06 November 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app.

This was only the fifth time we've seen a starting Liverpool formation that wasn't 4-3-3 since the beginning of 2016-17. 4-Diamond-2 in the 1-1 at Manchester United, 4-0 at West Ham, and 3-0 v Boro last season; 3-5-1-1 in the 2-1 at Stoke with an unbelievably rotated side. And 60 matches with a Liverpool XI in a 4-3-3.

We changed the system and yesterday was the first time we did it, 4-4-2, which looked maybe from the beginning like a very offensive line-up, we had a different idea - we wanted to defend deeper, more compact and using the space which we had for the counter-attacks. We will never know how it would have been if we don’t score the first one, I think it was kind of an open game up until then. We had to get used to it a little bit, it was difficult for the boys to wait a little bit more for the challenge than jump always. – Jürgen Klopp

There have been only five matches this season where Liverpool had less possession than they did on Saturday: 2-2 at Sevilla, much more a cagey European tie; 0-5 at Manchester City, thanks to the red card; 4-0 v Arsenal, where Liverpool were three-up by the 57th minute and sat deep and soaked up for the final 30 minutes; and both legs against Hoffenheim, which played out similarly to the match against Arsenal.

The last time Liverpool had 52% possession or less against a non-Top 6, non-European, or non-Everton opponent was 2-1 at Bournemouth in April 2016, a soak-up and counter 4-2-3-1 that had been heavily rotated after Liverpool's unfathomable midweek victory over Dortmund.

We're all well aware that Liverpool have struggled to break down the league's lesser lights far too often, both this season and last. And with West Ham set up in a 3-4-3 with restricted wing-backs and players like Chicharito and Lanzini who thrive on the counter, that seemed more than possible on Saturday had Liverpool started with its usual formation. Outside of the Manchester City loss, the vast majority of Liverpool's goals conceded have come on set plays, counter-attacks, and defensive errors. Saturday's system did well to limit the potential for the first two, Liverpool's players mostly did well to limit the third.

It was a welcomed change to see Klopp willing to adjust tactics and formation based on what was likely to work against certain opposition. Too often it's felt like, "This is what we've done when we've been at our best, even if sometimes it doesn't succeed. Roll the ball out and we'll find a way," even I know that's not necessarily the case.

So, yes, it took time for Liverpool to get going. Unfamiliar XI, unusual formation, one which didn't have a lot of time to come together on the training pitch this week. But given the one opportunity that Liverpool had been waiting for, playing for with a quarter of the match gone, Liverpool slit throats. Mo Salah and Sadio Mané slit throats, because that's what Mo Salah and Sadio Mané do.

While Klopp's obviously correct in saying that it was a more defensive formation, it was also a formation that got the best out of the attackers that Liverpool were able to put on the pitch. Salah, further forward rather than needing to track back on the right since Liverpool kept the fullbacks relatively deep; Oxlade-Chamberlain's work-rate was far more helpful in that position. Given more central support, Firmino could press with more intensity – he made six successful tackles, by far the most from a Liverpool player and only four fewer than the entire West Ham team – and take up deeper positions to better effect – look at what he did for Liverpool's third goal, getting the ball just past the halfway line not long after Liverpool kicked off, then driving past two West Ham defenders through their entire half of the pitch. Mané created two assists for Salah on counter-attacks, running through West Ham's half before finding Salah with the perfectly timed and weighted pass.

There were only 15 Liverpool shots, with the majority coming after Liverpool scored their third. There were only three first-half shots, joint-fewest in a Liverpool first half this season along with the opening day match at Watford.

But Liverpool's shots were almost all high-value shots. Liverpool's xG per shot was around 0.17, the second-highest for the season behind the romp over Arsenal. Liverpool had more clear-cut chances than they had shots from outside the box.

It wasn't just Liverpool, though. Six of the ten shots in the first hour of the match were clear-cut chances: three of Liverpool's six shots, three of West Ham's four shots. And two of the Liverpool shots that weren't could have been as such: Firmino's second-minute close-range effort and Oxlade-Chamberlain's first before his scoring rebound.

For all the delight that Liverpool's change in formation helped Liverpool do better in match which have caused so many issues, this was the main difference in the match. Liverpool scored its three clear-cut chances in that first hour. West Ham scored one of their three, and only after Liverpool already had two goals.

To be fairer to Liverpool, one of those West Ham chances came very early and West Ham were lucky it did. Lanzini's two came during the why-is-this-match-so-open spell in the 15 minutes after halftime, as West Ham changed to a 4-4-2 and Liverpool already had a two-goal lead. During the period in-between, where Liverpool played their way into the game and established that necessary lead, West Ham had nothing. Literally nothing, limited to one off-target Lanzini shot from long range in first half injury time between the 10th and 45th minutes.

Incidentally, if you ignore the Tottenham game – let's all ignore the Tottenham game! – Liverpool have held their opponents to just four shots on-target through five games. One by Manchester United, one by Maribor in each of their matches, none by Huddersfield, and one by West Ham. Five games. Four shots on-target. Four clean sheets. And just one goal conceded, that one from Lanzini. That's pretty okay.

Still, there's an excellent chance it's a very different match if Ayew converts in the ninth minute. Released by a Lanzini pass somehow deflected directly to him, rammed off the post rather than into the back of the net. That goal forces Liverpool to come out. That goal allows West Ham to sit deeper. That makes this game potentially a re-run of Spartak or Burnley, no matter the starting Liverpool formation.

But there's an excellent chance it's still the same result if Firmino converts in the second minute, barely denied by the heel of Joe Hart's trailing leg.

That's football. Put the ball in the net more than the other team. Liverpool are often good at doing that. The foundation, formation, tactics, and XI on Saturday set up Liverpool to do that more than West Ham could.

Open matches are almost always better for Liverpool than tight, compact, attack-versus-defense matches, even if they're more terrifying for us. Because chances are you're going to lose to Liverpool in an arms race. There are few teams in the world that can match Liverpool's firepower up front, and only one or two in the Premier League.

Make no mistake. West Ham aren't good. There are reasons they currently sit in the relegation zone and there are reasons why they've now fired their manager. This formation probably won't work against a lot of sides in the league. But it's another arrow in the quiver. And it worked on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Liverpool did what Liverpool needed to do, for the third consecutive match and the third consecutive match where Liverpool have won by three goals. Credit to Jürgen Klopp for making the changes that made this performance and result possible. And credit to Liverpool's players for making it happen.

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