With West Ham finally free from the pressure cooker that is the relegation battle, Liverpool’s trip to Upton Park posed a major threat to their ever-increasing title aspirations.
The lazy journalists were having a field day, with Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll supposedly the ‘Kop flops looking for revenge’. I even saw a very entertaining quote from John Hartson about West Ham ‘knocking a few early balls up to him’ and ‘showing Liverpool what they’ve been missing out on from the start’.
For the record, 2 goal hit-man Andy Carroll – despite being a serious threat in the air – can strongly attribute his departure to the reason Liverpool are now playing such intricate and attractive (not to mention effective) football.
The Hammers went out looking to disrupt Liverpool from long before the game began – Steven Gerrard spoke about the Reds having to park the coach ‘miles away from the ground’, having a boiling hot dressing room, and Rodgers spoke of the pitch condition. The pitch is small, and was purposefully kept as dry as possible before the game (he likes the pitch watered so his team can move the ball quicker).
From the whistle, this disruption continued into the game – high energy, physicality and pressing in the midfield. Allardyce sent them out to be organised, win any loose balls and put Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho in awkward positions. The tool for this was Andy Carroll – the man Rodgers described as the best in Europe at what he does.
The idea was to loft balls into the box and look for knock downs, with Nolan particularly dangerous at picking up second balls, while Downing would look to take on Glen Johnson in the wide areas and get crosses in.
Brendan Rodgers started with a 4-3-3, which tends to be his neutral formation, the system used when he feels there doesn’t need to be too many special adjustments in order to win the game. The only change he did make was introducing Mamadou Sakho alongside Skrtel in place of Daniel Agger.
This could be for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that Agger has a slight knock, which prompted Rodgers to give him a rest. However Agger may have seen himself dropped anyway, with Sakho now fit being Liverpool’s best player in the air. He was paired up with Skrtel to help nullify the aerial threat of Carroll.
The front six was set up in the fashion we have become accustomed to, Sterling on the same side as Coutinho (extra energy and protection) and Henderson on the same side as the alternating Sturridge and Suarez (for the same reason). There would be times in the game where Liverpool would dominate possession and use these as moments for the full-backs to bomb on. Flanagan and Johnson both got into the penalty box on a few occasions, and it was Flanagan who won the second penalty.
With the dramatic and controversial end to the first half, Liverpool would have gone into the changing rooms at half-time furious with the officials and full of heat from the moment. According to Henderson’s post-match interview, Rodgers and a few of the senior players had a calming job to do in there, and they were ordered to forget it and move on.
The manager used the break to switch things up. Rodgers went back to the midfield diamond by moving Sterling from the flank into the centre, and swapped Coutinho for Lucas – a move designed for the Reds to regain control of the game in the middle of the field.
And that they did.
Rodgers men increased their 249 passes in the first half to 364 in the second, while their possession increased from 55.6% in the first half to 71.5% in the second.
You can see above how they began pressing West Ham much higher up the field, stepped up their intensity, and began to dominate the ball. You look at the aggressive positioning of Sakho getting tight to Carroll (he has Gerrard covering him, and Skrtel even deeper), and it shows a switch in roles – it was now them stopping West Ham from playing.
As Liverpool’s possession increased, so did the level of their build up play. They seem to be finding that with more time on the ball, they can be more patient, and more lethal as a result. I mentioned last week about the contrasting styles of attack that Liverpool can use according to what they need.
The counter-attacking style produces lots of chances, danger with each surge, a horrible feeling for the opposition every time they have the ball, wondering what will happen the second they lose it. The contrasting style in comparison doesn’t produce lots of chances, but it produces quality ones.
The patient play is designed to poke and prod at the defensive movements of the opposition, examining their defensive instructions in live action. Upon working it out, the play can progress to manipulating their movements in order to carve out the openings.
This is exactly what has led to so many penalties for Liverpool this season. They work out the defensive weaknesses during this patient play and then attack it aggressively until it becomes undone. It ultimately won them the game at Old Trafford with three penalties, and it did the same again at Upton Park with two more. Liverpool’s just rewards for a fearless and aggressive brand of attacking football.
Rodgers shut up shop for the final minutes, bringing on Kolo Toure for Sturridge and switching to five at the back, closing out for the win and making it 9 wins on the bounce for the Reds.
On Sunday they face arguably their biggest game of the last 25 years (besides maybe one other famous night). Manchester City will come out looking to hurt Liverpool, and certainly won’t be sitting back to defend like many a team before them this season.
However Rodgers will probably be the man under less pressure. With games in hand, Pellegrini will be desperate for 3 points to avoid a dip in form at the wrong time in the season when they still have points in hand to make up. Liverpool have dropped 5 points at Anfield all season and will be in no mood to give any more away.
The problem Pellegrini faces, is that should he risk a highly attacking strategy, he is facing the best counter-attacking side in the league. Should he sacrifice possession, he is facing a side capable of playing patiently through the thirds and breaking them down. Should they look to counter-attack, Liverpool have this season become experts at (dare I say it) countering the counter-attack.
Despite this, Liverpool’s defence will be in for a torrid time dealing with an in-form David Silva, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko and possibly the return of Sergio Aguero (not to mention Yaya Toure a touch deeper). The Reds had the luxury of Arsenal at Anfield without Walcott and Ramsey, and Everton at Anfield without Lukaku, however Man City will be coming fully locked and loaded with the title at stake.
A scintilating prospect, with the high possibility that the winning team will go on to lift the Premier League trophy. Whatever next in this title race!