Tony Pulis, the name itself evokes a sense of tedium and a bit of apprehension among Liverpool supporters. He, of the long ball game, of the extremely physical style of play and of gritty determination, brought his West Bromwich Albion side to Anfield this weekend, and the media – mainstream as well as social – was abuzz with stats about Pulis’ great record against the Reds.
Pulis’ sides had not lost a league game against Liverpool since the February of 2011. Last three meetings between his West Brom team and Liverpool had ended in stalemates. In the last one at Anfield, Reds were able to secure a point on due to a 95th minute long range strike from Divock Origi and faced ridicule as Klopp took his team to celebrate in front of the Kop. So, some apprehension was in order.
Especially so, as Liverpool are embarking on a run of seemingly easy games after dealing quite admirably with one of the most difficult starts to a league campaign. These easy games, at least in last two seasons, have been the bane of Reds’ dreams. Lately, Liverpool have had huge troubles beating such “easily beatable” sides, who have come to Anfield and played out a physical game or parked the bus. Last Monday’s draw against Manchester United and the loss to Burnley earlier in the season, indicated that this weakness has not been completely dealt with.
So how did Liverpool deal with West Brom on Saturday? We can say that they coped quite well.
Liverpool started with the reluctant-to-drop-back Sturridge on the bench and Firmino in his now familiar central role at the top. Lallana slotted back in to the midfield. While they took some time to warm up, once they got primed they were moving in top gear. In the 20th min, Firmino’s brilliant chip was slotted coolly in to the bottom left corner of the goal by Sadio Mane for his fourth league goal of the season and then in 35th minute, Mane’s pass allowed Coutinho to cut in to the box and shoot past Forster’s right side.
From then onwards, it was Liverpool who were continuously threatening the West Brom goal. Whether it was Clyne’s brilliant cross that Can was unable to put a foot to, or whether it was Firmino, Can and Milner’s shots that were blocked by the Baggies defense, it was all Liverpool. West Brom had the first whiff of some life at the other end when they earned their first corner in the 70th minute. Liverpool did not clear it properly and Nacer Chadli, the Baggies’ talisman from recent games, scooped a shot above the Reds’ goal.
West Brom had a spring in their step after this, as Milner fouled the substitute Robson-Kanu and Gareth McAuley’s header led to another corner for the Baggies. As has become usual, the Reds did not deal with the corner very well, allowing McAuley again to slot the ball in to their goal. Liverpool’s woes around set-piece defending continue to haunt them. This goal set up a nervy finish and in the next 10 minutes chances were created at both ends, but neither team managed to score. This win stretched Reds’ unbeaten streak in all competitions to 9 games and made this the 12th unbeaten home league game (W7,D5).
As expected, Liverpool had more possession, more passing accuracy, more final third passes and more shots. The key number was the number of shots they attempted and the number of blocks/ saves that the Baggies put in. Reds had thrice the number of shot attempts compared to their May meeting with West Brom and 1/3rd of them were on target. Five of these were saved or blocked but two went in.
The number of shots is actually more comparable to the home game against West Brom from last December. Then, Reds had more shot attempts (28), and comparable number of shots on target. But as you can see below, most of the shots (including the 95th minute equalizer) were from outside the box, while on Saturday, most of shots on target were from inside the box.
Liverpool’s Shots Against West Brom in Last Two Home Games
Liverpool’s front three and the midfielders Lallana and Can, along with the full backs who bombed forward at the slightest opportunity, created more incisive movement, allowing for moves behind West Brom’s already deep line. Six of these seven players were able to either shoot from inside the box or cross from behind the Baggies defense.
On the other hand, most of Liverpool’s shots last December came from outside the box. So while in both the instances, Reds scored two goals, Liverpool were more threatening on Saturday, as compared to last December. This to me, is the key difference between the two performances.
Other stats that struck me as interesting were that Liverpool won more aerial duels versus one of the tallest outfits in the league. Also, the Baggies played 40% of their passes to a final third destination, while only 33% of Liverpool’s passes were in the final third.
What Lies Ahead
West Brom are currently 13th in the league three points away from 18th placed Hull. Also, for them the difficult fixtures have just started with Tottenham last weekend and Liverpool on Saturday. A desperate to win Manchester City and wounded champions Leicester are the next two. Chelsea, Man United, and Arsenal are all yet to be played. For many minnows, this could seem like extremely daunting fixtures to deal with, but this team, given how they performed against Spurs and in the second half at Anfield, should be able to rise to those challenges.
This win and other results helped Klopp’s side end the game week at third position, behind City and Arsenal on goal difference. The toughest games (on-paper) in Liverpool’s next nine league fixtures are against Bournemouth and Southampton (both away). In all the others, Liverpool will be the favorites to win. If the Reds can win most of these fixtures, they should be able to celebrate Christmas in a very strong position.
Perhaps then people will find it less funny if Klopp and his team decide to celebrate in front of the Kop.