Can Mohamed Salah unlock Spurs' defence and lead Liverpool to victory?
Mohamed Salah always appeared perfect for Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool. As a quick, direct and hardworking winger -- and a team player rather than an individualist -- there was little adaptation required upon his arrival at Anfield. Klopp recruited a player ready-made for counterpressing and counterattacking. At Salah's unveiling, it was evident that Klopp considered him ideal for Liverpool's system.
"He's a fantastic player with speed," Klopp said. "We said after last season that we would try to add things to an already really good squad, and one of those things is speed. He brings that, as well as being able to provide and to finish. He brings all that. He's a naturally fit boy and I'm really looking forward to working with him."
If Klopp could artificially create a wide player, the product would be something close to Salah and seven goals in his first 10 Liverpool starts reflects his suitability. But the problem with Salah is that he's almost too perfect for Liverpool, when Klopp needed to add something different to his attacking options.
Much like Arsene Wenger stockpiling creative playmakers in the days when Arsenal required a traditional striker or a proper holding midfielder, Klopp has added another typical Klopp player to a typical Klopp team, strengthening Liverpool's strengths rather than addressing their weaknesses. This is fantastic for the neutral: one of the beauties of the Premier League this season is the fact the major title contenders play very different styles of football, and have very obvious identities.
Liverpool's philosophy is only emphasized with Salah's introduction, but from a Liverpool perspective it may cause more frustration. Liverpool remain hugely unconvincing when attempting to break down deep defences and Salah -- a player who is essentially a space invader, a rapid dribbler who needs to roar pass opponents rather than beating them with clever trickery -- is better in open matches, or when Liverpool can play on the counterattack.
In general, his goals this season have come when breaking in behind the defence against Watford, Arsenal, Burnley and Maribor. In fairness he's proven adept at arriving late to meet far-post crosses, converting in that manner against Leicester and Maribor (again), and was on hand to convert a close-range rebound against Hoffenheim. There was also a hugely deflected strike against Sevilla from outside the penalty box but overall, Salah encourages Liverpool to be more direct and more reliant upon speed. We haven't yet witnessed him contribute significantly to neat, intricate goals that come as a result of breaking down a parked bus.
Indeed, it's worth looking at the type of matches in which Salah has scored. His goals have come in matches that have ended (with Liverpool's score listed first), 3-3, 4-2, 4-0, 2-2, 1-1, 3-2 and 7-0. With one exception, these games have always been end-to-end thrillers, or matches when Liverpool were on top.
Salah hasn't found the target, however, in matches that have ended 2-1, 1-0, 0-5, 1-1, 1-1 and 0-0: tighter, tenser matches when Liverpool have struggled to break down the opposition. In those games, Salah has looked less threatening, often being dispossessed on the edge of the box or, in last weekend's goal-less draw with Manchester United, shooting wastefully from long-range. Part of this, of course, is self-perpetuating: it's inevitable Salah scores more in matches Liverpool scores more. But Liverpool could do with the type of player, often a close-range finisher, who regularly turns a 0-0 into a 1-0.
Liverpool's long-standing problem is that they turn it on for the big occasions but struggle against the minnows. Salah, clearly Liverpool's key difference between last season and this, won't solve that. However, Salah's style shouldn't be an issue this weekend against Tottenham Hotspur.
On paper this is exactly the type of match that Liverpool, and Salah, excel in: it's away from home against a team who will feel inclined to take the initiative, it's against another big side and Liverpool will be facing a side who consistently use an aggressive defensive line and leave space in behind. Sunday's trip to Wembley won't be simple, of course, because Tottenham are an excellent side. But stylistically, this suits Liverpool.
This weekend's game will serve as a useful comparison point between Liverpool today and the Liverpool when Jurgen Klopp took charge. His first match was a trip to White Hart Lane, a pulsating and high-tempo contest that ended 0-0 in part because both teams concentrated overwhelmingly upon pressing, somewhat overlooking the importance of actually constructing good attacking moves themselves.
The subsequent two meetings between Klopp's Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham were also draws but their previous contest was very one-sided. Liverpool battered Spurs at Anfield in February almost solely because Sadio Mane used his speed to race in behind the Tottenham back-line. Mane is unavailable this weekend through injury, which means Salah becomes even more important.
Unless Klopp surprisingly decides to start Daniel Sturridge, Salah will be the man charged with going in behind the opposition most frequently, with Roberto Firmino probably darting into deeper positions with the aim of tempting Spurs' centre-backs up the pitch. Coutinho, meanwhile, continues to drop deeper and deeper when deployed in the left-sided forward role that doesn't suit him as much as a midfield slot.
Liverpool sometimes play in front of the opposition too much rather than offering penetration. This will presumably be a good opportunity to drive in behind regularly, although one suspects Pochettino might adjust his defensive line and sit deeper. Either way, Salah's performance will be fascinating.
In a way, Salah already feels like Liverpool's technical leader. Philippe Coutinho tried to leave, Adam Lallana is out injured for a period of months, Mane is brilliant but is often injured, suspended or on international duty while Jordan Henderson's form has dipped. Liverpool are now best embodied by the strengths and weaknesses of Salah but it remains to be seen whether a Salah-led Liverpool can close the gap to the title favourites.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.