Knowing they’d need to win, Jürgen Klopp’s men showed the type of cutting edge that has been lacking in recent weeks as the Reds took full advantage of the fortuitous breaks against a West Ham side who had little more than pride to play for.
Slaven Bilic’s team enjoyed their best night at their new home ground last time out when they defeated London rivals, Tottenham, to end their winning streak and title challenge under the Friday night lights.
Due to injuries, the home side were without key personnel, including club captain, Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyaté and former Liverpool forward, Andy Carroll. Those absences saw Edimilson Fernandes and Håvard Nordveit make up the central midfield pairing with Jonathan Calleri up front.
Liverpool were without the injured Roberto Firmino while Lucas Leiva – who was a doubt leading up to the game – was on the substitutes’ bench.
That meant Daniel Sturridge started his first league game for Liverpool since the 2-2 draw at Sunderland on the 2nd January where the England international opened the scoring. Adam Lallana also returned to the starting line-up for the first time in just under two months.
Due to the personnel available to Klopp, the German manager opted for a diamond formation rather than his preferred 4-3-3.
Cutting the Diamond
This allowed Sturridge and Divock Origi to play in their more natural positions and the outcome suggests that individually, they are more effective as a pair rather than the central forward of a front-three.
The last time they started together was at home to Tottenham in the League Cup. Sturridge grabbing a brace to earn a 2-1 victory in late-October. Last season, the Reds travelled to Southampton in the League Cup quarter-final with both strikers starting up top. Despite conceding to now Liverpool winger, Sadio Mané, within the first minute, they managed to run out 6-1 winners with two for Sturridge and a hat-trick for Origi.
This formation could have been used in Mané’s absence, particularly when facing those sides who sat back. Unfortunately for Klopp, Sturridge has been unavailable too often. But Origi and Firmino may have found more joy against the likes of Southampton, Palace or Watford in recent weeks.
It’s an especially useful approach against three-man defences but there’s always the danger of being too narrow when not in possession. You’re potentially exposed down the flanks which West Ham’s Sam Byram nearly exploited in the opening stages.
Many expected Philippe Coutinho to play just behind the front two but that role was taken up by Lallana. Instead, Liverpool’s chief playmaker returned to the deeper role of the 2013/14 season. The campaign that saw Liverpool fall just short of winning their first Premier League title.
This allowed the creative Brazilian to have more space as West Ham defended deep in numbers. His eye for a through ball was evident when the former Inter Milan player found Sturridge in acres of space having broken the home side’s disjointed offside trap.
Showing great composure, Sturridge rounded Adrián before passing into an empty net to give Liverpool a vital first-half lead.
Prior to the first goal, Coutinho nearly provided an assist for Joel Matip on more than one occasion. The defender should have done better with a free header at the far-post but was denied by the crossbar, while there were two further instances that saw the Cameroonian head towards goal unchallenged. Those corners contributed to the game high six chances Coutinho created.
In the second half, Liverpool doubled their lead after Giorginio Wijnaldum’s brilliant volley cannoned off the bar only to be half cleared to Coutinho a little under 35-yards from goal. After a great first touch and dummy strike, he weaved his way to just outside the box before drilling into the bottom corner. It was a similar goal to the one he scored against Spurs in the line-ups image from 2014.
His second and Liverpool’s third of the day all but sealed an important victory as a swift counter-attack was emphatically finished. Dancing across the area with short strides and deft touches against defenders scared of bringing him down, Coutinho lashed home from close range to leave Adrián no chance.
That saw Liverpool’s number 10 reach a career high 12 league goals and eight assists which is the same goal involvement as Eden Hazard (15 goals and five assists). Coutinho is, however, 16 minutes better than his Chelsea counterpart in terms of minutes per goal (179 to 190).
Despite going three-clear, the away side needed a big slice of luck, particularly at one and two-nil.
Just before half-time, during which Simon Mignolet’s goal had rarely been threatened, Andre Ayew had a golden opportunity to equalise as Liverpool once again failed to clear a corner.
The former Swansea forward was unable to convert from a couple of yards as he struck the foot of the post with both attempts before Mignolet gratefully grabbed hold of the ball.
At two-nil, another West Ham corner not fully cleared saw Wijnaldum have an aerial duel with Winston Reid in the penalty box. The Dutch midfielder led with his arm which caught Reid and made contact with the ball but referee, Neil Swarbrick, failed to spot the incident. Adding salt to the wound, Liverpool went up the other end and scored their third much to the frustrations of Hammers’ players and supporters.
Following some great work by Sturridge down the right-flank, Wijnaldum then saw his miskick kindly fall to Origi who instinctively side-footed in at the near-post to cap a comfortable and deserved win, albeit with a bit of fortune.
The four consecutive away wins could all but seal Liverpool’s place in the top four, although they still have to beat already relegated Middlesbrough at home to confirm their place in Europe’s elite competition. This Sunday’s fixture can’t be taken lightly and Klopp was quick to point that out during his post-match interviews. Supporters only have to look at Sunderland’s post-relegation win away to Hull to realise that teams can perform better when there’s no pressure on the result.
For West Ham, this loss brought such a disappointing end to their debut season at the London Stadium that few fans remained to applaud their players during their lap of honour. Heading into the final round of fixtures, Bilic’s side can finish anywhere from 11th to 16th with rumours still circulating over the Croatian manager’s position.
EPL Results (Gameweek 37):
West Brom 0-1 Chelsea
Man City 2-1 Leicester
Bournemouth 2-1 Burnley
Middlesbrough 1-2 Southampton
Sunderland 0-2 Swansea
Stoke 1-4 Arsenal
Crystal Palace 4-0 Hull
West Ham 0-4 Liverpool
Tottenham 2-1 Man Utd
Chelsea 4-3 Watford
Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland
Man City 3-1 West Brom
Southampton 0-0 Man Utd
Leicester 1-6 Tottenham