The FourFourTwo Preview: Liverpool vs West Brom
The perfect time to raid a wounded beast’s lair.
- Basel 1-0 Liverpool (CL)
- Liverpool 1-1 Everton (Prem)
- Liverpool p2-2 M'brough (LC)
- West Ham 3-1 Liverpool (Prem)
- Liverpool 2-1 Ludogorets (CL)
WEST BROM FORM
- WBA 4-0 Burnley (Prem)
- WBA 3-2 Hull (LC)
- Spurs 0-1 WBA (Prem)
- WBA 0-2 Everton (Prem)
- Swansea 3-0 WBA (Prem)
What a difference a year makes. Back in October 2013, Liverpool utterly mauled a perfectly respectable West Brom side. Luis Suarez smashed a hat-trick, and his interplay with Daniel Sturridge – who also scored – was at times bewitching. It ended 4-1: the Kop sang loudly about their side being “poetry in motion”, and speculated (more quietly) about how it might just be time to finally break that Premier League title hoodoo.
They’re still singing the poetry in motion song in L4, but how many Kopites believe the words anymore is debatable. Twelve months on, it’s a sign of how hideous a season Liverpool are having so far that few would be surprised if the Baggies left Merseyside with three points.
With several key injuries and a new-look squad to settle in, it was always going to take time for Brendan Rodgers’ new troops to meld into something coherent. But a traumatic September which saw the Reds fold at home to Aston Villa, look an utter mess against West Ham and then have to endure a Phil Jagielka worldie in stoppage-time of the Merseyside derby has left many supporters fearful that 2013/14’s perfect poetry-penning was a one-off deal.
Starting October with a limp defeat at Basel wasn’t ideal, either. Steven Gerrard questioned the side’s desire after Wednesday’s capitulation, while his manager bemoaned that his side were “technically” inferior to last term. With Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea looming before Christmas, reaching 2015 in decent shape is Rodgers’ biggest managerial challenge to date.
His problems are manifold. How and where to play a Gerrard who is being relentlessly pressed by opposition midfielders? How and when to deploy a Philippe Coutinho desperately struggling for form, and a Lazar Markovic seemingly overwhelmed by the shirt? Which of his rick-ridden centre-back pairings to go with? How to bring out the best in a Mario Balotelli whose movement and finishing has been far from its best?
There are some positives. Adam Lallana is starting to look like a fine acquisition: with great feet, dogged work-rate and canny link play, he’s a great compliment to the energy of Jordan Henderson, Raheem Stirling and the two promising young full-backs, Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo.
Against Everton, Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren’s shape and discipline suggested that they are the duo to stick the stabilisers on Liverpool’s wobbly backline. The 4-2-3-1 shape worked better, too.
West Brom however, head north brimming with confidence. They’ve won three on the bounce, savaging an awful Burnley side 4-0 and eliminating Hull from the League Cup.
More worryingly for Liverpool, however, might be the Baggies’ performance at Spurs – a side who, like the Reds, had just played in Europe. James Morrison’s second-half header gave them a worthy win, although Saido Berahino and Craig Gardner went close to adding to the tally.
Spurs were frustrated by some wonderful Joleon Lescott defending, and with Berahino in the goals, and Morrison, Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans adding to a well-balanced, confident midfield, Alan Irvine seems to currently be getting the very best out of the assets at his disposal. Without a Uruguayan fixer to disguise poor performances elsewhere, Rodgers needs to do the same, and fast, to prevent a slump becoming a crisis.
The sorely missed Sturridge is unlikely to start for the home side, but the forward, who has missed six games, may play a part as a substitute after finally recovering from a thigh injury sustained while on England duty.
For the Baggies Victor Anichebe, Brown Ideye and Chris Baird could all return, but Silvestre Varela may need another week. Sebastien Pocognoli is the only long-term wounded among a virtually full-strength squad.
Key battle: Martin Skrtel vs Saido Berahino
“Saido can be very good – he is a terrific lad and very, very talented,” said Irvine after his cracking double against Burnley. “I spoke to him at half-time and said to be patient and continue making runs. He got his reward for continuing to do that. He's a model professional and has fantastic potential.”
Berahino scored 2 goals from 5 attempts against the Clarets, and looks comfortable in possession: he completed 17 of his 20 passes in that match (7 out of 9 in the attacking third).
Talk of a full England call-up is not premature for the rocket-heeled, Burundi-born Baggie, and a year after scoring a cracking winner at Old Trafford against a Manchester United side struggling defensively, he’ll surely fancy a repeat against another ailing North Western backline.
Liverpool’s incredible attacking potency last season compensated for an average defence, and finding the right partner for £20 million signing Lovren, who Rodgers wants to build his defence around, will be the crux to their improvement. With Kolo Toure and Sakho falling down the pecking order, Skrtel – who himself has been in and out of favour – looks set for a run in the side.
Against Everton, the Slovak completed 41 passes from 45, won 3 aerial duels from 3 and made 8 successful clearances. A costly Skrtel error against Basel showed that this backline is still a work in progress, but keep up his Everton stats – and with the two young Spanish full-backs improving by the game – and the Red rearguard can finally start to look like an asset rather than a problem.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- WBA 1-1 L’pool (PL, Feb 14)
- L’pool 4-1 WBA (PL, Oct 13)
- L’pool 0-2 WBA (PL, Feb 13)
- WBA 1-2 L’pool (LC, Sep 12)
- WBA 3-0 L’pool (PL, Aug 12)
Irvine’s connections to the blue half of Merseyside – he was a winger at Everton in the early eighties, and a coach under David Moyes – will ensure he's given a lively Liverpudlian welcome.
Rodgers’ greeting, however, will be heartfelt: the two are friends, with Irvine saying he has known the Northern Irishman “for a long time. I trust him implicitly.”
The Liverpool gaffer recently let the West Brom man have defender Andre Wisdom on a season-long loan, too.
The Glaswegian was far from the fans’ first choice to replace Pepe Mel, and considering the trigger-happy nature of the board at The Hawthorns – they have had six gaffers since the last boss to clock up over 100 games in charge, Tony Mowbray – results will have to stay positive if he is going to survive.
The squad certainly seem to like Irvine, mind: Lescott has spoken of his “calming influence”, and technical director Terry Burton thinks he can become “our Brendan Rodgers. What do you think people said about Brendan when he went to Swansea. He’d just been sacked by Reading – surely he couldn’t be any good?”
A fair point. Whether he’ll be given time to prove it is another matter.
Facts and figures
- After a run of 40 points from a possible 42 at Anfield, Liverpool have won just 2 of their last 5 home Premier League games (W2 D1 L2).
- The Reds have kept just 1 clean sheet in their last 12 Premier League matches.
- The Baggies have scored more goals from corners than any other team in the league this season (3).
More FFT Stats Zone facts
A scrappy 1-1 draw.