Liverpool 4 - 0 West Ham United
Liverpool: Salah 19’, Mane 45+2’ & 53’, Sturridge 88’
The last competitive match that Liverpool played did not go well for the Reds. Playing in the Champions League final, main man Mohamed Salah was manhandled into an early injury, and then Loris Karius had the worst evening of his career. Bruised, battered, and shaken, but unbowed. Now, after months of adjustments, additions, and preparation, Liverpool would go again.
Would they be able to recapture the frantic goalscoring energy of last season, while minimizing the lapses in concentration that sometimes tripped them up against opposition they were expected to pummel? The manager cautioned against unrealistic expectations, emphasizing that Liverpool were still just challengers, comparing his side more to a Rocky Balboa than an Ivan Drago.
Based solely on today’s admittedly early returns, the signs suggest that Ivan Drago might have a fight on his hands this year.
To open the season, Jürgen Klopp’s side would host Manuel Pellegrini’s new look West Ham United. The Hammers have invested ambitiously, bringing onboard Felipe Anderson from Serie A as well as Andriy Yarmolenko from the Bundesliga, not to mention Jack Wilshere from wherever it is they found him. There was no doubt that West Ham had plucked Pellegrini back from the Chinese Super League to oversee something of a reconstruction of this side.
It would always be a big task to test that reconstruction effort against Klopp’s Liverpool. The sides started brightly, as they say. As they tend to do at home, the Reds buzzed and swarmed in the early phases, looking to discombobulate their visitors. West Ham, for their part, looked decently organized - Pellegrini had them well-balanced, neither overextending nor frozen in caution.
In earlier incarnations, Liverpool might have had issues facing a well-drilled side. There was a different feel to the opening phases of today’s match, and much of that might have been attributable to new signing Naby Keïta. As advertised, his blend of guile, directness, and vision was difficult for West Ham to deal with right from the whistle. Within minutes, he had launched a move from deep to find Salah, whose layoff for Firmino in the middle was just about dealt with by Michail Antonio’s desperate touch.
West Ham, when opportunities arose, looked to Wilshere to spring Anderson and Marko Arnautovic, the latter always with the potential to be a tricky customer against Liverpool. Against this side and at Anfield, Pellegrini had no doubt underscored the importance of tracking back to his forward players, and to their credit, they did so diligently in the first half.
The threat, however, was growing. Just after a quarter of an hour, James Milner - as industrious and as ubiquitous as ever - found himself in position on the right to deliver a tantalizing cross towards all three of Liverpool’s forwards. Amazingly, none of them got a telling touch, and West Ham would breathe again.
The reprieve was short. Keïta, once again carrying the ball forward, found Robertson to his left this time, and the fullback’s delivery was perfectly placed to neutralize both defenders as well as the goalkeeper. It was a simple chance for Salah to convert, and the Egyptian will be pleased to have opened his 2018-19 account so early in the campaign.
Though far from panicking, West Ham were now ever more clearly in a bend-don’t-break mode. Mark Noble gave up a free kick after attempting to undress Roberto Firmino on the pitch, and the ensuing effort from Trent Alexander-Arnold deserved a goal. It was kept out only by virtue of a stellar effort from Fabianski - not the first time or last time during this match that the former Arsenal and Swansea keeper would come to West Ham’s rescue.
In open play, Alexander-Arnold showed just a bit of rust with his deliveries, though his position was as solid as ever. Liverpool were eager to attack from both the left and right flanks, but their moves from the left - particularly their interplay involving Robertson, Mané, and Keïta, arguably carried the greater threat.
With the clock ticking towards half time, the ball found Salah unusually on the left this time. His effort was pinged around to Robertson, whose lofted pass eluded all defenders and found Milner just past the far post on the right. The No. 7’s volleyed cross was practically set on a plate for Mané to finish. West Ham looked to have had switched off mentally just before the break, and paid the price for it.
To rectify the situation following the break, Pellegrini brought on Robert Snodgrass for Declan Rice. A slightly odd choice, as it seemed to invite Keïta to wreak more havoc in midfield. Liverpool’s new No. 8 promptly obliged, with a little help from his friends. As the midfielder’s influence grew, Liverpool got their third through the usual suspects.
Milner unleashed Firmino in the middle, the defenders collapsed around the Brazilian, and the pass found a lurking nearby Mané (admittedly in an offside position), whose low shot left Fabianski flat-footed this time. It was now damage-control time for Pellegrini.
Chicharito and Yarmolenko were soon summoned from the bench to replace Felipe Anderson and Arnautovic respectively. It was somewhat of a disappointing day for the latter, who rarely troubled Liverpool’s back four, except for brief moment when a flash of indecision by Joe Gomez allowed Arnautovic to get into a shooting position. New keeper Alisson wasn’t troubled, and also dealt well with a close-range header from the ensuing corner.
In the minutes that remained, Klopp found some minutes for Jordan Henderson, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Daniel Sturridge. All three looked lively and hungry upon introduction, but none more so than Sturridge. The striker - almost a forgotten man in Liverpool’s recent history - found himself on the end of a Milner corner seconds after coming on, and scored the Reds’ fourth goal of the day with his first touch. Cue the dancing. In truth, Liverpool had already been dancing much earlier in this match.