It was about time Liverpool remembered how to dig in. Even if Jürgen Klopp more or less admitted that the red machine is not back to full working order just yet, at least he saw glimpses of the old fighting spirit.
It took plenty of guts to see off another late comeback from Tottenham, not to mention plenty of clearances from Ibrahima Konaté and brave punches from Alisson, and while this was not a complete display from Liverpool it was easy to see why Klopp celebrated at full time by marching across the pitch to celebrate with the travelling support.
These have been a strange few months for Liverpool. Whether this victory, their first on the road in the league, marks a turning point remains to be seen. The legs are wearier and the intensity has dipped. This is still not the dynamic force of old and, for all that Liverpool excelled during the first half, establishing a lead through two clinical strikes from Mohamed Salah, Antonio Conte was not exactly pushing it when he insisted that a draw would have been a fairer result.
In the end Liverpool had Salah on his own up front and a five-man defence battling to protect the points. Spurs played with unrestrained fury after Harry Kane halved the deficit and will take heart from how their attack improved after Dejan Kulusevski, who had not played since September, came off the bench.
“We have to respect the fans,” Conte said, reflecting on the boos that greeted his team at half-time. “They pay for their tickets. But if you ask me if I was a bit disappointed? Yes.” Conte’s perspective certainly had merit, though much of the local displeasure stemmed from his team’s repeated inability to seize the initiative from the first whistle. Ultimately this was one recovery too far for Spurs, who have ceded third place to Newcastle, and Liverpool took advantage. “A brilliant first half,” Klopp said. “Winning here is incredibly difficult.”
There was a striking difference to the way the teams lined up in the final third: Spurs reacting to Richarlison’s and Son Heung-min’s injuries by asking Ivan Perisic to support Kane, Liverpool’s front three causing constant problems with their interchangeable movement.
The opening 10 minutes were Liverpool unchained, a sense of the authority of old flowing back into those red shirts. They were also Spurs at their reactive worst and the immediate worry for Conte must have been that none of his defenders knew who they were supposed to be picking up. The problem for Eric Dier, Ben Davies and Clément Lenglet was that Liverpool, who have risen seven points behind Spurs, had no focal point. There was no chance of Salah sticking to the right flank and the visitors did not hang around.
They were quick to look for Darwin Núñez, an anarchic presence who relished attacking the space behind Emerson Royal on the left, and another concern for Conte was how his hopes of winning the midfield battle were shredded by Roberto Firmino, who kept dropping off to receive the ball in between the lines.
There was an inevitability to Firmino sparking the move for Liverpool’s opener. They had already threatened through Núñez and they soon cut Spurs apart again. Firmino sent Andy Robertson charging forward and when Spurs backed off the left-back aimed for Núñez, whose lay-off gave Salah time to pull back his left foot and ram a low drive past Hugo Lloris.
Spurs were statuesque, though they hinted at a riposte. Perisic went close, heading against the post. Alisson also had to save smartly from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and there were some worrying moments for Liverpool when Ryan Sessegnon ran at Trent Alexander-Arnold.
At that stage Liverpool, who had lost their previous two league games, seemed to have relinquished control. Alexander-Arnold’s defending was erratic and Spurs grew bolder, sensing that Rodrigo Bentancur, Højbjerg and Yves Bissouma were beginning to overwhelm Thiago Alcântara, Harvey Elliott and Fabinho.
An individual error changed everything. Five minutes before half-time Alisson launched a long ball forward. Under no pressure, Dier watched it fall from the sky and headed it straight to Salah, who accepted the gift by racing clear to beat Lloris with a lovely little dink.
Game over? Not quite. Spurs emerged with more intensity after half-time, Perisic hitting the woodwork again, and began to push Liverpool back. “We had to keep fighting,” Klopp said. “We did that.” Conte had opened the game up, introducing Kulusevski and Matt Doherty. Spurs are a different team when Kulusevski plays. The winger gives them more angles and he was soon involved, dribbling past Thiago and releasing Kane, who held off Konaté and curved a shot past Alisson.
Liverpool readied themselves for a siege. They fell back and Klopp rowed with Conte, who was booked. It was all Spurs; there were anguished howls when Lenglet headed a corner wide. Bentancur just failed to convert a flick from Kane. It was all hands to the pump for Liverpool. Núñez and Firmino went off, with Jordan Henderson stepping into midfield and Joe Gomez coming on to partner Konaté and Virgil van Dijk in central defence.
It was desperate stuff from both teams and the relief for Klopp was immense when it was over.