EPL 2016-17: How Liverpool broke down West Brom's defensive wall at Anfield
Trust Jurgen Klopp to always find the positives in everything. Despite West Brom’s Gareth McAuley halving Liverpool’s lead in the eighty-first minute on Saturday evening, scuppering their chances of going top of the table and sending Anfield into collective hyperventilation for the final ten minutes, Klopp believed Liverpool’s narrow advantage made for a more close and exciting game.
In fairness to the German, he did have a point when he rhetorically questioned if a team wished to be top of the table in October. Their margin of victory may have been smaller than anticipated, but Liverpool managed two things that they were unable to in their last game – Monday night’s goalless draw against Manchester United. With other challengers faltering, Liverpool’s return of maximum points was matched by the manner in which, to paraphrase history slightly, they undid the Pulisian knot.
The wheels of the bus go round and round
The tastiest soundbite in the lead-up to this game was undoubtedly Klopp claiming the game against Man United gave his side good practice for the weekend’s encounter. It was surely a little dig aimed up at the M62, but there was some hard truth in it. West Brom are the definition of nondescript opposition this season – bottom-half side, ten points from eight games, three consecutive draws, the last of them against Tottenham the previous week.
Without irony, it was all the more reason, then, for Liverpool to worry. Lining up in their usual 4-3-3, the Merseysiders had, however, the benefit of a side resembling full strength; Adam Lallana replaced Daniel Sturridge, while Georginio Wijnaldum was on the bench, Emre Can being retained from the Monday night game. With Philippe Coutinho aligned on the left, Roberto Firmino played in a slightly deeper central role.
West Brom’s massed ranks and impressive defensive record had warned Liverpool off complacency; with eight goals conceded in eight games, the Baggies’ defence was stingier than Liverpool’s, Arsenal’s and Chelsea’s, and equal to the backlines of the two Manchester clubs.
The Reds have had well-known struggles against this style of opposition in the recent past, and their performance here helped erase some of that doubt.
Man United played a not hugely dissimilar game on Monday night – there were two solid defensive midfielders and with the two wingers falling back without the ball, the visitors had almost a back six at times.
Their pressing, especially from Ander Hererra, threw the Reds off-kilter. Playing in two lines, Man United squeezed the space Liverpool had; nerves on the part of the home side, jagged passing, and a still-rusty Can, did the rest.
Slicing the knot
West Brom were somewhat distinct from the more glamorous last visitors to Anfield. Salomon Rondon was up front by himself, while the midfield, with Darren Fletcher and Claudio Yacob at the heart of it, stepped up to press when Liverpool got too close. After the first quarter of an hour, it seemed that this was going to be a problem. Then Liverpool sprung into life.
The intrinsic risk of pushing the midfield up to keep the opposition at an arm’s length is that it leaves space behind that can be realised by two neat passes. With enough runners to support the attack, it can create panic in a defence suddenly placed under direct threat and running back to their own goal. Liverpool’s first goal on 20 minutes encapsulated this perfectly.
Coutinho managed this once against Man United – when he split the lines with a backheel to send Firmino clear, only for Antonio Valencia to make a crucial tackle – and this time the move was successful. His dummy gave Can enough space as the German broke forward, before supplying the ball to Firmino on the left. The Brazilian’s brilliant cross fell perfectly for Sadio Mane, who produced a superb volleyed finish with his right foot past Ben Foster.
It was an excellent goal, and it was made possible once the West Brom midfield squeeze applied by Fletcher and Yacob was eliminated by one dummy.
Besides taking the second line out of the move entirely, the other thing Liverpool had struggled with against Man United was a lack of runs from deeper in midfield. Wijnaldum’s absence was undoubtedly a reason, but Can set about remedying this problem as well with gusto.
He just missed connecting with Nathaniel Clyne’s cross shortly after, and it was he who won the ball to launch another attack close to the West Brom goal.
Two former Man United players – Fletcher and Ben Foster – contrived to err at the same time and Mane was off with the ball won by Can. He passed to Coutinho, who produced another splendid piece of skill to deceive two defenders and Foster to slam a low drive into the goalkeeper’s near post.
It was 2-0 to Liverpool, and they dominated into the second half as well.
When the screw turns the other way
To be fair to Foster, his goalkeeping outside of the sliced clearance was adroit enough to restrict the Reds to a two-goal lead. Liverpool missed chances that would have put the game beyond doubt, and then Tony Pulis changed the tone of the occasion with two substitutions.
The introduction of James Morrison and Chris Brunt seemed to give the visitors a shot in the arm and the tide briefly turned.
Set pieces proved yet again to be the home side’s undoing, and it was with comical inevitability that McAuley made it 2-1 from a corner after Loris Karius was momentarily bamboozled by a ball swung in from the right.
Liverpool’s new number one has been tested only sparingly between the sticks since his debut, but has shown moments of worrying indecision.
In West Brom's mini-renaissance lay the fear that Liverpool would regret not converting their earlier chances.
This is a team that has the worst defence in the top eight and has kept only one clean sheet all season, that too against a Man United side with palpable indifference towards the act of scoring a goal. They, however, did not ultimately succumb to their latent softness, and there were several positives to take from the game when the final whistle blew.
And now you’re going to believe them
Any qualms with Liverpool’s performance ought to be directed towards the defence rather than the attack. It’s worth noting that despite the other misses, the two goals made the Merseysiders the league’s top scorers at the close of Saturday. More worrying was the manner in which Liverpool got too comfortable to check West Brom’s resurgence in time.
Losing the game from 2-0 up was unlikely – West Brom have scored more than a single goal only once in their last 19 league games – but Klopp always has an eye on improvement, and conceding was not likely to have pleased him too much, especially as it continues to hang a question mark over his side’s defensive capabilities.
Liverpool responded well to McAuley’s goal, so it isn’t a tremendous concern, but it also fails to remove doubts over their weakness while defending set pieces and habit of giving away careless goals.
Perhaps this is too negative a view to take. In simple, indisputable terms, Liverpool have 20 points and 20 goals from nine games, kept away from the top spot only on goal difference – at least prior to Manchester City’s game against Southampton – and they got three points on a day when Arsenal and Tottenham failed not only to do the same, but also to score.
The positives – Coutinho, Firmino, Mane and Lallana – are certainly enough to buoy Liverpool’s spirits.
Up next in the league is a trip to Selhurst Park to meet with a familiar foe in Alan Pardew and a former ally in Christian Benteke. Prior to that, they must manoeuvre an EFL Cup game midweek against Tottenham.
Pulis, after the game, acknowledged the performance of his opponents and their chances in the league this season. To do that, Liverpool’s impressive run of results must merely continue against Palace.