At times West Ham looked like a team of attacking terrors and Jürgen Klopp must stitch and mend his depleted defence before the trip to Old Trafford at the end of the month
Barney Ronay at the London Stadium – The Guardian
As West Ham pressed forward with real vigour in the first half at the London Stadium there was something lurking just below the background noise, getting louder with every breakaway, every snatched chance. There it was again 10 minutes after half-time as Felipe Anderson dropped deep and turned away from Joël Matip like a man absent-mindedly swerving a discarded traffic cone: the sound of something starting to creak.
At the end of this tight, fretful 1-1 draw in the Stratford leisure zone it was hard to avoid the evidence of the last few weeks. As the title race enters its early endgame Liverpool look stretched in exactly the same place they were so brutally crisp and decisive for the first half of the season.
It is a cliché but it is also true, or true enough: a furiously high-class attack might get you to a Champions League final but an unforgiving defence wins league titles.
And something has shifted here for Jürgen Klopp’s team. There were periods where the league leaders made West Ham look like a team of attacking terrors. The same West Ham who had scored once in three league games had seven shots at goal in the first half alone, with Anderson parading his full range of lovely, easy skills on the left.
The draw means Liverpool have now kept one clean sheet in seven games since Boxing Day. There are obvious reasons why this should be. Three key players are missing from the defence: the superb Joe Gomez, the impressive Trent Alexander-Arnold and the actually-not-bad Dejan Lovren.
It is a run of injuries that has brought referred pain elsewhere. James Milner’s ankle-chomping power was missed in midfield as he dropped to right-back. In front of him Naby Keïta continued to look like the model of the incomplete central midfielder, a player lacking in every part of his midfield game other than basic energy. Take out Gigi Wijnaldum, also injured, and the astonishing wealth of Manchester City’s playing talent in the same area starts to look compelling.
West Ham’s equaliser was the kind of obvious training-ground move the under-13s might come up with and then reject
Before Monday night Klopp had promised his response would be to attack, to press the pedal and go forward in every competition. In the event he gave Adam Lallana a first start since October in midfield. It was a bold move.
Lallana is an unusual, likeable footballer, all soft touch and clever movement. Liverpool had lacked a little cold, calm craft on the ball against Leicester City. But the sight of him easing his way back on a night like this was evidence in itself of stretched resources.
Lallana did have a hand in Liverpool taking the lead on 22 minutes, taking possession on the right with his back to goal, rolling the ball around with his toe, then back-heeling it between two defenders into Milner’s run. Milner was miles offside, and not one of those marginal calls, a VAR-bore where people talk about elbows and fingernails or argue tediously about the camera angle. This was just a player standing miles offside and getting a clear advantage, exactly the kind of structural flaw the rule is there to prevent. Milner did not hesitate. His low cross was finished neatly by Sadio Mané.
The game could have gone one way from there but West Ham had come to play. The sense of injustice was soothed almost instantly as Michail Antonio ran away from the wall at a free-kick and spanked the ball hard and low into the corner.
Keïta had simply watched him go. It an embarrassing goal to concede, the kind of move the Under-13 B team might come up with in training, then decide against using as, well, it is a bit obvious.
On the touchline Manuel Pellegrini barely flinched, features betraying just a glint of some ancient weathered joy. And as the second half wore on West Ham continued to pull that defence out of shape in between the Liverpool attacks, to press at the tender points that have opened only as the season enters its final straight.
Liverpool’s attack was poor, too. Mo Salah was a ghost in the first half, taking no shots, attempting no dribbles, making no tackles or interceptions. He can probably be allowed the odd off day. In addition Declan Rice was exceptional in his screening role, making eight tackles in the game and gliding around with an easy grace, a great pulsing brain in front of that West Ham defence.
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Even at the end it was the home team who looked more potent, with Andy Carroll creaking around the edge of the action like a dying iron giant.
Liverpool have a two-week break after Bournemouth on Saturday, a game they will be desperate to escape with just the minimum of flak-damage. How successfully Klopp can stitch and mend and reset that depleted defence before the trip to Old Trafford might just decide where their season heads from here.