Finally beating Liverpool would be a massive step forward for Tottenham
Talent and tactical acumen make for a compelling combination; Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham Hotspur side have both qualities in abundance. Their growing confidence was illustrated by the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in the Bernabeu in the Champions League.
Spurs are a club going places. They're beginning to look like a team that can challenge for the highest honours though it's not all been plain sailing. Their season occupying Wembley while White Hart Lane is being rebuilt hasn't gotten off to an impressive start. They've not yet managed to replicate their sparkling home form of last season. They were not beaten at the Lane throughout the campaign and drew there only twice but they have already lost once at their temporary abode and drawn twice.
They have another blind spot, too: Liverpool. Spurs haven't beaten the Merseyside club in Pochettino's three years in charge. Their last victory over Liverpool was half a decade ago. To put this into context, Tottenham have had growing success against the rest of their top-six rivals. They've beaten Manchester City three times during the 45-year-old's time in charge and been victorious twice against each of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.
In that time, Liverpool have beaten Spurs four times. The latest defeat, a 2-0 loss at Anfield in February that allowed Chelsea to move 10 points clear in the title race, was one of the team's worst performances of last season. Pochettino had problems with injuries that day and had to switch personnel around the pitch, but there was a lack of organization that Liverpool exploited.
Sadio Mane (who will be missing because of injury at Wembley) caused havoc on the left side of Tottenham's defence while Ben Davies and Eric Dier had a torrid time in a makeshift back line. Yet the away team's problems were much deeper than a matter of an overstretched squad. Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama were overrun in midfield and Son Heung-min and Dele Alli showed little interest in tracking back to help their beleaguered colleagues. Spurs failed to get any sort of quality balls in for Harry Kane, who might have been expected to thrive against Liverpool's nervous, tentative defence.
The most disturbing thing for Tottenham, though, was that the team lacked structure. They left space in areas where Jurgen Klopp's team thrive. A number of clubs have established a method for achieving success as an away side at Anfield. Sides that sit deep, stay compact and look to break quickly regularly frustrate Liverpool. Tottenham were wide open. It appeared that they had left any sense of strategy in the dressing room and taken a haphazard, attacking approach to the game, for which they were duly punished. The contest was over after 18 minutes with Mane scoring twice in a matter of 120 seconds but in the end, the 2-0 scoreline was kind to Tottenham. Klopp's team wasted a considerable number of chances to extend their lead.
The easy answer, so often used about the north London club, was that Spurs do not turn up for big games. Cynics point to the 4-2 FA Cup semifinal defeat by Chelsea as further proof that Pochettino's men fold under pressure. It's harsh criticism; increasingly, Tottenham are matching their peers and deserve their status as one of England's top clubs. Beating Liverpool would represent another step forward.
Part of the problem for Spurs is they feel the need to underline their growing stature with dominant performances. They went to Anfield in February in a confident mood and Pochettino set out to outplay Liverpool. He fell into the trap of letting the game develop in a style that suited Klopp's team. At Wembley, the pressure is on to produce a stirring display that could finally shed all talk of a hoodoo. This time, Tottenham need to control the game. They cannot be sucked into a shootout.
A similar system to the one that earned a point in the Bernabeu would present problems for the visitors this weekend. In Madrid, Spurs put out an ostensibly defensive line-up but it quickly became clear that the team was designed to break forward at every opportunity. Dier, so uncertain in a back four at Anfield, was masterful at the centre of a five-man line.
Against Liverpool, Tottenham can't afford to leave space between the midfield and the defence. This will put pressure on Alli, whose role this season has been more advanced. It will be crucial that Spurs don't allow Mohamed Salah room to run. They need to drive Philippe Coutinho back into his own half looking for the ball. If the Brazil international gets time and space in Tottenham's defensive third then Klopp's side will prosper.
As much as the match against Real was a test, the game at Wembley presents an equally big one for Spurs. Liverpool have a number of flaws that a top-class tactician should be able to exploit. If Pochettino can out-think and out-manoeuvre Klopp, it will be a massive step forward for Tottenham.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.