A long slog of a season, It started so brightly, with goals flying in and demons despatched, then everything turned on its head at the start of 2018. From title challengers who were in the semi-final of one cup and making headway in the other, we ended up knocked out of both competitions and failed to win in the league in January. Suddenly Chelsea were out of sight and all of those doubters who had become believers were back to asking questions again. How ludicrous it is that, after a season full of such ups and downs, it all essentially came down to this match in East London.
— mark taylor (@MarkTaylor0) May 14, 2017
Arsenal looked, briefly, like they might have a wobble against Stoke yesterday. Their lead was cut in half when Peter Crouch scored a goal that had a ‘slight suspicion’ of handball, but the Potters couldn’t put enough pressure on our top four rivals and in the end the Gunners shot them down. For some Liverpool supporters that was a sure sign that we’d let top four slip from our grasp. Never mind that West Ham have had a poor season or seen their squad decimated by injury; forget how much better we are than them; Arsenal had won so we were going to lose. Only we didn’t, did we?
Big Match Players
At the same time as Liverpool were taking on West Ham at the London Stadium, Feyenoord were playing Heracles in a match that would decide whether or not they’d win the Eredivisie title for the first time since 1999. In such a massive game it’s vital that your big game players step up and make their mark and few Liverpool supporters will be shocked about which Dutch player did just that. Dirk Kuyt, who we bought from De club van het volk back in 2006, smashed home a hat-trick to ensure the title returned to De Kuip. Sadly, our match wasn’t for the title. It was still hugely important, though, potentially decided whether or not we’d get to play in the Champions League for only the second time since 2009. Who would our big game player be?
— Mundial Magazine (@MundialMag) May 14, 2017
There’s a valid argument to make that we had big game players today, rather than just the one. Daniel Sturridge’s calm and composed finish deep into the first-half was enough to set Liverpool nerves at easy, with the striker playing well in his first start under Jürgen Klopp since January. Starting up-front alongside Divock Origi, he showed us everything that the Belgian isn’t. He may not be the right sort of player for a Klopp system, but what he is is a deadly striker who knows how to find the back of the net when it matters. I’ll talk about Sturridge more later in the piece, so for now I’ll turn my attention to the other player who stepped up to be counted today…
How different might our season have been if Philippe Coutinho had not been injured for such a length of time? The Brazilian is a wonderful talent who is akin to Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez in terms of what he means to the team. Today he was in outrageous form, feeding a stunning ball through to Sturridge for the opener. Klopp made a decision before the game to drop him further back into midfield, something that numerous supporters have been crying out for the German to do. It allowed the Brazilian to see the game develop in front of him and that, combined with the intelligent running of Sturridge, meant that he was able to have real influence on proceedings.
Philippe Coutinho vs West Ham
6 chances created!
Magician at his very best 🎩 pic.twitter.com/aBRguSRbur
— LFC Stats (@LFCData) May 14, 2017
If Klopp can figure out a system that gets the most out of Coutinho’s vision and ability from the middle of the park then I wouldn’t be surprised to see us put in repeat performances in line with the one we saw today. When he goes further forward or is pushed out wide we lose his ability to pull the strings, instead putting him into a position where he feels as though the burden to score is on his shoulders. That results in speculative shots from distance, a lack of movement from those in front of him and an all-round weakening of his game. Thankfully we saw the opposite of that today and the team as a whole were the beneficiaries.
Sturridge Is Wonderful, But He Has To Go
If it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of Coutinho this season because of injury then it is close to criminal that Daniel Sturridge’s Liverpool career has been so brutally blighted by fitness issues. He is a mercurial talent and he showed today exactly why so many people still rate him. His positioning is always excellent, his finishing is top-notch and his ability to cause defenders no end of problems is a sight to see. Sadly, though, he simply cannot be depended upon. Far too often he has been missing from the squad because of injury problems and it’s little wonder that Jürgen Klopp doesn’t feel he’s the sort of player that he can build a team around.
Sturridge by far the best finisher at the club. What a talent. Just so difficult to plan around. A huge dilemma
— Paul Tomkins (@paul_tomkins) May 14, 2017
If Klopp felt as though he could get 25-30 games out of Sturridge every season then I imagine that he would be willing to ask him to stick around. Instead he probably imagines that 10-15 is a more likely number, given the England striker’s chequered fitness history. When a player is on £150,000 per week and doesn’t play in a style that fits your system, it’s difficult to justify keeping him around if he’s only likely to play for a quarter of a season. For all of his talent and ability, Sturridge is the definition of a luxury player that Liverpool can ill afford to keep. If we could sell him for £25 million or so then that’s a good chunk of money – plus wages – that the manager can use to fund the purchase of a player who he really wants. What is more important to Klopp right now?
Having said all of that, I thought Sturridge was excellent today. Divock Origi might well have come alive in latter period of the second-half, but he was entirely innocuous for the previous sixty minutes or so. Dan Kennett on Twitter pointed out that the Belgian had done precisely nothing of note in the first 45 minutes, something that we’ve said far too often in recent matches. He is, as I’ve pointed out before now, still young. That means he could well develop into a talent that we can depend upon. In today’s game all he showed us what that he’s not someone we can currently rely upon to make a difference when we need him. His failure to pass to Sturridge for what would have been our fifth was close to criminal.
Coutinho’s assists for Sturridge in the PL. 9 in total. 5 in the first 18 months, 4 in the three years since. Won all previous games. pic.twitter.com/JhB4YT70YZ
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) May 14, 2017
Sturridge, meanwhile, made all of the difference exactly when we needed him to. This was a game that could have become tense and worrisome the longer it went on. It could have been a fraught occasion, filled with anxiety for a Liverpool team that has struggled to create chances of late. Instead it felt as though our number 15’s goal opened up a pressure valve and allowed us to play with more freedom and creativity. Had Klopp left him on the bench, as he has in our last few games, I’m not entirely sure that his Belgian counterpart would have had the nouse to get us over the line in the same way. He’s a luxury that we need to say goodbye to, so let’s enjoy it whilst it lasts.
Cracks Are Papered Over
It’s easy to say this with hindsight, but I’m confident that we’d have found a way to win even if Andre Ayew’s chance had hit the back of the net or the referee had given the blatant penalty against Gini Wijnaldum. For evidence, see the number of times we hit the bar or post, with our attack taking the game to West Ham and coming out on top repeatedly. Yet it’s also entirely fair to point out that the win merely papered over some pretty cavernous holes in Liverpool’s defence. Time and again it is panic inducing to watch us defend set-pieces and today was no exception. We felt to deal with West Ham’s attack on a couple of occasions and could have paid the price more than once.
Watching Liverpool defend set pieces. pic.twitter.com/7KWCc7FBfj
— Kristian vS Hæhre (@vonstrenginho) May 14, 2017
Klopp is a very astute manager, so he’ll know how important it is to match up defensive solidity with attack flair. After all, his two title wins at Borussia Dortmund came after his team conceded 22 and 25 goals. Too many points have been dropped this season thanks to defensive naivety and the sooner the German gets that sorted out the better. Champions League qualification is the very least that this Liverpool team deserves, in spite of how much some fans might have lost their heads at times. We’re on course to rack up our sixth best Premier League performance since the division was formed, but we saw once again today exactly how improvements can be made. Middlesbrough won’t be easy to beat, playing with the freedom only a relegated side can on the final day of the season. We’re better than them, though, so let’s get across the line.