeatedly used it in situations where it didn’t suit his own players, and played into the hands of the opposition. That, put simply, is the opposite of the point of tactics…

The damning aspect isn’t the scoreline itself, or even the fact this was so similar to the City defeat. It’s that Villas-Boas he appeared to have learned his lesson from the City game, and changed his strategy accordingly…and then reverted to the high line against the Premier League’s most prolific striker, who loves running in behind defences. Sometimes bad results are unfortunate – you can lose 5-0 if a couple of players have an off-day, or if opponents are particularly clinical with their shooting. But when Villas-Boas’ sides get thrashed, the strategy always plays a huge part, and it’s generally the same issue.

Liverpool were facing a side that played perfectly into their hands, but they carried out the obvious task extremely impressively. The role of Henderson was the main talking point – he helped penetrate the opposition defence frequently, causing problems for the opposition centre-backs and meaning they couldn’t focus solely on Suarez.

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