Case Study: Liverpool 3-2 West Ham United 24/2/2020

Case Study: Liverpool 3-2 West Ham United 24/2/2020

Liverpool West Ham line-ups

Tasting rare defeat against Atletico Madrid last week, Liverpool had plenty of time to stew before a Monday night fixture against West Ham as they march towards Premier League glory.

Jurgen Klopp made one change to the team that started in Madrid, with Naby Keita filling in for the injured Jordan Henderson in the Reds’ usual 4-3-3 formation.

David Moyes set up West Ham in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Mark Noble playing in a more advanced role behind Michail Antonio.

West Ham were more aggressive than they had been last time around, where the Londoners had sat back in a 5-4-1 and allowed Liverpool to waltz past them. They occasionally pushed high up the pitch in an attempt to stop Liverpool playing out from the back, but generally they would drop off into two banks of four, with Noble ahead of them marking Fabinho and Antonio left in attack.

West Ham 4-4-1-1
West Ham 4-4-1-1

Liverpool found it quite easy to play around this though. Fabinho could easily lose Noble by dropping back alongside the centre-backs or one of Georginio Wijnaldum or Keita would drop back next to him to pick up the ball. With the other one of Keita and Wijnaldum pushing up between the lines, Roberto Firmino dropping off and Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane positioned narrow, West Ham’s centre midfielders were reluctant to move up and pressure them, and, as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson pushed on down the wing, the West Ham wingers were often dragged deep too.

West Ham's wingers are dragged deep by the Liverpool full-backs pushing forward. Keita drops back alongside Fabinho and can pass into the forwards.
West Ham’s wingers are dragged deep by the Liverpool full-backs pushing forward. Keita drops back alongside Fabinho and can pass into the forwards.

If West Ham stayed narrow to stop any gaps opening up between the midfielders, Liverpool would pass wide to the full-backs to send in a cross and, if the wingers tried to stay close to Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, Liverpool could find a gap through the centre to play a pass. If West Ham managed to close the gaps, Liverpool simply switched sides and tried down the other flank.

Liverpool took the lead through what was a fairly simple goal. The ball bobbled wide and Alexander-Arnold whipped in a cross. Liverpool were three-against-two at the back post, so free man Wijnaldum went unmarked to head home while Issa Diop and Jeremy Ngakia preoccupied themselves with Salah and Mane.

As Alexander-Arnold goes to cross, Liverpool are three-against-two at the back post
As Alexander-Arnold goes to cross, Liverpool are three-against-two at the back post

West Ham immediately conjured a reply. Just as Atletico had, they got their goal from a corner. Joe Gomez went to follow Declan Rice’s run to the near-post, but Diop stepped across him to block his run only for the ball to sail over Rice and onto Diop’s head. Had Gomez gone goalside of Diop he would probably have been in a position to defend the header, yet as he was trying to get around the opposite side of him to follow Rice, Diop’s header went into the net, with Alisson Becker, busy trying to push Antonio in the opposite direction, unable to make the save.

Diop moves to block Gomez from following Rice’s run. Gomez tries to get around him rather than staying goalside. Alisson is pushing Antonio in the opposite direction just before he has to dive.

After equalising, Antonio and Felipe Anderson switched positions, with West Ham forming more of a 4-4-2 out of possession. This limited the space Wijnaldum or Keita had to drop off into, but Gomez and Virgil van Dijk would simply push forward out of defence, so it didn’t really have any effect on the game other than Antonio being better defensively. By the end of the half, they had switched back again.

West Ham 4-4-2
West Ham 4-4-2

Fabinho aside, Liverpool weren’t particularly intense out of possession and so, while West Ham weren’t particularly inventive in their attacking, they were able to get the ball wide and get men forward so there were plenty of men in the area to compete for crosses. They took the lead when Rice found substitute Pablo Fornals with a cross.

West Ham push men forward for crosses
West Ham push men forward for crosses

The goal seemed to finally rattle Liverpool awake. They had been manipulating West Ham’s movements well but a little too calmly, giving them time to recover. Going behind saw Liverpool mainly continue to do the same things, but at a higher pace. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s introduction in place of Keita also helped, offering more direct running and a willingness to rain down shots on goal. They simply became much more direct.

It didn’t take Liverpool long to equalise. They sent a ball wide to Robertson, who pushed forward into a position to cross. Rice and Noble were slow to track back though, leaving space ahead of the West Ham defence to exploit. Salah darted into that space and Robertson pulled the ball back for him, squeezing a shot through Lukasz Fabianski’s hands.

Liverpool attack down the left
Liverpool attack down the left
Noble and Rice are slow to get back, leaving space ahead of West Ham's defence
Noble and Rice are slow to get back, leaving space ahead of West Ham’s defence
Salah peels off into this space and Robertson pulls the ball back for him to score
Salah peels off into this space and Robertson pulls the ball back for him to score

Their winner was more fortunate. Slipping as he shot, Gomez’s attempt probably wasn’t much of a threat, but it deflected off of Noble up into the air. Only Diop and Aaron Cresswell reacted to the danger though, so when Alexander-Arnold got to the loose ball before Fabianski, he could lift it to Mane free as a bird at the opposite post.

Gomez's shot deflects off of Noble up into the air
Gomez’s shot deflects off of Noble up into the air
Only Diop and Cresswell react
Only Diop and Cresswell react
Mane scores an easy tap-in
Mane scores an easy tap-in

Liverpool’s more considered style has brought them such success this season that it’s understandable that they can sometimes become a little too relaxed. Against West Ham, they seemed to have a good grip on the game only to fall behind. The goals seemed to shake them out of this complacency though: there was no shock or panic, they simply turned it up a notch and got their three points.

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