Liverpool were back to something like their swashbuckling finest in the win over West Ham. Steven Scragg explains how it serves as a reminder that the teamsheet doesn’t always equate to the performance.
Never judge a line-up by its cover.
Jurgen Klopp went with an esoteric line-up against West Ham United, and a significant amount of our support drew in a sharp, collective, intake of breath, before a ball had been kicked in anger at the London Stadium.
I get that reaction, even if I can’t subscribe to it myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen many an eyebrow-raising Liverpool team selection wind up on the end of an obvious punchline, but I’ve also seen a fair few of them pull off a handsome win.
This one fell into the latter category.
Questions and conundrums
With circumstances dictating the back four, and an unchanged midfield three to the one that helped engineer victory over Tottenham, on Thursday, there needn’t have been the fretfulness that was on display an hour before kick-off.
While a lack of Sadio Mane is never going to be pleasing, the officially in-form Mo Salah was there and the inclusion of Xherdan Shaqiri was a pleasant surprise. We scratch our heads when he’s not in the picture at all; we seemingly scratch our heads when he’s involved.
This left us Divock Origi to get our heads around. His presence could have been read in two ways. Either a bold statement of trust, or a concession to how shallow our iceberg resides beneath the surface.
Certainly, the sight of Origi lashing an early effort wide wouldn’t have eased concerns, yet he warmed to his task and put in a hard-working and determined shift.
Without scoring, we displayed confidence in our early movement, in a way we haven’t seen for quite a while. Even in victory against Tottenham, at times, we still betrayed a vague fragility. Sunday had an entirely different feel to it.
It felt like a cloud had moved on. We were demanding the ball, and we were enjoying possession of it. Still, we reached the interval at 0-0, as we pondered the conundrum of cracking the code of Moyesball.
David Moyes has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance, in his second spell in charge of West Ham: on the back of four consecutive Premier League wins, into the fifth round of the FA Cup, and unbeaten since before Christmas. Given our form over the same period, there had been some weird reverse voodoo going on.
Always big and physical, yet also a team that can move the ball swiftly, West Ham are steeped in a pragmatism that is far detached from their ball-playing past. More goals from headers than anybody else; consistently a danger at set-pieces. They do what they must do, and they do it well.
The first half was all about settling on the right balance for Liverpool, while continued suggestions abounded that Thiago Alcantara isn’t a ‘Liverpool player’, or that he has slowed us down.
Thiago tucked 90 minutes under his belt, and providing he remains fit, then his influence isn’t going to diminish from here. just as on Thursday, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum were the perfect foils for him, as was Curtis Jones when the switch was made.
Taken away from his midfield responsibilities once more, Jordan Henderson was nothing short of magnificent in this one.
The thing is, you just know that when Klopp initially sidled up to him at training, to sound him out over covering at centre-back, that our captain will have immediately said “yes, boss”, and then threw himself into an intense amount of research on the duties and remit of the position. He’ll have been straight on the phone to pick up on the expertise of Virgil van Dijk. No stone left unturned.
Henderson’s calm authority in the role has made the last 135 minutes of Nat Phillips’ senior football career significantly less stressful.
Phillips is going to turn out to be one of the best side-effects to our central defensive injury crisis. New arrivals or not, I hope he continues to clock up further appearances, between now and May.
He is unlike our other central defensive options. He isn’t a ball-playing centre-back, as in having notions of being Franz Beckenbauer; Phillips seems to have no repressed midfield-orchestrator trapped within. He is just a natural-born stopper, and he does simple things well.
As Van Dijk, Joel Matip, and Joe Gomez gradually return to action, should the barriers into the Liverpool first-team eventually becomes insurmountable for Phillips, then he will still thrive at a mid-ranging, or newly-promoted Premier League team.
As the players strode out for the second half, Carlton Cole hurriedly proclaimed that we were there for taking. It felt like a mad statement to be making, and we were instead utterly mesmeric.
Three goals of immense elegance were scored by Jurgen Klopp’s team, while we annoyingly conceded to a late corner, something that our esoteric defence didn’t deserve.
Comedy and class
Sat at home, Mane will have been frustrated not to have been playing a part in the second half ruthlessness that unfolded.
High comedy was on offer, when a wide-eyed and incredulous Milner sought an explanation from Klopp, as to why he’d been hooked with less than an hour on the clock, only to be sharing the humour of it all when, within seconds, Jones had played an integral role in Salah’s gloriously curled opener.
It was potentially the moment of the season, and if we go on to retain the title, I’ll forever decree it to be the point of genesis.
Salah’s second was simply jaw-dropping. From a West Ham corner, the ball was in their net within 15 seconds, via seven touches by four different Liverpool players, Trent Alexander-Arnold greedily taking three of those touches.
Look up the word ‘sublime’ in the dictionary, and the definition will be Liverpool’s second goal at West Ham. If Andy Robertson sets it all in motion, and Alexander-Arnold is vision personified, then Shaqiri’s first time ball is ludicrous and Salah’s control and finish is an utter obscenity.
The way Salah takes possession of the ball with the inside of his right foot and then dispatches it with the outside of his left foot is an act of genius.
Some people suggest that we don’t appreciate Salah enough, but I don’t agree with that. It is simply that he plays in a team where the responsibility for greatness isn’t placed in the hands of only two, three, or maybe four players, which was the case for other Liverpool vintages.
In this Liverpool, Klopp’s Liverpool, greatness is a responsibility that belongs to every player. As exceptional as a player Salah is, he is part of a footballing collective. We should never crave a return to the days when we had good teams that were reliant upon a cluster of world-class components.
To illuminate that point, take another look at our third goal. A wondrous event in which Salah was no more than an enthralled spectator, as Alexander-Arnold, Bobby Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Wijnaldum sculptured an enigmatic route to goal.
January now over, we ended a difficult month with a flourish, just in time to face a February that can’t quite make our season, but can certainly break it, if we aren’t paying enough attention.
It will be a minefield of a month, but if we emerge from it still in with a compelling shout in both domestic and European terms, then the race will well and truly be on.