Football Features

The ‘monster’ and the magician: West Ham are probably sick of Liverpool’s stand-in duo

By Ben Green

Published: 18:50, 31 January 2021

Liverpool got their Premier League title defence back on track with a routine 3-1 win over West Ham on Sunday.

An exquisite Mohamed Salah brace settled the tie, before Georginio Wijnaldum executed a coup de grace to put the gloss on a comprehensive victory in the capital. Craig Dawson netted a consolation finish in the last few minutes, but there would be no dramatic turnaround for the Hammers, a la Tottenham away.

So, what did we learn as Liverpool move up to third in the Premier League table?

1. Salah strikes ‘favourite opponent’ to reach Rush milestone

Few opposition teams enjoy seeing Salah’s name on the Liverpool team sheet, but West Ham must be absolutely sick of the sight of him, as the Egyptian forward has now netted nine goals against the Hammers, more than he has against any other club, and he took both finishes at the London Stadium with world class precision.

His first was a trademark finish, collecting the ball on the right before cutting in and guiding the ball past Lukasz Fabianski, breaking the deadlock in a delicately poised encounter. The brilliant Egyptian then followed up with a finish of such ingenious improvisation that Dino Zoff in his prime could have been manning the sticks, and even he would have stood little chance.

Shaqiri, the midfield magician tonight, executed a precision pass on the counter into the path of Salah, who controlled the ball gracefully, before elegantly dinking a hapless Fabianski. Both strikes ended a mini-drought of three Premier League matches without a goal for Salah, who has followed on from a promising performance in north London on Thursday to get the Reds’ title defence very much back on track.

Those goals now mean Salah has become the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush in 1984/85 to score 20+ goals in four straight seasons, while he is now three goals ahead in the Premier League Golden Boot race.

2. Moyes’ caution costs the Hammers

David Moyes’ record against the so-called ‘Big Six’ has not yielded many points over the years, and on today’s showing it is easy to see why. West Ham are currently riding the crest of the wave but approached this game as though they were deeply entrenched in the relegation zone.

With Liverpool trying out their 12th different centre-back pairing of the Premier League season (owing to further injury woe), this was the perfect opportunity for Moyes to send out his charges with attacking impetus and ask questions of the makeshift Jordan Henderson-Nat Phillips combination.

Unfortunately for West Ham fans, the exact opposite happened. The hosts were camped far too deep in their own half and seldom threatened until they found themselves a goal down. The plan was clear, hold out for as long as possible and hope to nick a goal through a counter attack, or a set-piece, a classic smash-and-grab.

However, Klopp’s Liverpool were far too sophisticated to get called out by such an approach. Instead they dominated possession, took their goals with gusto and made West Ham look anything but a side hoping to break the glass ceiling and challenge the established order. Chance well and truly missed for Moyes.

3. Klopp’s industrious diamond dominates midfield battle

This was a Klopp masterclass and the perfect delineation of his ‘gegenpressing’ system. With Sadio Mane sidelined for this encounter and Roberto Firmino handed a rest, the German went with a diamond formation, with Salah and Divock Origi spearheading the frontline, and it worked an absolute treat.

James Milner and Thiago Alcantara worked beautifully in tandem, treating the game like a training session and easily bypassing the West Ham midfield. Wijnaldum was the engine and put in the hard yards, while Shaqiri dovetailed in the No. 10 hole to cause confusion.

West Ham struggled to get a foothold in the match and keep pace with Klopp’s interchanging midfield, who closed down with high-voltage energy and linked up almost telepathically. There were a few raised eyebrows at the line-up prior to kick-off, but Klopp’s tactical blueprint for this match was ingenious.

Moyes’ side simply couldn’t handle the waves of pressure, the passing patterns and the consistent harrying. Shaqiri in particular, at the tip of the diamond was the attacking fulcrum, creating more chances than any player on the pitch, and following on from his world class assist against West Ham in the reverse fixture, with another breathtaking pass to take out Moyes’ defence completely.

4. Klopp’s “monster in the air” is Moyes’ kryptonite

From Salah’s scoring at one end to Phillips’ aggressive defending at the other, these two haunted the Hammers at Anfield in the reverse fixture, and combined brilliantly at both ends this afternoon to inflict further woe on the top-six aspirants.

With Klopp’s casualty list a consistent thorn in his side this season, he was forced to deploy Phillips in the 2-1 win against West Ham in autumn, with the academy graduate making his first Premier League start, and he put in an exceptional display.

In that meeting his task was to thwart the physically-imposing presence of Sebastien Haller, and he marked his Premier League bow by getting the better of the Frenchman, completely nullifying his threats and earning high praise from Klopp in the afterglow, who described him as a “monster in the air”.

And again against West Ham he had the slightly more challenging task of man-marking Michail Antonio, but once more he produced a competent defensive display alongside Henderson against a West Ham side who rank first for headed goals and set-piece goals this season. Dawson got a consolation, but it was only a consolation because of Phillips’ hard work the 87 minutes prior.

5. James Milner, the consummate professional

With only a two-day rest between Liverpool’s emphatic 3-1 win over Tottenham and the short journey across the M25 this afternoon, Klopp’s players could be forgiven if one or two signs of lethargy were apparent in their game, particularly for 35-year-old James Milner, who has started consecutive Premier League games for only the second time this season.

However, the inexorable utility-man was anything but catatonic, eating up grass and covering ground with the zeal of a footballer 10 years his junior. It is a testament to his unwavering discipline that Milner is still able to operate at the highest level of the game, stepping up for Klopp in times of injury crisis, and in this match, he dispelled any suggestions that his retirement is just around the corner.

In the first 45 minutes Liverpool hogged the ball and enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, with Milner working tirelessly in tandem with the equally-tenacious Georginio Wijnaldum. West Ham for all their praise in recent weeks, struggled to retain possession in the first half and match Liverpool’s dogged diamond for energy.

Milner produced a performance full of zip in north London against a midfield that boasts tackle kingpin Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg among their ranks, and he mirrored those exploits to the east in the capital, proving an exceptional stalwart for Klopp and a consummate pro.

In fitting style he made way in the 57th minute for up-and-comer Curtis Jones, who made an immediate impression and provided an assist after Milner had wore West Ham out.