This is a Premier League showdown between two Premier League teams who look to overthrow Manchester City. The showdown between Tottenham and Liverpool is this weekend’s marquee matchup. Normally, the focus of a game of this magnitude will be on the goal scoring of either side. Liverpool has one of the most deadly and entertaining lineups with Mohammed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane leading the charge for the Reds. The Spurs are led by Harry Kane who is one of the best strikers in England and has been the face of a North London side that has been on the rise for the past few years. They also possess the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, an inform Lucas Moura and a returning Son Heung-Min. But the focus is not on them. The cameras are not pointed at Mauricio Pochettino or Jurgen Klopp who both are amongst the Premier League’s most intelligent managers. This clash is a showdown between the fullbacks.
For years, the fullback position has been overlooked as managers and teams chose to invest in other positions. And rightly so; by definition, they have a role that has never required a player with the requisite talent to truly have an impact on a game. Center backs have often been used as fullbacks. Wingers have also filled in for that position. As defenders, fullbacks have the least amount of defensive responsivity as they defend the one area of the pitch that has historically contributed to the least amount of goals. And when they are on the other end of the pitch, they have traditionally made minimal contributions to their teams' attacks. The fullback position has seen a greater importance in the Premier League over the past decade. With inverted wingers becoming the norm, fullbacks have free reign on the flanks where they are tasked with deploying dangerous balls into the box. But still, they were overlooked for other players. Pep Guardiola changed all of this during the summer of 2017. Manchester City splashed out nearly £120 million on Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, and Danilo. Mendy was the most expensive signing of the trio and missed all but the first six games of last season as the Citizens torn apart the Premier League. Walker and Danilo had pivotal roles in City’s success last season and Mendy is virtually a new signing for Pep as he looks to repeat as champions.
Mendy was replaced in the left back position by Danilo and a resurgent Fabian Delph who transformed himself from a mediocre midfielder to a class fullback. City shattered a number of Premier League records en route to their third league title in seven years. It is easy to assume that just anyone can fill in at the fullback position. I mean, if Fabian Delph can do it, it must be the easiest job in the park. Wrong. Left backs, in particular, have become prized players of the past few seasons and are direct contributors to an increasing number of goals. Mendy has featured in each and every minute of City’s title defense so far. The only other player to do the same is Jose Holebas, another fullback who currently plays for the Hornets.
According to Duncan Alexander of Opta Sports in his piece for the BBC, Benjamin Mendy has created more crosses from open play than any other player in England. The other leaders in this field are fellow fullbacks. This is indicative of how player and managers have created more space on the pitch. Wingers now tend to occupy spaces in a more central role to create more direct chances leaving the flanks for fullbacks to exploit. Andy Robertson has been a revelation under Klopp after he joined the Reds from a relegation bound Hull City side. The move was questioned and came under much scrutiny as the new Scotland captain was yet to prove himself in the top echelon of the game. In the four games of the season, he has created more chances than Ozil and Pogba combined according to Alexander. Both midfielders are amidst the most gifted players in the Premier League though they have both been underwhelming in the past month. Alexander was keen to point out that defenders have assisted on 37% of goals scored so far after creating just over 20% of them last season. While this number may regress to the mean as the season progresses, it reveals that we are at the precipice of seeing football becoming a fullback’s game. The eye test alone shows that more and more crosses are being whipped into the box. This is something that is unlikely to change as the two sides face off.
Liverpool and Tottenham play some of the most entertaining football in England and in Europe. Both sides are known for their high presses that lead to stellar counterattacking football. The likes of Salah and Mane are notorious for their blistering dribbles into the final third. They have both finished in the top four in the past two league seasons and look to use this as a foundation for greater success. Pochettino and Klopp employ aggressive center back pairings with backlines that are full of energy. Their respective midfields are overrun with creative players with many more who wait on the bench. And, both teams love to probe opposition defenders and play in between the lines. Last season’s fixtures saw nine goals scored in some thrilling games with plenty more expected today. It is the must-see game of the weekend.
Neither side likes to have the ball in their own third as to not concede turnovers that could result in them giving up goals. Both pairs of fullbacks will play decisive roles and will ultimately decide the outcomes of the game. Tottenham have been more defensively towards the end of last season and the beginning of this one (with the sole exception being their 3-0 win at Old Trafford). Spurs have conceded an unprecedented amount of goals in this stretch. The fault primarily lies in one of England’s World Cup heroes, Kieran Trippier. He has become an essential part of this Tottenham outfit since the beginning of the calendar year. There were plenty of concerns about who would fill the shoes of Kyle Walker after the now 28-year-old made a blockbuster move to Manchester City. While Trippier has made plenty of contributions for the Spurs in the final third, a number of key passes and crosses that result in Tottenham conceding goals come from the flank that Trippier is tasked with defending. Sadio Mane and Liverpool’s left-back – Andy Robertson – will look to exploit the massive hole left by Trippier when he bombs forward. Mane is currently tied with Aleksandar Mitrovic atop the goal-scoring leaderboard with four goals. And when Mane cuts into the middle, the Scotland captain will overlap him on the flanks. If we are to take away anything from the first four games of the season, it is that Robertson will make the most of Trippier’s “absence” and feast on Tottenham’s biggest hole.
Of course, we cannot discount Trippier’s impact on the final third. He was a revelation for the Three Lions as they had a dream run to their first semi-final since the 1990 World Cup. He led England in chances created per 90 minutes. He swapped the All-White for the colors of Tottenham Hotspur and he is trending to do the same for his club side. Some of that comes from set pieces as the Bury native is now the designated corner-kick taker for both club and country. He has also shown that his more than a handy option from direct free-kicks with the best example of this coming in the semi-finals against Croatia. The battle between Trippier and Robertson will be one to watch. They cost a combined £12 million and will likely decide the outcome of a match between two of the top ten clubs in club football. Trent Alexander-Arnold has been a shadow of himself in his first four games this season and Ben Davies has played a lot more like a traditional fullback though he will eventually be among Tottenham’s leaders in assists. All four full-backs will start for this fixture and whichever pair is the most effective will be the x-factor that decides the game.
After a shocking loss to Watford before the international break, Tottenham will look to bounce back at Wembley which they will probably call home for the rest of the season. Liverpool is at the top of the table and looks to continue their run as they seek to dethrone Manchester City. The next 30 days will pose a ridiculous challenge for the Reds as they play PSG, Napoli, Manchester City and face Chelsea twice. An away win against Tottenham will send all the right signals that they are prepared for this challenge. Anything can happen in this game, especially when both sides possess rosters that are overflowing with talent. Though let us not forget about the tireless players who bomb up and down the flanks.