Liverpool took one step closer to Champions League qualification for next season with a convincing 4-0 victory away at West Ham.
The Reds went into this game knowing they simply had to win their remaining two games against the Hammers and already relegated Middlesbrough to seal Champions League qualification – but it wasn’t to be easy against an in form West Ham side.
They had kept three consecutive home clean sheets for the first time since 2010 – and with the hosts ending Tottenham Hotspur’s title hopes last Friday, they were out to do the same to Liverpool’s top 4 aspirations. The Greater London outfit were unbeaten in their last four encounters against Jurgen Klopp’s side.
To be fair, West Ham may have been missing the likes of Andy Carroll, midfield duo Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang through injury – which forced manager Slaven Bilic into a reshuffle against the Reds. However, it was simply men vs boys for 90 minutes.
Following the sleep-inducing performance in the 0-0 draw at Anfield against Southampton last time out, Klopp rightly made several personnel & tactical shuffles to the side. I was speaking about how a 4-4-2 diamond could be very effective with our personnel, and I was fortunately proven right! Klopp switched to the diamond, with Coutinho operating as a No. 8 with Georigino Wijnaldum on the other side. This meant Lallana was playing behind Divock Origi and Sturridge – albeit slightly more advanced than usual.
It was Coutinho’s pass which led to Liverpool’s opener – he drilled the ball from his own half into the path of Daniel Sturridge, who rounded Adrian before coolly slotting home. It was reminiscent of the form we’d been hoping for from the England international following his coveted inclusion into the side.
It stayed that way at half-time; but the visitors were extremely fortunate not to have their lead cancelled out. Dejan Lovren tried to overdo himself from a corner, and it fell to Andre Ayew – who somehow found the post from 2 yards out. You can call it luck, but it was fully deserved.
Coutinho made it 2 following a strong start to the second half from the Reds, with a composed drive into the bottom left corner after Wijnaldum hit the crossbar with a volley. The Brazilian bagged his second of the match four minutes later after rounding Adrian and smashing into an empty net in front of a baying Olympic Stadium.
Divock Origi put the icing on the cake with a tap-in. It may sound a blasphemy to say this, but there were in fact some mixed performances throughout – the likes of James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum respectively, but this article will focus on the positive performances.
Here are my three candidates for Man Of The Match:
1 – Philippe Coutinho
This really wasn’t a difficult call to make.
On Friday, Jurgen Klopp implied that Coutinho could be moving into a midfield role in 2017/18 – and he was moved into a No. 8 role against the Hammers here.
Having started the majority of the season out wide, the Brazilian’s best performances in fact come in the middle of the park; his creative deep passing, influence and guile offered something different that was missing in the midfield. He featured in this role often in the 2013/14 season, and was often not given the plaudits he should’ve been given that season in what proved to be a surprise title challenge.
He looked a lot more at home in this role – operating in a more advanced role in the diamond, he offered plenty of creativity on the ball. He set up Sturridge’s opener with a defence splitting pass, and showed angelic touch and dainty footwork for his two goals. Coutinho made a total of six key passes throughout – bar that free kick miss, it’s difficult to find a single flaw in his performance today.
This performances only broadens the evidence for him operating as a midfielder.
2 – Daniel Sturridge
Sturridge has gone under the radar this season often for failing to find the net often this season – but proved he still has the quality for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
His inclusion to the side following Roberto Firmino’s injury meant he was rightfully operating with Divock Origi up top – many had been suggesting him starting in a conventional 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-3-1; but he lacks the mobility to operate as a lone striker and thrives off a partner like he did in 2013/14.
The England international looked as sharp as ever; he timed his run to perfection and showed great poise & composure for the opener, and had a chance to score in the second half too. He was very lively throughout, and caused Jose Fonte & Winston Reid plenty of problems.
This performance has shown Sturridge has the ability – it may not be all over where his career at Merseyside is concerned so far. Can he produce this more consistently, though?
3 – Simon Mignolet
There weren’t many clear standout performers bar Coutinho and Sturridge – but goalkeeper Simon Mignolet had a relatively solid game.
He was rarely tested by the likes of Manuel Lanzini or Jonathan Calleri, in truth, but he was excellent when called upon.
The Belgian is beginning to command his area with increasing ease, and made several good saves from the likes of Edimilson Fernandes and Ashley Fletcher. He seems to have put a bad patch beyond him, and is entering a very good spell of form. The only concern is if he can sustain it.
Matip, like Mignolet, didn’t have his hands full as expected all game, but did his job very well. The centre-back caused West Ham several problems from set piece forays early on. One of his headers even hit the bar, and had several other opportunities from headers.
He was also sound defensively, not giving the isolated Jonathan Calleri a look in. Liverpool’s best CB, without a shadow of a doubt.
The implications are simple – win against Middlesbrough next week and top 4 is Liverpool’s. With the north east outfit already relegated, it’s likely they’ll deploy a low block. It is unlikely the visitors will cause any problems going forward for the Reds – they’ve only scored 27 goals all season. However, they have only conceded 50 goals all season – more than the 9 sides above them in the league. It will be interesting to see how Klopp’s side respond to the challenge.
One thing is for sure – it’s in Liverpool’s hands. They are a metre away from the finish line.