David Moyes lost to Liverpool again at a ground where he has never won, but that doesn’t mean his observations about the vulnerabilities of Jurgen Klopp’s team were worthless.
You could sense his reluctance as a former manager of Everton and Manchester United to lavish the sort of emphatic praise where his quotes become the headline of the day, but Moyes had already admitted that this Liverpool attack is the most dangerous he had encountered since taking charge of West Ham.
He then agreed with the suggestion that trying to figure out how to stop Liverpool’s current front three has posed more challenges to him than any combination that has gone before – say Fernando Torres with Steven Gerrard just behind him, or Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling not so long ago.
“I think [Mohamed] Salah is definitely one you feel can make the difference,” he said of the Egyptian forward, whose 31st goal of an outstanding campaign had put Liverpool 2-0 up. “The things he does, it’s always the job to try and stop him as much as we could.”
Salah’s threat explains why Moyes chose two left backs in Aaron Cresswell and Patrice Evra. This meant, however, that West Ham were unable to push into the areas that he believes are Liverpool’s tender spots. Moyes was not talking about individuals and he was certainly not being critical of Jürgen Klopp’s planning because every system is there to be figured out.
“I think for a lot of teams it’s hard because they put an awful lot of pressure on you; they’re in good positions to press, especially their midfield three and the front three,” Moyes said. “Because of the [narrow] front three and the midfield you can get into wide areas and cause them some problems. Maybe there’s not quite as much protection. But we couldn’t get into those areas as much as we’d like. I thought we still looked a threat. There were moments where we could have maybe made more of the chances.”
Had Marko Arnautovic’s chip not been tipped onto the crossbar by Loris Karius when it was 0-0, the mood inside Anfield could have been different but Moyes was probably leaning on the positives too much as far as the performance of his side was concerned. Twelve of Liverpool’s 21 shots had been on target and aside from their four goals they hit the post four times. Liverpool had been wasteful and their victory may have been a landslide in the end.
Any balanced listener can still appreciate what Moyes is getting at, though. Considering the risks taken by Klopp, his midfield certainly cannot surrender possession easily as Emre Can did for West Ham’s goal. Suddenly, the full-backs were out of position and suddenly, the scoreline was 3-1.
Klopp’s attacking approach is based on overloading with traditional wide players in Salah and Sadio Mané pushing in-field, placing enormous pressure on the opposing centre backs particularly if there are only two of them. They become overwhelmed and this then leaves space on the wings for Liverpool’s full backs to push into, like Andy Robertson did when he supplied Mané for Liverpool’s fourth. To watch Liverpool stream forward as they do is to watch football from the 1920s, when there were five attackers and a guarantee of goals in most matches.
Every team has a weakness but it often boils down to whether an opponent has the quality, the confidence or the strategy to exploit it and West Ham did not. Liverpool’s approach is indeed high risk but in order to overcome it, opponents need to either take the sort of risks that may result in a battering, or decide as Swansea did, to concede almost all of the possession to Liverpool.
This links back to Moyes’s thoughts about the narrow midfield, a midfield that is filled with the stamina to cover gaps and counter attacks, though one that might not possess the incisiveness to break down the most determined defenders like those at Swansea. A Stakhanovite midfield is not always the most creative one; athletes are rarely great passers of the ball but perhaps Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will emerge as that player for Klopp, someone whose trickiness and verve against West Ham meant that with better finishing, he would have had a hat-trick of assists.
Klopp would later describe the full-back position as “one of the most important in world football.” He deserves credit for turning what appeared to be a problem position from an individual perspective at the start of the season into one which is a strength, taking into account the sort of structural matters each full-back has to consider. The passing ranges of both Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold additionally mean Liverpool do not always necessarily need the midfield to open up a defence. Klopp would also confirm that Joe Gomez, who has had an impressive season alternating with Alexander-Arnold, will eventually switch to the centre of defence.
With ten league games to go and Liverpool almost guaranteed a place in the Champions League quarter final, Klopp believes his challenge now is to keep his players focused. He had spent much of the summer and autumn encouraging his squad to engage with each other and become friends – to like one another and to form bonds. He is wary about the possibility of those relationships leading to a loss of edge, particularly when there is so much praise following three victories on the bounce where Liverpool have scored 12 goals. He is wary of Liverpool going “completely soft.”
“If this would be the first day of the season and we would know as much now as we do now about each other that would be a perfect world,” Klopp reflected. “Now we know so much about each other, now we like each other, now we have better times with each other in private and on the football pitch. Now we need to stay angry with the rest of the world, we need to stay aggressive. That’s the thing. At the beginning of the season you don’t have a lot of laughter in the dressing room, it’s not like there are laughs all the time. Now when we eat it’s like, ‘Come on, please, settle’. We are in a good moment, they are fantastic guys, they all like each other, a few jokes. Keep this going without getting soft. That’s it. If it’s a bad moment maybe you have to do the same or the opposite. That’s the job.”
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