This was Liverpool remembering how to dig deep. In the end, Jürgen Klopp had Mohamed Salah on his own up front, a back five keeping Tottenham at bay and Alisson punching cross after cross away. It was desperate stuff and when the final whistle blew Klopp could march over to the away end to celebrate with the travelling support, who were ecstatic after watching their side hold on for their first away win in the league this season.
Liverpool will hope this marks a turning point after a strange few months. They were impressive in the first half, establishing a lead through two ruthless strikes from Salah, and were defiant when Harry Kane pulled a goal back for Spurs. Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konaté stood firm in central defence and Spurs, who have ceded third place to Newcastle, were left to count the cost of another slow start.
There was a striking difference to the way the teams lined up in the final third: Spurs pared back with Ivan Perisic pushing forward to support Kane, Liverpool with their front three oozing menace from the start and causing constant problems with the relentless of their interchangeable movement.
Klopp had a clear plan of attack. The opening 10 minutes were Liverpool unchained, the creative juices flowing, a sense of the champions’ authority of old flowing back into those red shirts. They were also Spurs at their reactive worst, sitting deep, avoiding the ball, and the immediate worry for Antonio 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 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, who whipped one shot wide and brought the best out of Hugo Lloris with another, and they cut Spurs apart when they quickened the pace again. Firmino’s pass sent Andy Robertson charging forward and when Spurs backed off the left-back aimed for Núñez, whose lay-off gave Salah time to set himself, pull back his left foot and ram a low drive past Lloris before anyone in white could react.
Spurs were statuesque. They have developed a habit of sleepy starts under Conte, although they did briefly hint at a riposte. They were close to an equaliser when Kane crossed for Perisic to head against the post. Alisson also had to react smartly to keep out a stinging effort from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and there were some worrying moments for Liverpool when Ryan Sessegnon ran at Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a shove on the Spurs left wing-back.
At that stage Liverpool, who had lost their last two league games, seemed to have relinquished control. Their passing became sloppy. Alexander-Arnold gave away a dangerous free-kick after some casual defending and Spurs grew bolder, sensing that Rodrigo Bentancur, Højbjerg and Yves Bissouma were beginning to get on top of Thiago Alcántara, Harvey Elliott and Fabinho in midfield.
If an equaliser was not exactly inevitable, it did feel as if it was an increasing possibility. Liverpool’s defending has been erratic this season and Conte, who had raised eyebrows by leaving Bryan Gil and Lucas Moura on the bench, was entitled to argue that his tactics were starting to define the contest.
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 did something silly: head the ball on to his shoulder and 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 spurning a chance to halve the deficit when he hit the bar from Kane’s cutback, and they kept looking for a way back. If anything it was Liverpool who looked wearier.
Conte saw an opening. He introduced Matt Doherty and Dejan Kulusevski, whose return from injury drew relieved cheers from the crowd. Spurs are a different team when the Swede plays. The winger was soon involved, shimmying past Thiago and slipping a pass through to Kane. Konaté came across but Kane was too quick, curving a shot past Alisson to give Spurs hope.
There were 20 minutes left and Liverpool, who removed Firmino and Núñez for Joe Gomez and Curtis Jones, readied themselves for a siege. The temperature rose in the dugouts, Klopp rowing with Conte, who was booked. It was all Spurs now; there were anguished howls when Lenglet headed a corner wide.
Spurs, who introduced Lucas Moura late on, fancied their chances in the air. They kept hoisting the ball into the box. There was a scare for Liverpool when a Kane flick dropped wide, but Klopp’s players were in no mood to concede.