Friday 20 July 2018

Pool push weary Bilic to brink

West Ham United 1 Liverpool 4

Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum battles for the ball. Photo: PA Wire
Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum battles for the ball. Photo: PA Wire

Jacob Steinberg

For West Ham, it was another forgettable experience at the London Stadium. Another drubbing in the sprawling environs that were supposed to take this perennially underachieving club to unimaginable heights, another night when the mood in the stands was mutinous at first and resigned by the time the final whistle arrived. It was another embarrassment on live television.

There was no hiding place for Slaven Bilic, who wore a grim, haunted look as he watched his team suffer the latest in a long line of humiliations. By the end, West Ham's manager could be grateful that Liverpool's finishing was not more ruthless, but he will be lucky if this 4-1 hammering does not cause the axe to fall. The next level? While victory for Liverpool moved Jürgen Klopp's side into sixth place, West Ham are heading for the Championship on this evidence.

For Bilic, this felt like another assignment with the potential to leave him exposed to yet more speculation about his future. It had been a fortnight since West Ham's last home game, that chaotic 3-0 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, and it is the Croatian's misfortune to exist in a monotonous state of limbo these days, with those incessant reports of the sack being two games away becoming more of a minor irritant than a genuine threat in recent weeks.

Yet the knowledge that the board's patience is not infinite meant that Bilic desperately needed his players to keep their self-destructive tendencies at bay here, it was a challenge they failed to negotiate quite spectacularly.

Slaven Bilic, Manager of West Ham United looks dejected during the game. Photo: Getty Images
Slaven Bilic, Manager of West Ham United looks dejected during the game. Photo: Getty Images

They faced opponents, after all, who also have a habit of making life needlessly difficult for themselves. Liverpool fell apart as a defensive unit on their last visit to London, losing to Tottenham Hotspur in a manner that raised further questions about Klopp's approach, and there was a sense that West Ham's forwards fancied their chances against Ragnar Klavan and Joël Matip.

The volume inside the London Stadium reached fever pitch during the opening exchanges, a consequence of West Ham's determination to make an intense start, and the hosts almost took an early lead when Manuel Lanzini's deflected pass ran kindly for André Ayew, only for the forward to loft the ball over Simon Mignolet and against the woodwork.

Liverpool's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo: PA Wire
Liverpool's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo: PA Wire

It was the kind of chance that West Ham had to convert. Although Liverpool took a while to settle into a 4-2-3-1 system that saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right and Mohamed Salah operating in the hole behind Roberto Firmino, their attack still possessed breathtaking speed and menace, even without the injured Philippe Coutinho. Sadio Mané was back after a month out with hamstring trouble and there was a barely time to pause for breath during that three-minute spell when the game spiralled out of West Ham's control midway through the first half.

Bilic's side had been growing in confidence when, to the considerable satisfaction of the home crowd, they won a corner on the right. Yet what happened next beggared belief.

The ball was easily cleared from the corner and then, inexplicably, Aaron Cresswell found himself confronted by three Liverpool attackers in full flight after West Ham came off worse in a 50-50 challenge in the middle. The loss of discipline and shape was unacceptable and there was no catching Mané as he sped away before feeding Salah, who took a touch before slipping a low finish past Joe Hart.

The entire sequence unfolded at such potent speed that West Ham were left dazed and confused. Being generous, perhaps that explained the woeful defending that allowed Matip to enhance Liverpool's dominance moments later. Salah's low corner hit Mark Noble and although Hart showed sharp reflexes, Matip was one of several visiting players queuing up to gobble up the rebound.

Liverpool had not been at their most fluent, but it had hardly mattered against a team as disorganised as Bilic's. Yes, West Ham had selection issues in defence, with Sam Byram, James Collins and José Fonte injured and Pablo Zabaleta suspended, while the absence of the hamstrung Michail Antonio deprived them of attacking dynamism. Their problem, however, is a regular inability to perform the basics and they were incapable of containing Liverpool, even after Lanzini had hauled them back into the contest early in the second half.

Bilic's response at the break was to introduce Andy Carroll in place of Edimilson Fernandes, who struggled at right wing-back, and switch from 3-4-1-2 to a gung-ho 4-2-4. The sight of Carroll seemed to unnerve the visitors and it became apparent Bilic had hoped to exploit Liverpool's frailties at the back. An increasingly direct approach paid off when Ayew's deep cross reached Lanzini, who steered his shot past Mignolet, and that was not the only chance for West Ham during a frenzied second half.

Perhaps West Ham were still feeling giddy after Lanzini's goal, though. Liverpool's response was immediate, Firmino charging through the middle and finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, who beat Hart at the second attempt. The outstanding Mané created another goal for Salah with a quarter of an hour to play as the Egyptians driven low finish from the winger's beautifully clipped pass signalled the cue for the home fans to make for the exits.

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