Monday 16 December 2019

Rodgers' tired Reds get tough East End lesson from Hammers

West Ham United 3 Liverpool 1

West Ham United goalkeeper Adrian clashes with Mario Balotelli during Liverpool's defeat at Upton Park. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
West Ham United goalkeeper Adrian clashes with Mario Balotelli during Liverpool's defeat at Upton Park. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Raheem Sterling scores for Liverpool as teammate Mario Balotelli jumps to avoid the shot during the Premier League match against West Ham United at Upton Park. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Morgan Amalfitano scores West Ham United's third goal against Liverpool during their Premier League match at Upton Park. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Brendan Rodgers was as blunt as his team were bland: Liverpool, he said, were "nowhere near" the standard they set last season.

Saturday's defeat at West Ham leaves them with three defeats from the opening five Premier League games and though the sale of Luis Suarez is the most obvious difference on the pitch, some of the concerns go beyond that.

It is not just that Liverpool are missing the Uruguayan's brilliance up front; they are also missing the fluency and rampant attacking that characterised their surge to a second-place finish last season.

There has been a marked drop-off in overall performance and they need to rediscover lost verve.

Conspicuous

That was most conspicuous in the second half at Upton park, where Liverpool created hardly anything up front.

Their goal­scorer, Raheem Sterling, was the only attacker anywhere close to last season's best and until the team start winning, doubts will persist about the quality of the new signings.

Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana started on the bench and there were not many players on the field to give West Ham real cause to worry.

The parallels with Tottenham Hotspur's expenditure following the sale of Gareth Bale have already been raised and there remains the question whether Liverpool should have used more of the Suarez money to go for one £40m player rather than a collection of cheaper options. Rodgers offered another explanation for their slump, citing the extra demands of competing in the Champions League.

"It's a tiring competition, one that's mentally draining, but we've earned the right to be in the competition and we have to also do well in the Premier League," the manager said.

Sam Allardyce said he had specifically directed his West Ham side to take advantage of the visitors' fatigue.

It was all the more pointed because his side did to Liverpool what Liverpool have recently done to so many - they caught them by surprise from kick-off, with Winston Reid and ­Diafra Sakho both scoring within the first seven minutes.

"We did a high press [based] on the fact it's the first time Liverpool have been in the Champions League for [five] years and that's such a big game for Liverpool to be back there, the atmosphere at Anfield," Allardyce said.

"It's not only physically, but emotionally [draining] and I think most of the team that played in that game played here.

"We thought they would want to control the tempo and get it quite slow to begin with and feel their way into the game.

"[Their tiredness] was part of the game plan, in that Liverpool will always try to play out from the back."

From the first whistle, Liverpool were stunned by the Hammers' intensity, their Weetabix crunch in the tackle, the way they pursued the man in possession like contract killers.

These were the same qualities that marked Liverpool out last season, but here they were strangely absent.

Not until the second half did they approach their former vigour and by that stage, they were chasing the game.

Reid's goal after 75 seconds set the tone, West Ham capitalising on Simon Mignolet's strange passivity under the high cross. Reid took the plaudits after nodding in James Tomkins' knock-back, but the real credit should go to Stewart Downing, whose wonderful free-kick created the opportunity.

If you want some idea of how strange the first half was, then here it is: for half an hour, Downing played like Pele.

He pillaged, he ransacked, planted at the attacking tip of West Ham's diamond midfield, he beat players, began attacks and occasionally tried to finish them too.

We can even forgive him his run and ill-judged shot from 25 yards when Sakho was better placed, for by this stage Downing was simply admiring himself, like a Greek goddess who had become beguiled by her own beauty.

By this stage, Sakho, too, had made his mark on the game, doubling West Ham's lead with a delightful chip from the right-hand edge of the penalty area after gathering Mark Noble's pass.

Gifts

At the other end, Mario Balotelli was passing time the way all surly street kids do, by wandering around aimlessly and picking needless fights. He tangled with goalkeeper Adrian, the pair squaring up.

Both earned yellow cards, but Balotelli's might well have been red had Fabio Borini not dragged him away.

Another reminder that for all his myriad gifts, Liverpool have spent £16m on a striker with all the emotional intelligence of a large saucepan.

With only a quarter of the game gone, Rodgers had to act. He replaced right-back Javier Manquillo with centre-back Mamadou Sakho and switched to a 3-5-2.

The new system allowed the midfield to get further forward and it paid immediate dividends when Sterling scored.

Balotelli's sublime trap, turn and shot was blocked by Aaron Cresswell, but the ball sat up pleasingly for Sterling, who smashed the ball in from 18 yards.

You know the way these games are supposed to go.

The stronger team slowly ratchets up the pressure and the closing stages turn into a siege.

In fact, it was West Ham who continued to attack more incisively, not just after the Liverpool goal, but into the second half. And although Liverpool came into the game a little more over the final half hour, rarely did they enjoy anything approaching dominance.

The replacement of Enner Valencia by centre-half James Collins with 15 minutes left heralded another change of formation - this time West Ham to 5-5-0 - as Allardyce recalibrated his team to hoof the ball forward.

Then, as Liverpool ran themselves into a lather, West Ham applied the finish.

Downing, still in superhero mode, broke out of defence and played the ball into the path of substitute Morgan Amalfitano, who placed the ball past Mignolet.

They were dancing in the aisles. A Sam Allardyce team had just given Liverpool a footballing lesson. Work that one out. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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