Mo Salah superb as Liverpool wrap up confident 4-1 win at woeful West Ham
LONDON -- Three points from the Olympic Stadium as Liverpool wrapped up a comfortable 4-1 win at West Ham...
1. Liverpool stroll to victory
Usually in a game like this, you sense that the underdog's best chance of springing a surprise is by depending upon counterattacks and set-pieces. West Ham boast neither the technical quality nor the right system to genuinely outplay Liverpool in midfield, but in those two situations, almost outside the overall tactical battle, they might have caused problems.
Sadly, for Slaven Bilic's side, that wasn't the case; instead, West Ham conceded twice in three first-half minutes from a counter-attack and a set-piece, essentially finding themselves defeated after half an hour. It would only get worse from there as the visitors rounded out comfortable 4-1 victors.
You could even say both of Liverpool's first-half goals were set-pieces: one from a West Ham corner, the other from Liverpool corner. The opener came when Joel Matip cleared Manuel Lanzini's out-swinging corner and the ball broke perfectly for the devastating counter-attacking duo of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to launch a sudden breakaway. Salah's touch took the ball past Edmilson Fernandes, the duo raced downfield two-on-one, with lone Hammers defender Aaron Cresswell facing the kind of situation he'll have nightmares about for days. Mane delayed the pass long enough for Salah to sweep it past Joe Hart.
If the first was beautiful, the second was scrappy. Salah's scruffy low corner hit the hapless Mark Noble, forcing Hart into a decent save, and Matip couldn't miss with the rebound.
It's not the first time West Ham have conceded a counterattacking goal in the aftermath of their own attacking set-piece, nor the first time they've defended set-pieces poorly. Bilic will be hugely frustrated: West Ham weren't overly troubled in open play but dead-ball situations put them 2-0 down by the break.
Though Lanzini briefly split Liverpool's advantage in half with a well-taken finish from close range, confident finishes from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and another from Salah completed a dispiriting afternoon for Bilic and the Hammers.
2. Salah thrives in attacking midfield
Jurgen Klopp has generally deployed a 4-3-3 system at Liverpool since the start of last season, but on Saturday he tweaked his formation, fielding 4-2-3-1 and handed a different role to Salah, his side's best performer so far this campaign.
Whereas one would have expected Oxlade-Chamberlain to start in the central midfield role he supposedly wants to play alongside Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum, instead he was deployed in a more customary right-sided midfield role. Mane played to the left and Roberto Firmino led the line, which resulted in Salah playing as number 10, theoretically bridging the gap between midfield and attack.
"Theoretically" is the key word because in reality, Salah played more like a second centre-forward, and in possession, Liverpool seemed more like a 4-2-4, albeit with Mane and Oxlade-Chamberlain both regularly drifting infield. It was a slightly disjointed system, and while Salah is a tremendous counterattacking number 10 -- his performances for Fiorentina in that role were genuinely sensational -- it remains to be seen whether he has the intelligence to vary his position, drop into midfield and help Liverpool to play the type of passing triangle that unlocked Maribor in midweek for Can's excellent goal.
Salah stayed rather too high up the pitch, with he and Firmino playing into the hands of West Ham's three-man defence. What Liverpool surely required was someone who could drop off, create three-against-two situations in midfield to bypass Noble and Pedro Obiang. That's not really in Salah's nature, but both Firmino and Mane made more significant darts into those zones.
This looked set to be the game's key tactical battle: could Salah help Liverpool break down a deep defence? Two early goals from set-pieces, though, meant Liverpool didn't need to prove themselves dangerous in open play.
3. Careless West Ham could spell the end for Bilic
There have been occasions when West Ham have been genuinely dreadful under Bilic. This was not one of them, although the Hammers were just dreadfully flat, short of attacking spark or interplay between their attackers.
The hosts did, admittedly, hit the post at 0-0: a deflected pass ran through to Andre Ayew in the inside-right channel, and his dink over Simon Mignolet struck the outside of the goalkeeper's near post. But aside from that somewhat fortunate chance, there was otherwise nothing to shout about here.
Javier Hernandez is a brilliant penalty box operator but didn't even get the chance to operate in the penalty box. Lanzini floated around on the periphery, forced to spend too long on the left rather than in the centre where he can only play when West Ham have possession. Noble again looked short of Premier League quality in a display that featured a hopeless dive, a mistake for Liverpool's second goal and more running or pointing than orchestrating.
Bilic at least has a ready-made Plan B. At half-time, Andy Carroll was thrown on for Fernandes in a 4-4-2 and straight from the kick-off, West Ham launched the ball towards him. Carroll was blocked off, complained to the referee and that was about it. The home side demonstrated they had learned from their first-half mistakes when Winston Reid prevented a carbon copy of Liverpool's opener by cynically hacking down Mane on the break in the opening period of the second half, the ultimate "taking one for the team" challenge.
Yet the more direct approach got West Ham back into the game -- for one full minute. A deep cross from the right found Lanzini, who brilliantly shrugged off Joe Gomez, brought the ball down on his chest and lifted the ball into the net off the far post, a genuinely excellent finish boasting both strength and skill.
The bubbles were still streaming across the London Stadium when Liverpool immediately restored their two-goal lead. Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal, Liverpool's second rebound of the day after Hart had saved his initial shot, deflated the home support and many headed for the exits when, 15 minutes from time, Salah slammed in his second of the day with a fine left-footed half-volley into the far corner. At least it meant the full-time boos were less obvious than the half-time boos, but one senses that with the international break looming, it could be curtains for Bilic.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.