Football Features

Firmino’s biggest fear and Klopp’s ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card help Liverpool to 2-1 West Ham win

By Ben Green

Published: 20:02, 31 October 2020

Liverpool have equalled their longest-ever unbeaten home run in the league, which stands at 63 games, after Diogo Jota scored at the death to seal 2-1 win over an in-form West Ham.

Jurgen Klopp entered this match with a depleted backline, pairing Joe Gomez and Premier League debutant Nathaniel Phillips together for the first time since they kept a clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Everton in the FA Cup last season. But, hopes of replicating that impressive defensive showing were quickly wiped out as Pablo Fornals netted with only 10 minutes on the clock.

A poor headed clearance from Gomez fell into Fornals’ path, who reacted quickly to tuck home at the near post. However, the hosts refused to rest on their laurels and feel sorry for themselves despite plenty of absentees, and rallied back with goals from Mohamed Salah and late substitute Jota.

David Moyes will lament another defeat at Anfield, having never won there as a manager, but for Klopp, it is a job well done given the circumstances. So, what did we learn from a tight game at Anfield?

1. Salah, Klopp’s get-out-of-jail-free card, strikes West Ham again

Liverpool certainly hogged the ball in the opening 45 minutes and enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but their usual panache and penetration was sorely lacking as West Ham set up a compact and resolute back five. With Tomas Soucek and Declan Rice camped in front of that rearguard and safeguarding the defence, the Reds were having little joy in the final third.

With the clock ticking down Klopp needed an outlet, a release valve to give him some hope heading into half time; step up Salah. Few clubs enjoy the sight of the Egyptian (Liverpool aside of course), such is his utter goalscoring devastation for Klopp’s side, but West Ham must be at the front of that queue.

He has now been involved in nine goals across seven Premier League appearances for Liverpool against the Hammers, and he was the architect for the equaliser this evening. As he ghosted into the box, Salah used his intelligence to leave his leg hanging and tempt contact from Arthur Masuaku. The wing-back took the bait and Salah went to the ground upon contact.

From scant openings, Salah fashioned his own chance, won the decisive penalty, and scored from the spot to bring the scores level. This was not Liverpool in their usual pomp, but with Salah on the pitch a goal can come at any given moment. He is Klopp’s get-out-of-jail-free card when Liverpool are having an off day, and he stepped up again tonight.

2. The rise of the left-back in a back-three, the new fashionable formation

The back-three is en vogue at the minute. It has always been a popular formation, but ever since Antonio Conte cantered to the Premier League title with Chelsea utilising the unorthodox system, with Cesar Azpilicueta deployed through the middle, it has taken up a permanent residence in the Premier League.

Moyes himself has now taken to the formation, and with huge success. The opening match against Newcastle was West Ham at their lowest ebb. The 4-2-3-1 deployed against the Magpies proved ineffective, so Moyes tinkered with his tactics and has since set up in a 3-4-2-1, with Aaron Cresswell used as a centre-back.

The system has remedied West Ham’s biggest weakness: left-back. It has also given the likes of Masuaku and Cresswell himself greater freedom to surge forward. As the former charges up the byline, Cresswell overlaps and the system becomes a back four with Rice or Soucek covering on the left.

It has seen Cresswell register three assists this season, more than any other defender, and Masuaku also getting in on the action with an assist himself. Mikel Arteta has utilised Kieran Tierney in a similar role for Arsenal, while Luke Shaw produced an excellent showing against PSG. The left-back in a back-three has become a fashionable new mode this season, and it certainly gave Klopp problems this evening.

3. Antonio absence accentuated by Haller ‘disasterclass’

West Ham fans feared an injury striking Michail Antonio, and that nightmare became a reality after the 1-1 draw with Man City last week. The winger-turned-striker was withdrawn at the London Stadium and earlier this week it was revealed that he will now be out of action for around a month with a hamstring tweak.

This was, therefore, the chance for £45m striker Sebastian Haller to step up to the plate and throw down the gauntlet. The Frenchman has been on the fringes since Moyes reinvented Antonio as a No. 9, and with good reason: he has scored 11 goals in his last 13 Premier League games.

However, Haller largely flattered to deceive at Anfield and was completely schooled by the inexperienced Phillips. The out-of-sorts forward was leaden-footed and anonymous, failing to mirror the hustle-and-bustle exploits of Antonio, and completely hindering the recent flair of West Ham’s attacking transitions.

If he is to make a name for himself in claret and blue colours, then Haller will seriously need to up the ante. But, for Phillips, he can take huge plaudits for silencing the striker and shining in the absence of Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, et al.

4. Diogo Jota gives Klopp welcomed headache

Almost instantaneously the complexion of Liverpool’s frontline seemed to be given an adrenaline shot upon the introduction of Jota. The lithe forward renewed the  impetus in Liverpool’s attack and created two key openings during his 20-minute cameo, with one of those producing the breakthrough goal.

Roberto Firmino in stark contrast was struggling to showcase his usual verve, dropping deep to little success and lacking the fluid link-up he usually demonstrates with Sadio Mane and Salah. With Jota scoring three goals in his last three shots at Anfield could Klopp be tempted to deploy a Jota-Salah-Mane triumvirate in the near future?

His usual attacking front three, featuring Firmino has been the foundation of his success, but perhaps a slight ring-rustiness is creeping in and he now needs to tweak things ever so slightly to regenerate new ideas and keep the intensity at a maximum. 

A special mention must also be made to Xherdan Shaqiri who provided an excellent assist for Jota. A true substitute masterclass from Klopp

5. Pablo Fornals: West Ham’s unsung hero 

There has never been anything flashy or substantial (by way of goals) about Fornals, but his tidy and sophisticated exploits make him arguably West Ham’s unsung hero. And this season, he has started to add goals (and assists) to his game, making him one of the club’s most important players.

Fornals is one of those intelligent playmakers who can sometimes go under the radar and may not always be the most prominent focal point in the highlight reels, but his positional awareness, neatness on the ball and general link-up play are exactly what West Ham need There are no panic stations when the ball finds his feet.

And here tonight he provided the goods again, with goals just starting to come into his game. The Spaniard opened the scoring, his second goal in as many games at Anfield, and nearly added a second after the restart. West Ham could be a dark horse this season, and Fornals will be integral to that.