West Ham 2 Antonio 9', Carroll 55'
Liverpool's performance pattern under Jürgen Klopp is uncomfortable but predictable: win a couple of difficult matches to build belief and then fall back to earth with dismal showings against beatable sides. After consecutive league victories it seemed all too obvious for Liverpool to stumble against West Ham at Upton Park, and sure enough, the Reds laid an egg to start 2016.
The match began in familiar fashion with Liverpool slow out of the gate and West Ham eager to punish them for their dreariness. Playing on two days rest away from home against a solid side with wind swirling and the climate cool, it's easy to excuse such a start. But much of it could have been prevented. Ten minutes in, Michail Antonio
hacked down won the ball from Alberto Moreno deep in West Ham territory and set a lightning counter attack in motion that concluded with him beating Nathaniel Clyne in the air for a headed goal. Moreno's decision to stay down after the initial Antonio challenge forced his teammates to run out of position to cover his flank, opening up space for West Ham to attack. Because of the early goal, Liverpool never truly had a chance to settle into the game.
Not that they ever would have gained traction with a one-man midfield and an attack in disarray. Jordan Henderson's midweek injury opened a spot in the starting eleven for Lucas, who was eaten alive by the pace of the Hammers on the counter attack. Normally smart and well positioned if a step slow, Lucas was nowhere to be found in the midfield, leaving man-tank Emre Can with far too much ground to cover. Can is good and certainly growing into his midfield role, but there are not many on the planet who can deal with a formidable opponent in the midfield all alone. The situation was reminiscent of the times when Brendan Rodgers started legless Steven Gerrard alongside Jordan Henderson in a double pivot, which severely handicapped Henderson's game.
The attack experienced similarly frustrating results. Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino have not played well together this season but Jürgen Klopp included both players in the starting eleven because of a lack of attacking options due to injury. There have been games in which Benteke has shown flashes of excellence at least within his own parameters, but even his aerial game was abysmal against West Ham. Movement poor, touches poor, and nonexistent in the air, this was one of Benteke's worst performances of the season. Firmino, unsure of how to play with the big striker, failed to produce the sort of magic that fans expect to see out of him on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho shot six times from outside the box but failed to hit the target with any of his efforts. Liverpool need him to be an orchestrator above anything else, but he continues to take a back seat in the team's attack aside from his frustrating long shot obsession.
It was surprising that Klopp decided against half time changes in light of a disastrous first 45 minutes where Liverpool completed just one pass into the box and offered little resistance to West Ham's play, but to his credit, Liverpool came out with renewed fight to start the second half, maintaining possession for the opening seven minutes and pushing forward. But at the first change of ball control, West Ham surged ahead and supplied Andy Carroll with the ideal lofted ball into the box, which he duly headed past Simon Mignolet to push the scoreline to 2-0.
The match was essentially over by the time Klopp brought on substitutes. One can question why it was Firmino instead of Benteke to make way for Adam Lallana, but it probably wouldn't have made a difference either way. Brad Smith came on in place of Moreno and looked excellent in his stint on the pitch, giving Liverpool a slim silver lining on a humbling day.
Both sides could have scored in the final 30 minutes. Mignolet denied Andy Carroll with a triple save from close range while a Lucas header was cleared off the line by Mark Noble at the other end. Joe Allen also went close with an open header, but his effort sailed just high and wide.
With revenge on Liverpool's mind after an embarrassing 3-0 home defeat to the Hammers in August, West Ham were the ones on top from the get-go. Because of the continued ineffectiveness of other teams there's still plenty to play for in the league, but Klopp must guide his team on a sustained run of form rather than these irritating short bursts in order to keep pace with the top of the table.