There’s a fine line between being lackadaisical and being confident. As people who, of their free will have chosen to support Liverpool FC, it is anxiety and neurosis that have been most familiar in the years since the solidity of the Rafa Benitez era came to a close. From ol’ Woy to an aging King to the “Outstanding” Brendan Rodgers, the turbulent times since the 2008-9 title challenge have been typified by the unease that creeps into the mind of every Red fan whenever things are going too well.
It’s still early days yet, but 2 1⁄2 years into the Jurgen Klopp reign, that fear might finally have been banished. As one would have it, anxiety of this sort goes when a football team finally realizes that they’re really, really good. Case in point was the atmosphere in the squad and throughout the grounds as Liverpool welcomed David Moyes’ West Ham to Anfield that was almost hard to describe. Laidback but not casual; relaxed but not careless. Indeed, the crowd seemed to be more interested in Patrice Evra’s return to the stadium as a starter for the Hammers, impressively booing the ex-Man United full back’s every touch for the full 90 minutes (although a brief cameo of the Luis Suarez song insinuated that there were slightly more resentful reasons for the persistence).
Pogba - goal scored in all competitions: 3— Dinesh Kumar (@DHardayal) February 24, 2018
Firmino - goals scored without looking: 3
The actual game was the football equivalent of the ballyhooed, made for TV matchup between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor last year in which the undefeated boxing champ gamely traded blows with the fish-out-of-water MMA star for entertainment purposes, knowing all the while that the result was his to decide.
Example: straight out of the gate, a slide rule pass from James Milner to Roberto Firmino found Mohamed Salah inside the box, with the on-fire winger cannoning a shot the wrong side of the post inside three minutes. The crowd moaned but there were no exasperated throwing up of the hands from the Egyptian. He, as everyone else in the stadium there knew that would only be the first of many, many such chances.
Languid is great word to describe it. Displaying a Messi-like economy of movement, Salah in particular was decidedly—almost purposefully—invisible save the occasions he chose to pop up to fire on goal and scare the living daylights out of the West Ham defense.
That it was Emre Can and not one of the magical front three of Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané, who opened the scoring on a corner, rising above Evra to head home on 29 minutes, was the only real surprise. Salah with his own header and Can again on the break had solid chances to add to the 1-0 lead before half time but came up just short. Even so, a few body blows were absorbed as the excellent Marko Arnautović gave Loris Karius something to do with several class efforts on goal, such that Moyes would’ve gone into the break feeling confident there was something to be had from the game.
Unfortunately for the man who has somehow managed Everton, United and in Spain, the Reds came back out of the tunnel weary of the games, with the front three of Salah, Firmino and Mané each taking turns punching in their perfunctory goals. First up was Salah, who patiently waited in the West Ham box for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to complete the sort of mazy run that was that combination of persistence, scrappiness, bull-headed dribbling and luck that typifies much of the Englishman’s game, leaving the Reds’ #11 simply sweep home. Firmino got in on the action mere minutes later, latching onto one of Can’s long balls over the top the German had been trying all match to make it 3-0. At this point we’re twelve minutes into the second half.
The Ox, along with Can and Milner proceeded to take over, absolutely bossing the game, as each played to their strengths. The Arsenal castoff came alive in the second half, engineering chance after chance and truly taking the advanced role in the engine room to heart. Utility man Milner was all over the park, touching the ball more than anyone in the side, always playing the right ball at the right time, completing 89% of his passes, popping up at the right moment to make the timely intervention and generally making a case to be named in the first choice midfield. Can’s goal and assist to go along with a combative showing had a good shout for the man of the match award. While the front three may have gotten the plaudits as the tip of the spear, it was a complete performance by the midfield that provided the thrust.
Nevertheless, the Londoners still valiantly gave it a go, rallied on by Arnautović (what a player), briefly clawing their way back into the match. Probably the only player in the park capable of out-muscling Can in Cheikhou Kouyaté brushed the German off the ball before finding sub Michail Antonio on the break to make it 3-1 as hope briefly returned for the visitors, since, as the cliché goes, “the next goal was crucial.” Encouraged, Arnautović was the one to lead the press, urging his teammates to push up on the Liverpool back line (as an aside, the mobile ex-Stoke City center forward has seven goals and three assists for West Ham in 20 league matches. He’s very good. And probably available. #jussayin).
The Reds respectfully, mercifully made sure to kill off that hope on 77 minutes, playing out from the Hammer’s high press in as casual of a lightning quick attack as one can muster, covering the length of the pitch in seconds and capping off the move with a Mané tap-in at the end of an Andy Robertson cross.
And that was that. Over 100 goals for the season, 2nd in the table, unbeaten in 23 of the last 25 matches and on the verge of the Champions League quarterfinals. Languid, not lax.