Five things we learned from West Ham 1-2 Liverpool: SAS have off day – but they can't afford one next weekend
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1) West Ham DO have variety
When West Ham boss Sam Allardyce was booed after the drab 2-1 victory against Hull recently, Hammers fans were so annoyed because they were one-dimensionally prehistoric. That the top pass combination in the game was keeper Adrian to centre-forward Andy Carroll spoke volumes. Against Liverpool, however, there was undoubtedly evolution.
Carroll is an aerial brute and his presence means any team he plays for must embrace something of a direct style, or face having a striker who contributes little. Liverpool themselves know that. But on Sunday afternoon the Hammers looked for the giant Englishman's feet to a greater extent, as Mark Noble ran the first-half midfield show. Carroll still dominated Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho – the latter coming off a dazed second best in a second-half tussle between two impressive physical specimens – but his supplementary link-up play proved he has the attributes of more than just a battering ram. His mere presence was enough to cause Simon Mignolet to drop a West Ham corner at Guy Demel's feet for the home side's equaliser. True, it may have been a foul, but any contact was minimal and the fear factor alone may have contributed to the Belgian stopper's case of dropsie.
Carroll's header that shook the Liverpool bar halfway through the second period served notice that Roy Hodgson could do much worse than taking the ponytailed Geordie to Brazil this summer.
2) Noble led by example
Local-boy-come-good Noble impressed in the opening exchanges and throughout a busy first-half display. After the first 10 minutes, the Hammers' midfield conduit was the game's top passer, was second in earning the ball back for his side and had won 4/4 tackles.
There was no let-up for the rest of the half as West Ham remained compact to deny Liverpool's 4-3-3 space. Both in attack and defence, Noble was at the heart of everything that was good for West Ham, who deservedly went in level at half-time, whether Carroll's challenge on Liverpool keeper Mignolet was a foul or not. Where the problem lies for the Hammers is in making the opposition keeper work more. Mignolet didn't make a single save in 90 minutes, Demel's prod home being their only shot on target out of 11. True, Carroll was unlucky to hit the bar, but the Hammers' lack of goals is a worry.
3) Lucas brought stability once again
In his post-match press conference, Reds boss Brendan Rodgers said he replaced Philippe Coutinho with Lucas at half-time to go to a four-man midfield diamond and play Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge as a front two. The SAS had taken turns spending time on the left wing during a less-than-impressive Liverpool first half, and the Ulsterman wanted more up front.
Though the Premier League's deadliest forward line did improve marginally after the interval – more on that later – it was in midfield where the change was keenest felt. Where Noble had excelled, Liverpool's Brazilian enforcer denied the Canning Town boy space, was easy in possession and helped that forward line create more opportunities. Compare Noble's first-half Stats Zone dashboard (above) with his second (below) and you'll see just how Lucas's presence helped stifle West Ham's hitherto best player.
It may have been a change to allow Liverpool more attacking fluidity, but it was further back that the substitution helped the visitors win the game.
4) There was a first SOS for the SAS
Stat alert! This was the first time this season that Liverpool won a game in which neither Suarez or Sturridge have failed to score. Sturridge was particularly profligate, hitting the target only once when well placed on four occasions. His Uruguayan strike partner had one of his quietest games of the season, yet still managed to win a penalty, twice hit the crossbar – one a ridiculous outside-of-the-foot chip – and force a fine save from Adrian.
There's nothing grossly wrong with the pair struggling to find the target: everyone has off days. But with the potential title decider against Manchester City coming next Sunday, the lack of link-up between the two could be a problem. Only on three occasions did the SAS pass to each other, and one of those – the only time Sturridge successfully found his strike partner all game – was a restart.
If Liverpool are to win this title, and you feel they need to beat City for that to be the case, then the partnership must perform better next weekend.
5) Gerrard hit the spot again
Back in January, this reporter questioned whether the Liverpool skipper could cut it as a midfield anchor. Gerrard had just been overrun in a 2-2 home draw with Aston Villa, his trademark diagonal passes had been wayward and he seemed to lack the positional awareness to fulfil the tactically cute role. Though he can still get dragged out of position, Gerrard has certainly grown into the role.
Helped by Jordan Henderson's ceaseless dynamism alongside him, Gerrard was the Reds' match winner with two well-taken penalties to go with a much-improved all-round display at the back of the Liverpool midfield. Yes, the second spot-kick was harsh – arguably Adrian's touch on the ball came after the initial foul, although it's tough to call – but you need your experienced players to take on pressure situations in title races. Gerrard did just that.
Wherever the England captain plays, Rodgers needs his leadership more than anything else. At Upton Park, he showed that again.