Modern football is such a strange phenomenon that just a few weeks can have a huge impact on an entire season. For the first few months of the campaign it seemed as though Liverpool had finally put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and that they were in real danger of mounting a successful title challenge.
The model of quick attacking football put in place by their German coach Jurgen Klopp and fully embraced by the players at his disposal had seen them play some of the very best football in Europe. Unfortunately the club lost momentum at the start of the year, and their attacking verve seemed to seep out of the squad as they struggled to break sides down in the same way as they had been in the early stages of the season.
League defeats in recent weeks against sides that faced relegation trouble in Swansea City and Hull City have seen their season focus shift from winning the title to simply remaiming in contention for a top four finish.
Interestingly, this is in contrast with their opponents this weekend – Spurs. The side from North London started their season relatively slowly and seemed to have lost some of the form that had seen them qualify for the Champions League and challenge Leicester for the league title last term.
This slow start, though, was an illusion as under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs remain one of the most consistent sides in the top flight.
But where will this match be won and lost in the tactical battle?
It remains to be seen whether Spurs will start this match playing with four or three at the back. Pochettino has shown a willingness to switch systems to deal with the immediate threat of the opposition.
In either circumstance, one of the keys to Spurs’ tactical system lies in the performances of their impressive attacking full-backs, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
No matter the system, it is the full-backs who provide the width and attacking impetus for the side and whose width creates space centrally for the likes of Christian Eriksen, Deli Alli and Harry Kane to exploit. In order to win the match, Liverpool must be willing to keep their own attacking players wide and high in order to force the Spurs full-backs to address their attacking threat.
On the right hand side this should prove to be no issue as Sadio Mane has returned from African Cup of Nations duty and Danny Rose will have to be aware of his threat and react accordingly. On the other side, however, Klopp has shown a preference to play Coutinho in the wide area, but the Brazilian tends to play from the left and in to the centre of the pitch, looking to take possession in this area whilst James Milner moves up the field in to space.
This would allow Kyle Walker the freedom to attack wide and inside, to create overloads against Milner along with whoever Pochettino decides to play in front of him. This could be a match to revert to using Roberto Firmino out on the left hand side in order to pin Walker back.
Another of the key aspects of Spurs’ attacking system has been the form and performances of their attacking playmakers, Deli Alli and Christan Eriken.
Expect to see the North London side look to deliberately stretch the width and length of the pitch in order to create space centrally for the likes of Alli and Eriksen to exploit.
We will see Harry Kane play up against the Liverpool defensive line with his clever movement forcing the home side to play with a relatively deep line to prevent him from attacking the space in behind. At the base of the midfield we will see Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama play deeper, looking to connect the play and move the ball through the middle third of the pitch.
The workrate of the latter two midfielders will occupy the Liverpool midfield, with Lallana and Wijnaldum in particular showing poor form of late, and spaces will open up for Eriksen, who will move forward form the central midfield line and Alli, who will drop in and out of the midfield and attacking slots from the attacking midfield strata.
The ability of Alli to move in and out of space in this matter makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to effectively mark him within the game.
If Spurs are able to get their attacking playmakers on the ball in the final third then expect them to go on to force yet another miserable result for Liverpool.
This match could well be the key in deciding what these sides and their respective fan bases see as being their realistic expectations going forward.
Both sides come in to this match in sharply contrasting form, with the home side looking to rediscover something of their attacking verve from earlier in the season. The away side, on the other hand, are shaping up as perhaps the only credible rivals to Chelsea in the race to the title.
The 4-3-3 that we have seen from Klopp and Liverpool so far this season is something of a given, as are the roles that are taken by his players in that structure. Pochettino, on the other hand, is more flexible and this is where he appears to have a genuine advantage, being able to switch structure to take advantage of specific structural or personnel advantages could well lead to a Spurs victory in this match.