Darwin Nunez wins battle of the repurposed attackers as Liverpool edge out Tottenham

 (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
(Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

In a troubled year, there was at least some good news for Harry Maguire. An England defender made an awful blunder in a high-profile game, gifting a crucial goal. And it wasn’t him. Eric Dier may have had a solitary mitigating factor for a hideous mistake, misjudging a header to Hugo Lloris, picking out Mohamed Salah and seeing the Egyptian dink in his second and decisive goal of the game.

As Liverpool won in London, they were separated from Tottenham hotspur by the kind of mistake the commanding pair of Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate did not make.

But Dier’s brain was scrambled, his body battered. Salah was the scorer but Dier’s tormentor was Darwin Nunez. He had the footballing equivalent of facing Jonah Lomu in full flight, an awesome combination of pace, power and unleashed aggression. Dier may sensed it was an unfair contest long before Salah doubled his tally; indeed, before he was lost in no-man’s land when Nunez teed up the Egyptian for his 11th-minute opener.

The Uruguayan had already threatened with two efforts. They were warning shots, heralding what was, even without a goal, arguably his best performance for Liverpool.

After his destructive cameo against Napoli, Liverpool could welcome further evidence Nunez can trouble top teams. He struck the bar, albeit when offside; he set up Salah for a series of chances. He prospered in the channel Sadio Mane used to inhabit and, if he probably ranks as Liverpool’s third-choice on the left, he has found a niche while Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota are missing. As Jurgen Klopp’s nominal wingers are rarely found near the touchline, his position was more force of nature. He offered compelling entertainment, just not for his immediate opponent.

Perhaps Cristian Romero, with his combativity, his fondness for the illegal and his bravado, would have fared better against him. Certainly Dier could lament the Argentinian’s absence.

The message for the World Cup may be that the Englishman is far more comfortable in the middle of three centre-backs and as the spare man at the back, not a marker. The finest form of his career has come under Antonio Conte but even a defensive strategist of the Italian’s calibre could not devise a blueprint to subdue Nunez; not with three centre-backs, three defensive midfielders and three wing-backs, one repurposed as an ersatz striker.

In a tale of two summer signings, each feeling offering a threat as the left-sided attacker, Conte, with his selective use of facts and figures and his capacity to plead poverty, may note Nunez cost £64 million more than Ivan Perisic. An alternative perspective is to argue that, while the Croatian is much the older, he has scored more than twice as many goals in his career.

With 171 goals for club and country, Perisic is scarcely the conventional wing-back; for much of his career, he has been a winger and often a particularly prolific one. He was a few inches from making it 173. A header against the post from Harry Kane’s cross, a shot against the bar from Ryan Sessegnon’s cutback. Each showed the predatory sense to find space in the box, each almost turned what looked the most negative of team selections – depending on how Perisic is described, there is a case for saying Conte started with 10 defensive-minded players – into a positive impact.

It was Perisic’s free kick that Kane almost converted in the quest for an equaliser, Perisic, who has been underwhelming at wing-back, who looked revitalised after being reinvented.

 (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
(Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Conte likes to denigrate the resources at this disposal, to downplay the expectations on him, but he finds himself short of attackers. Dejan Kulusevski’s comeback was auspicious, as he created a goal inside two minutes, but the reality he could only begin on the bench and the injuries to Heung-Min Son and Richarlison left Kane as both Spurs’ likeliest scorer and creator; if that is nothing new, the distance to his closest counterpart may have grown. Yet Perisic attempted to bridge the gap.

He was quick to make an impact, barrelling into Trent Alexander-Arnold from the kick-off; it was more American Football than football, but at least equipped him for two of the sports played at Spurs’ ground. A direct runner is not the first player to trouble Alexander-Arnold this season but a player with the pedigree of a World Cup final scorer came agonisingly close to opening his Spurs account.

One of Tottenham’s wide men is denigrated in song – “he can’t defend, he can’t attack, Emerson Royal is our wing-back,” – but Perisic at least brought some verve.

Tottenham, meanwhile, mounted their now traditional second-half comeback. Ultimately, however, the damage done by Liverpool and Nunez in the first half proved too great. A Dier moment for Spurs capped what was, after the loss to Leeds, a wonderful week for Liverpool, Salah and Nunez.