Thursday, April 25, 2024

Liverpool 3-1 West Ham: Talking points as Merseysiders build on strong Premier League start

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Liverpool triumphed over West Ham by 3-1 at Anfield on Sunday, courtesy of a Mohamed Salah penalty (16′), a fine finish by Darwin Nunez (60′), and a show of composure from close range by substitute Diogo Jota (85′). The only goal for the visitors was the work of Jarrod Bowen (42′), reportedly considered as a potential target by Liverpool in recent transfer windows.

Are Liverpool back?

Following an epic but ultimately failed charge on an unprecedented quadruple in 2021/22, Liverpool struggled greatly with what appeared a mixture of physical and mental fatigue last season. The result was that they failed to finish inside the top four and are now consequently playing in the Europa League, after playing in three Champions League finals in previous five years.

The midfield section has been rebuilt this summer, with Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch coming in to replace Naby Keita, James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is gone as well, but the former Arsenal man had hardly made any contribution to the cause since an ACL rupture kept him out of action for almost a year, between April 2018 and March the following year.

And it seems the improvement achieved with the acquisitions of the four newcomers is already notable. Mac Allister and Szoboszlai are particularly making a difference, while Endo appears set for a squad role and Gravenberch, the last to come in, is still adapting to his new work environment.

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Be that as it may, Liverpool now have five victories and one draw from six league games played, and only defending champions Manchester City have done better. Before Liverpool’s drop last season, the two teams were often neck-and-neck at the top of the table, and given that we’re seeing something similar at the moment, the inevitable question has been asked: are Liverpool back?

Speaking to the press ahead of this match, manager Jurgen Klopp was prompted to give his opinion, and was very cautious about it. He insisted it was too early for that kind of assessment – a very reasonable reply. After all, the season is very long and all foresight could fail in a very short time span.

“Something is growing but I have no clue how it will go,” the German tactician said.

The amazing Salah

Since joining Liverpool in 2017, Salah has broken many records. Some of them have been broken by others since, and some remain. But in this game, the incredible Egyptian has set another one.

By scoring from the spot, after winning the penalty himself, he has stringed 12 Premier League matches together in which he has either scored or assisted, and he has become the first player in the history of the English flight to have done so twice. In 2021, he took that tally to 15, a mark that’s now within sights again.

 

There was plenty of media uproar about the possibility, as they called it, of Salah leaving Liverpool this summer, with Saudi club Al-Ittihad said to be offering vast amounts of money to secure his services. But for those who don’t enjoy thrilling titles and click-bait articles, the truth was always plain to see.

Salah never spoke about it, but his agent did say there had been no thought about leaving Anfield this summer at all, and Klopp himself firmly stated on numerous occasions that the answer to any questions about the winger from any other club would be “no”.

However, it’s also obvious that Salah will have a year remaining on his contract at the end of this season, at the age of 32, and the situation is likely to become much less certain then. Providing the interest from Saudi Arabia remains as strong, and early reports suggest it may become even stronger, it may be that the time for him to consider the next chapter of his career will have come. With Liverpool not playing in the Champions League this term, that would, of course, mean Salah never wearing the club’s shirt in Europe’s elite competition again. That may be a factor for him to consider staying put and going for the great trophy one more time, always presuming they qualify, but it remains to be seen if the lure of such a prospect proves enough.

The only thing that seems clear is, if Salah leaves next summer, Liverpool will have a tough job of securing a suitable replacement.

The Nunez debate

Nunez largely split the views of the football public since he joined Liverpool last year. It obviously took time for him to settle in and he wasted an incredible number of clear-cut chances last season (a trait that hasn’t wholly left him yet), but he’s starting to find his feet. This season, he has scored or assisted every 52 minutes on the pitch – a fantastic output.

Most notably, he was the hero of Liverpool’s unlikely triumph against Newcastle at St. James’ Park, coming off the bench to score twice and turn the game around, despite his team consisting of only 10 players for over an hour.

In this game, the Uruguay international scored a superb goal, outrunning the West Ham defence to latch onto a pin-point pass from Mac Allister and place the ball in the net. Apart from that, he worked tirelessly throughout the 80 minutes he spent on the pitch – he was involved in play building, he was dangerous in and around the box, he pressed relentlessly, and he frequently dashed back towards his own goal to help with defending.

The passionate, aggressive young player who picked up an unnecessary red card at the start of last season, has certainly learned how to control that passion and channel his energy properly, and his hard work is paying off.

West Ham need… something

Liverpool absolutely deserved to win this game, there can be no question about it. But it should also be said that West Ham did very little wrong, in a tactical sense. Their players also worked very hard through the entire contest, but it obviously wasn’t enough to avoid defeat against a superior opponent.

Aware of Liverpool’s quality in that department, West Ham never sought to control possession, but when they did get the ball, the plan was clearly to move it forward and into the home team’s box as quickly as possible. They were rewarded for such an approach with Bowen’s skillful, extremely accurate header which beat Alisson Becker, bouncing off the post on its way into the net. Bowen could’ve added another goal in a similar way early in the second half, but that time he didn’t quite catch the ball the way he wanted to and Alisson made light work of it.

Even before Salah’s opener, West Ham had two very good chances created in their style, but they lacked a bit of luck and concentration to break the deadlock themselves.

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Looking at their team, the Hammers have some very good players in their ranks. Michail Antonio is a handful upfront, and the likes of Bowen and Lucas Paqueta on his flanks are also capable of troubling even the best among defenders. And with Edson Alvarez, Tomas Soucek and James Ward-Prowse in the middle of the park, and the back line consisting of Kurt Zouma, Nayef Aguerd, Vladimir Coufal and Emerson Palmieri, and Alphonse Areola between the posts, they really are a formidable, compact unit.

And if that isn’t enough, in this game they also had Said Benrahma, Pablo Fornals and recently acquired Mohammed Kudus on the bench as potential game changers, coupled with the experience of Angelo Ogbonna, Thilo Kehrer and Lukasz Fabianski.

There can be no doubt that West Ham have made fantastic progress under David Moyes, rising from a team that used to be happy with avoiding a relegation scramble, to one challenging for Europe on a regular basis and getting their reward through the Europa Conference League trophy last season.

But the big question West Ham now need to ask themselves is where they want to go from here. If they want to continue the progress and work towards being in the race for a Champions League spot, which is extremely competitive in the Premier League these days, they need more quality, as well as the ability to keep their star players. They need several players at the level of, for example, Declan Rice, who left them for Arsenal this summer. They can do it either by spending big on some established names, or doing something like Brighton and Hove Albion have been doing for the last couple of years – unearthing gems where other clubs don’t bother looking too hard.

Or they can stay where they are, hovering just above the halfway line in the Premier League table. The choice is theirs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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