Liverpool took a huge step towards qualification for next season’s Champions League with an emphatic 4-0 win away at West Ham. Klopp knew that getting the victory was paramount, and opted to change the system. The 4-4-2 diamond – familiar to fans from the memorable 13/14 campaign – was employed, signalling a change from the 4-3-3 the German has employed for the majority of his tenure. The performance was also reminiscent of the club’s best Premier League season of the last few years: Daniel Sturridge inevitably prompted nostalgia when he scored and danced once more, and Coutinho was again able to pull the strings from his deeper role. Klopp would surely be foolish to revert to a 4-3-3 for the final game against Middlesbrough – a win against the already-relegated side will confirm our return to the European elite.
It is no secret that Liverpool have been struggling to break down the ‘lesser’ sides of late. The 0-0 draw with Southampton was the latest in a string of underwhelming results against teams we should be beating – in the latter part of the season, it has been scoring rather than conceding that has been the primary issue. Clearly, the problem is not one of personnel: Mane is obviously a big miss, but Liverpool nonetheless have the attacking firepower to break any team down. It was the system that had to change: credit must go to Klopp for doing this, particularly at such a high-pressure point in the campaign. Fans have been clamouring for the return of the diamond formation for some time, and as it transpired this was one of the rare occasions where the body of supporter opinion was correct: Liverpool instantly looked more dangerous. The full-back pairing of Clyne and Milner means that attempting to pose a wide threat is a fruitless endeavour – instead, Klopp overloaded the centre of the park with an array of highly talented midfielders and gave them two strikers to pick out. The results were better than he could have hoped for, and the rewards truly started to be reaped with 36 minutes on the clock: Coutinho split the defence with a glorious pass, and Sturridge latched on to it before rounding Adrian with consummate ease and slotting the ball home. As excellent as the pass was, the movement was even better: Sturridge curved the run so as to stay onside, breaking at the perfect moment to get clear. It was a joyous moment to see him bring out his trademark dance again – it looked for a while as though we might have seen it for the last time, but here he emphatically showed that he is still a world-class striker.
Were it not for the performance of Coutinho, Sturridge would undoubtedly have picked up Man of the Match on his return to the starting eleven. As it was, the Brazilian playmaker put in one of the finest individual performances of the season. He spearheaded Liverpool’s blistering second half performance, scoring two of the three further goals to ensure an emphatic 4-0 victory. The first was calmness personified: while the rest of us were still trying to process Wijnaldum’s sensational volley hitting the bar, he seized the ball and guided it into the corner from the edge of the box. The second, too, showcased his talents wonderfully: he ghosted past three West Ham defenders, before firing past a fourth one standing on the line. Goals were far from all he offered, however: it was his passing that was truly sensational. The central role he was employed in allowed him to unleash his full array of talents: good as he has been on the wing, he is somewhat wasted there. Based on Klopp’s comments, it appears that we will be seeing a lot more of Coutinho in midfield: that’s a good thing for Liverpool, and for beautiful football.
Origi completed the rout with a tap-in for number four. He came very close with a couple of much more ambitious efforts, and his general performance deserved to be rewarded with a goal. However, playing alongside Sturridge did highlight just how far the young Belgian is from being an elite striker. His movement is nowhere near as intelligent, and he lacks the composure that has defined Sturridge’s career: in fairness there are only one or two in world football who are cool as the Englishman in front of goal, but Origi is a long way off. If Sturridge is to stay – and he certainly made his case against West Ham – then Klopp will need to invest in a better partner for him, at least in the medium term. If Sturridge moves on, as is widely expected, then Liverpool could really do with someone who has similar attributes. A striker even half as talented as Sturridge who is capable of staying fit for a full season would be capable of reaching 30 goals: armed with that, and with a developing Origi as able backup, Klopp could definitely mount a title challenge.
For now, however, the attention is squarely focussed on securing Champions League football. If Arsenal slip up midweek then qualification could be confirmed before Liverpool next play; the more likely scenario is that a win on the last day against Middlesbrough will seal the top four. Of course, this is not as much of a free pass to the group stages as it once was: the revised structure means that a playoff could be against the likes of Hoffenheim, Roma or Sevilla. This will not be a worry for Liverpool if they can keep performing like they did against West Ham, however; they are within touching distance of the most prestigious competition in club football, and they deserve to be. It’s a good time to be a Liverpool fan.
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