Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
With characteristic hubris, Alan Pardew was quick to laud his own “bravery” after this pulsating cup tie. Short of reprising that Wembley dance, the West Brom manager could hardly have reveled more in this famous Baggies victory.
But he had a point: to field a 4-4-2 at Anfield, while sitting second-bottom of the league, is certainly courageous. To not only survive a thrashing, but win, is undoubtedly a feat worth bragging about.
Pardew has form in this regard. Just over six years ago, reigning league champions Manchester United were caned 3-0 by his Newcastle United side, who matched Sir Alex Ferguson’s 4-4-2 at St. James’s Park.
The leaden-footed pairing of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs were completely bamboozled by Pardew’s surprisingly effective high-press, exemplified by the late Cheick Tiote. Ferguson responded, famously, by tempting Paul Scholes out of retirement three days later.
Employing a high-line against Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney made sense back then. But Pardew must have been cognisant of gifting Mo Salah and Sadio Mané the space-in-behind upon which they thrive.
As such, West Brom’s block was set necessarily lower here; albeit peppered with some intermittent high hassling. One such instance inspired Jay Rodriguez’s emphatic leveler, that instantaneously cancelled out Roberto Firmino’s opener.
Firmino posed a continual problem between the lines in the first-half, as Albion’s aggression killed their chances of mimicking Swansea’s admirable compactness. Earlier this week, Carlos Carvalhal’s side reduced the Brazilian’s zone-of-influence to a mere sliver, with three centre-backs snapping at his heels, and two central-midfielders standing on his toes.
Jurgen Klopp’s rather simplistic tactic, matching Firmino’s toward-the-ball runs with Salah and Mané’s residence on the shoulder, proved super-effective against a wide-open Manchester City. But not so on Monday night, when the Swans funneled his otherwise idealess side out wide.
This is where Pardew’s valor comes into play: opting for 4-4-2 over 5-4-1 necessitates one fewer central-defender and one extra striker, after all.
There is a very thin line between bravery and stupidity, mind you; a truism that came readily to mind when Firmino’s freedom paid a Red dividend after only six minutes.
Craig Dawson made the first of several botched attempts to rush out and deny service into the Brazilian, leaving a gaping hole in his wake. Chris Brunt’s ill-judged back-pass filled it, and Jonny Evans’ hesitation left Ben Foster at Liverpool’s mercy.
Albion’s immediate cash-in on the flipside of Firmino’s freedom was breathtaking, however, perhaps signaling Rodriguez’s long-awaited return to form. Tops, improbably, for both dribbles and clearances here, the ex-Southampton forward formed one half of a strike partnership that Liverpool’s exposed centre-backs could not handle.
Hal Robson-Kanu occupied van Dijk brilliantly prior to his injury-enforced removal, allowing Rodriguez to freely deposit Chris Brunt’s centre. That Pardew plopped his replacement Matt Phillips up top too, rather than switch to a midfield five, stands as another big step toward the 56-year-old’s bravery merit badge.
With both full-backs bombing on to provide much-needed width, van Dijk and Matip always looked in peril against the Baggies’ mobile front-two. Here, Pardew deserves more credit (steady!), both for opting against target-man Salomon Rondon, and shelving the usual stream of long-balls.
Albion’s admirable insistence on playing out from the back and into Rodriguez’s feet, so risky in the face of Klopp’s press, gave both Liverpool centre-backs a far more torrid time. Only Foster, the goalkeeper, registered a double-figure long pass tally.
That his charges could not profit from this consistent pressing opportunity is, perhaps, a sign that Klopp’s rotational unease is beginning to bite. One of the few Premier League sides not to make significant changes this weekend, Liverpool looked jaded.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, great with space to run into but useless otherwise, was hooked mere seconds after a grounded Brunt crafted a one-two around him. Wijnaldum was robbed for Albion’s first, and Emre Can was dribbled (twice) for Rodriguez’s Krychowiak-inspired second.
Albion’s third goal, from the second-phase of a free-kick, underlined Liverpool’s chronic lack of defensive organisation. But their second laid down the print, in bold typeface, in the first place.
Kieran Gibbs’ freedom to square for Rodriguez, with Mo Salah nowhere to be seen, screams out how awful Liverpool’s wingers are at transitioning into defence. This has been a thing for quite some time now. And yet, hilariously, Klopp bemoaned this very failing in a despondent post-match interview with BT Sport; it’s your job to address that, buddy!
Just as it is the German’s job to get his side’s final-third combination-play firing. Playing against massed defences, when counterattack is not an option, Klopp’s fetish for threading the eye of a needle flounders time and time again.
When his side do finally look wide, their second-half last-resort, the onus is on ill-equipped full-backs to provide the creative spark. Of a whopping 34 open-play Liverpool crosses, Moreno and Trent Alexander-Arnold tried 7 and 13 respectively, as Klopp’s wide-forwards remained maddeningly narrow.
Albion looked happy to let Alexander-Arnold, partly culpable too for Albion’s second, be his side’s out-ball. The 19-year-old’s quality of delivery was abysmal; even the one Salah eventually scored from was nigh-on subterranean.
Anyway, without an aerially-competent striker at its disposal, this Moyesian stratagem was likely to flop regardless. Danny Ings, as diminutive as Firmino, is hardly a penalty-box target. van Dijk, thrown up top at the death for the second straight game, is, but that’s hardly why he apparently warranted an €84.5m outlay.
That desperate last roll of the dice, in keeping with Liverpool’s recent fortunes against the bottom-two, was an absolute embarassment; an emotion with which the bould ‘Pards’ remains entirely, and blissfully, unacquainted.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112