Liverpool v Tottenham is starting to becoming one of the Premier League’s huge mega-rivalries – you know the kind, the Super Sunday, Red Monday types – but not in the standard Premier League fashion. It’s not big and brash, it’s not showy, and it’s not bitter. There is no overhyped rivalry, no overarching narrative, no managerial bad-blood, rows and rancour. Just two committed teams playing thoughtful, if frantic, football.
There’s something unnerving about watching a football game played with the intensity that Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino demand from their players, especially when they play against each other. It must be unnerving to play in, too.
The pressing is incessant: no one is allowed time on the ball, not even a goalkeeper taking a goal kick. If passers can’t be closed down, passing lanes are. Centre backs are pressed, full backs are the only outlet, and they’re tackled at full speed, too. Every period of possession seems so on edge, so liable to fail at any point. The possibility of control seems impossible, but after months of playing that way both teams are used to it. Time must move that bit slower for Liverpool and Tottenham players these days.
There seemed to come a point a few years ago when video games became more realistic. Football Manager is as immersive as it ever has been, and the FIFA series now involves so much mental output that you feel drained by the end of a game. Just one ten minute game is so mentally draining that it seems like a distillation of the real thing: just the drama and the intensity bottled up and served in a playable form. Liverpool – Tottenham is real football’s equivalent.
Breathless and intense, ‘heavy metal’ football maybe, but like two sparring pianos, it’s a classical battle. The pianists are in control. But only just.
Tonight, they face each other again in a match with the potential to be just as intense – a cup game both in the metaphorical sense as well as the actual one. But we might well be robbed of that spectacle by our own lust for live football on TV: fixture congestion is a modern peril – especially for these two teams, players who spend their lives running incessantly.
Both teams have bigger fish to fry than the EFL Cup. Yet neither should.
Liverpool, for more obvious reasons. Their lack of European football is at once a blessing and a curse – fewer games give them the possibility of going further in domestic competitions, but the desire to win trophies is matched only by a fetish for an fevered European occasion that only Anfield can generate. That new stand can’t wait for its first taste.
But the League Cup is one of three chances to win a trophy this season, the first of the Jurgen Klopp era. The first in four years. He came so close twice last season, this year it’s time to seal the deal in one competition or another.
For Tottenham, it’s less obvious. Pochettino has rotated his side all season, and tonight will be no different – progress in the League Cup can also mean two-legged semi finals just after the Christmas period and a final just before the next round of Champions League fixtures. It means playing midweek games for the entirety of the season – or at least the successful part.
But success breeds more success. Winning a trophy for the first time since 2008 would prove that this Tottenham team is the best they’ve had in decades, and would prove they’re capable of actually challenging for bigger prizes. And a trophy under their belts before the Champions League knockout rounds get serious would mean Tottenham could rest easy in the FA Cup. In some ways, going hard at the League Cup gives you a better chance in Europe.
Both managers are in a similar boat – both are the managers of traditionally huge English football teams, and both are putting their personal stamps on their squads. Both teams are exciting and look like they have some real substance. Both clubs, however, are in danger of looking as flakey as they have done over the last two decades or so if they don’t win a trophy this season. False dawns and all that.
So although the League Cup may be gaining in importance given the inhumane fixture schedule at the end of the season, it’s still lower in priorities, especially for European teams like Spurs. But it shouldn’t be. It should be towards the top at the moment: Liverpool because they don’t have Europe, Tottenham because they do, and both because they need a trophy. And the League Cup is no longer a bad one to win.