Article by Paul Hemming – Follow @pdjhem
There were two crucial aspects to Liverpool’s first half lead: West Ham’s tactics and Naby Keita. Both were linked.
The Hammers opted to try to play offside with a line set around the edge of their own area. However, they opted not to pressure Liverpool’s midfielders. ‘Go on then’. There were times when this worked last year, for example at Old Trafford. But it can very easily go wrong.
There’s very little margin for error because you’re relying on the line being exact while essentially providing midfielders with the time and space to pick passes. Unless you’re incredibly disciplined it’s likely to be exposed sooner or later. Today we didn’t have to wait too long and it was largely the work of Liverpool’s new number eight.
Clearly the best performer of the half, Keita drove into the space provided by West Ham’s retreating players, drove a bit more while most were probably screaming at him to pass, and at the last possible second released the ball. Perfectly weighted, Andy Robertson’s well-hit cross provided for the one-season wonder to tap home.
On the subject of Salah, there’s been a lot of talk about him not scoring at the same clip this season. Thing is, he doesn’t need to. After 50 minutes of play Sadio Mane had scored one-fifth of his total league goals last season.
Along with Keita and Milner, the Senegalese was one of the best players on the pitch. The swagger so evident at the beginning of last season is back. He receives the ball, body open, ball exposed, almost taunting the defender. A full season of him on this sort of form means Mo doesn’t have to score at the ridiculous rate of last season. And trouble for the opposition.
Fitness, Firmino and Wijnaldum
Particularly in the first half there were times when things didn’t quite click. Between the varying rates of fitness and new additions this performance was all the more impressive. Roberto Firmino still didn’t look quite like Roberto Firmino, though was still more energetic than your average striker.
Georginio Wijnaldum was exceptional on Tuesday. Largely because he played off the ball. The Dutchman makes good runs, times them well and can be a decent finisher. Today he showed why he’s so much better off the ball. Finding himself free in the box (though he was offside), Wijnaldum’s touch made it appear there’d been a sudden gust of wind.
He then took an ill-advised 25 yarder, ignoring the comically wide-open Naby Keita screaming for the ball to his left. Completing the afternoon, a beautiful move again created by Keita was disrupted as the Dutchman failed to trap the ball.
Van Dijk and partner
Similar to Alisson, Joe Gomez was largely a spectator but did show his passing range. Which doesn’t bode well for Joel Matip. For someone renowned as a ‘ball playing’ defender, there are now an awful lot of Liverpool’s centre-halves who are better with the ball than the former Schalke man (i.e. all but Lovren).
Van Dijk himself showed why he’s the boss. You get the impression that the remainder of the backline are like office workers who wish he’d take the odd day off. Even when there isn’t much to do the Colossus won’t allow any slacking; his usually cool exterior broken to yell at Andy Robertson and co. about a cross they’d allowed to penetrate the area.
Alisson didn’t have much to do but crucially looked confident in all that he did. One pass in particular to Salah about the halfway line was sublime.
Rather wasteful today but Trent displayed why he should be the first choice right back. A constant option and attacking threat. Set pieces aren’t bad either.
In James Milner’s head the score is always 0-0. At best. The 32-year-old was still roaring around the pitch to close down the opposition when most were happy to call it a day. Perfect in his role.
Instantly on the scoresheet, that will have done Daniel Sturridge’s confidence a ton of good. Shaqiri got his debut out of the way. Alisson kept a clean sheet. Liverpool looked dominant in a way Spurs absolutely didn’t yesterday against a similar calibre of opposition.
Last year midfield was an issue at times. And this is where Keita will be so critical for the Reds. His touch, balance and confidence allow him to dribble into spaces others wouldn’t. Oxlade-Chamberlain is an exceptionally powerful driver who’s hard to stop when he gets going. But he’s not nimble in the way the Guinean is. Nor are any of the other midfield options near being the passer Keita is. Forward-thinking, in the truest sense of the term. Liverpool needed a midfielder who could draw the defence to the ball in order to create space. They have it.