Pitchside Europe

Battle of the midfields should prove decisive in Tottenham v Liverpool


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Tottenham's Nacer Chadli and Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho during a Premier League match on December 15 2013

Tottenham's Nacer Chadli and Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho during a Premier League match on December 15 2013

Tottenham sit top of the table and, while their performance against QPR last time out was one of real quality, this is undoubtedly the biggest test yet of their new approach under Mauricio Pochettino.

It should also be remembered that they could be considered fortunate to have come out of their opening day meeting with West Ham with three points courtesy of a last-gasp Eric Dier winner.

It's an intriguing matchup and one the hosts on Sunday will be desperate to come out on top of, in vengeance for the 9-0 aggregate drubbing at the hands of the Reds last season, with the initial 5-0 loss at White Hart Lane ultimately costing Andre Villas-Boas his job.

Liverpool were dominant in both encounters, holding 57% of possession away and 59% in the clash at Anfield, and clearly came out on top in the midfield battle. It's an area in which Spurs are inundated with talent but it's perhaps been a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Neither Villas-Boas or successor Tim Sherwood were able to settle on a partnership in the middle ground.

In fact, excluding players in attacking midfield/'number 10' roles, Tottenham used as many as 17 different central midfield combinations in the league last season. Inconsistent selections led to inconsistent results. Spurs' longest unbeaten streak of 6 matches was bettered by both United and Pochettino's Southampton, and they only won more than two back-to-back league games on one occasion.

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Whoscored.com compares Spurs midfielder Etienne Capoue with Liverpool's Jordan Henderson

Whoscored.com compares Spurs midfielder Etienne Capoue with Liverpool's Jordan Henderson

Liverpool, by comparison, embarked on an unbeaten streak of 16 league games, encompassing a remarkable 11 consecutive wins. Brendan Rodgers' midfield was far easier to predict. Between them, for example, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson only failed to start 8 league matches.

For the first two matches of the current campaign Pochettino has fielded Nabil Bentaleb and Etienne Capoue in the holding midfield roles - ironically one of the only combinations that didn't start alongside one another last season. Their selection is due in part to the fact that both Mousa Dembele and Paulinho have had less playing time in pre-season down to their respective nations' World Cup progression, but it's also evident that the Argentine has looked to a strong base from which to build.

All too often positioning was a real concern for Spurs last season, with Dembele, Paulinho and even Sandro prone to roaming from their deep central post. Capoue and Bentaleb are perhaps the two midfielders at Pochettino's disposal that are most disciplined from a positional sense. It isn't dissimilar to the base of Morgan Schneiderlin and either Vincent Wanyama or Jack Cork at Southampton.

In turn Tottenham have averaged more tackles per game this season (21.5), with only four sides making more in the first two fixtures. The manager’s high pressing approach has already been adopted, with no side winning possession in the attacking third more times this season (9).

With more steel in the midfield it should be a tougher task for Liverpool to break Spurs down this time. It will be a worry, then, that arguably their most inventive player, Philippe Coutinho, has been below par thus far, despite an excellent pre-season campaign. Of the nine Liverpool players to start both matches thus far only Glen Johnson has picked up a lower rating from WhoScored.com (6.33).

The visitors should perhaps look more to Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, who have started the campaign in stronger form and posed Tottenham real problems in both encounters last season. Sterling has created the most chances for the Reds thus far (4), just ahead of Henderson (3), who scored in both matches against Spurs last season.

With less time on the ball for Brendan Rodgers' side, this should be a far more competitive affair than either of the two side's meetings last season. It's certainly early days for Pochettino but his philosophy is likely to ensure it's not a comfortable afternoon in the middle of the park for the Merseysiders on Sunday.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.

By Martin Laurence - on Twitter @martinlaurence7

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