Previous Match Infographics: Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)
As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.
Liverpool were better able to get the ball in and through midfield and more cohesive in the opposition half: not counting Mignolet-Lovren, Liverpool's top passing combinations were Moreno-Coutinho, Henderson-Sterling, Coutinho-Gerrard, and Moreno-Lallana. Unlike the staid draws and losses over the last month, there's very little messing around with the ball in Liverpool's half. Only the Tottenham match, where Liverpool played on the counter-attack for nearly the entire second half, saw the center-backs attempt fewer passes – a match where Liverpool attempted and completed around a hundred fewer passes. Get the ball forward (but not with aimless long passes, mind you), get into the opposition half, cause problems.
Compare Saturday to the passing networks seen against Villa and at West Ham. Sure, the game state was very different in those matches, but that's what's possible when you don't concede preventable early goals.
Liverpool were also more patient with their build-up and more judicious with their shooting. Seven of Liverpool's nine shots from outside the box came after Liverpool took a 2-1 lead. It'd have been far better to see Liverpool create more good chances, and Liverpool's strikers are still struggling (although Lambert at least linked up better with the other attackers), but at least the side didn't resort to low value speculative efforts when the first few didn't go in. Both of Liverpool's goals featured long passing moves beginning with Mignolet, from defenders to midfielders and fullbacks to attackers, working the flanks and inside channels to actually get into West Brom's box.
Liverpool were untroubled in the center of the pitch in their half. There's a massive hole in the tackles and interceptions chalkboard, but it's not because Liverpool simply failed to make defensive actions in that zone. They just didn't have to; there's a corresponding void in West Brom's passing chalkboard. West Brom definitely wanted to play for the counter and to exploit the flanks, but I also doubt it's coincidence Liverpool were much less troubled in the middle with Henderson and Coutinho ahead of Gerrard, the first time the team's started with the 4-3-3 in the league since Allen's injury.
West Brom's three best attacks came down Liverpool's right: the giveaway leading to the "penalty" in the 56th, and two Berahino free headers, from Pocognoli and Brunt's crosses in the 42nd and 75th, the first ballooned, the second into the ground. The first two chances, especially the giveaway for the penalty, seem a big reason why Johnson replaced Manquillo after Liverpool retook the lead, and despite that final free header, the veteran played well. I wouldn't be surprised if Johnson reclaims a starting berth, at least for the near future; Manquillo is still just 20, after all, and very susceptible to burnout no matter how well he's played. It also seems worth noting that Lovren was the closest defender to Berahino for both of those free headers and lost him both times. And that the move in the 75th minute started with Lovren's weak clearance straight to Sessegnon. But those three chances – which are still three too many – were West Brom's only shots inside the box.
I certainly don't mean to suggest everything's rosy and everything's fixed. For 44 minutes, Liverpool had those recurring issues in attack, creating a couple of decent chances, but nowhere near enough, with seven shots before halftime and 12 after. Without that bit of brilliance from Lallana and Henderson – a move that, admittedly, also included eight other players – Liverpool again go into halftime frustrated and probably revert to the hit-and-hope, shoot-on-sight mentality that's plagued early matches.
And Liverpool again nearly threw it all away, with a helping hand from Michael Oliver and his linesman, just ten minutes after the restart. But, despite the unfair setback, they kept playing their game, and thankfully made amends soon after, preventing the aforementioned frustration from creeping back in.
And while the final 20-30 minutes saw few West Brom opportunities, it was still nervy because Liverpool failed to get the third when they had the chances to do so. The counter-attack, so potent last season, still stutters: players not reading another's runs, players more comfortable checking back rather than going for the throat. Pushing Gerrard forward did help though, creating four of his five chances in the final 15 minutes. Were someone other than Lucas on the end of two of them, Liverpool probably would have gotten that third in injury time. It's not a tactic I see Liverpool using from the start, but Henderson's stamina and Gerrard's guile means it makes sense in the later stages of the match when Liverpool are looking to both extend and protect a lead. At the same time, Liverpool were more compact, but it wasn't the all-hands-on-deck defensive shell which let Everton find a very, very unlikely equalizer at the death a week earlier.
Liverpool are seemingly starting to find a balance.
Against Villa, West Ham, and Basel, Liverpool were mired in mediocrity, at best. Sure, Saturday saw some of that same mediocrity, but Saturday also saw some excellence. That's obviously progress, and a good first step, no matter the opposition.
A solitary bit of brilliance can be the difference between failure and success. We saw a lot of solitary bits of brilliance to win matches last season, usually from Suarez and Sturridge. The former is gone for good, but the latter will thankfully return after the international break, which should mark even more improvement.
Liverpool just need to get the ball rolling, and, finally, they did that on Saturday.