Turning the screws

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What’s the old saying? “When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail”? Considering Sullivan and Gold’s approach to football since taking ownership of West Ham, that may be approaching the level of a parable in London. The simpler version would be akin to the formerly best method of fixing a TV: “Hit it harder!” But the odd thing is that the kind of brute force represented by those expressions doesn’t really emulate the play of this Hammers side. That sounds more like Burnley. This West Ham side just seems… chaotic. But, sometimes, chaos is a ladder, yo, and West Ham could certainly use the boost to rescue them from relegation. A win over league champion-elect Liverpool- at Anfield, no less -would be a helluva first step on that ladder and one quirky header and another rare defensive mistake were almost the chaos that the Hammers needed.

Liverpool have trailed a few times in league play this season. At last count, it was ManU, Aston Villa, Newcastle, and Tottenham who’d gotten the jump on us before finally giving up the points in every case but the Mancs. In all of those cases, the lead had come early and it was more of a case of the determination that LFC have displayed in not giving up until the final whistle and somehow extracting wins (and one draw) from all of them. It was dogged resolution. It was fate to win, 2-1. It was VAR, according to Man City fans. Call it what you will. Most of those were situations where, in the end, the better team took the game. Tonight was also one of those situations, but it was a more intense version. Instead of taking the majority of the game to wear down the opposition and finally pull it out, this was an atmosphere where Liverpool seemingly decided “We’re just not having this.”

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Most games this season have involved the Reds dominating possession and keeping most of the action in the opponent’s half. Many of them have seen stretches where Liverpool basically contained the action in the opponent’s defensive third. After going down, 2-1(!), this was one of those games. Instantly, the intensity of the game ramped up and it became less a question of hammers and nails and more one of the screws and how quickly- and forcefully -they could be turned on the opponent’s thumbs. The barrage of activity led to stats like LFC outshooting the Hammers, 25-7, and taking 16 corners to West Ham’s 8. The statement was implicit: “We’re the better side here and we’re going to prove it, one way or another.” As a measure of just how contained West Ham were, they had 6 of their shots in the first 65 minutes of the game and just one in the final 25. This was Klopp’s favorite word (intensity) being visibly turned up.

A lot of people have tried to take some of the shine off of Liverpool’s record-setting season by pointing out how “lucky” some of their wins are. Or how they’re not “dominating” games over lesser opponents, but instead doing just enough to win (13 1-goal victories this season already.) It’s a strange frame of mind that tries to make either of those sound like insults. Klopp has tried to set this team up to play at maximum level in every competition in which they compete. As of tonight, we’ve played 44 games. Just as an example, West Ham will play a total of 42 this season. Does that mean that this team plays at a lower intensity when they know that they can? Of course. That’s how you win multiple competitions (or, y’know, almost all of your games.) The screw doesn’t spin as fast when it reaches its limit, either. But, by then, all your thumbs are gone, anyway.

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The game. Was really entertaining! You can kind of imagine Moyes’ decision after bunkering in from the first minute last week at the Etihad and getting jack-all out of it. They’re still in a “must win” situation, but stay in that situation long enough and it effectively becomes “nothing else is working, so we might as well try something new.” We still dominated possession and the Hammers did play on the counter, but when opportunity was presented, they weren’t careful about it. They came out running as soon as they saw a glimpse of the other half of the field. That made for some really enjoyable back-and-forth sequences, as well as a really active defensive press on their part that meant we couldn’t sit comfortably with the ball, even when we were controlling the game. So, due credit to Moyes, as he had his guys ready to play. However, given that it is Moyes, you have to acknowledge that Simon is spot on here:

I’d be ready to give Trent MOTM tonight, if only for this excellent that-ball’s-going-out-anyway cross:

That’s on top of his 6 chances created (joint-most in the game with our other fullback!), 2 assists and 5 tackles. But then there’s the Keita thing…

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The Keita thing. Look, I’m a huge Keita fan. I want the guy to succeed, if only because the numbers that he produces make it so obvious how talented he is. But, as I’ve said many times before, numbers aren’t the story. They only help tell the story. Keita’s numbers tonight (90% passing, 2 chances created, 3/5 tackles, 5 recoveries) are fine, but the fact is that he just wasn’t doing much in the midfield and it was enabling West Ham to both blunt our attacks and kickstarting some of theirs. I tweeted to the Liverpool Offside during the match that Naby still looks tentative about contact. Given the injuries that he’s been dealing with, that’s a perfectly natural reaction. But it only kind of reinforces the question I have about whether he’s durable enough to last in the EPL. Playing in the Bundesliga, where the pace is slower and the officiating is less Jon Moss-like is a very different thing. It’s that kind of different thing that doesn’t show up well in a statline.

As soon as Ox came on the pitch, the game changed, and that’s why I’d consider him the man-of-the-match. That intensity that I was talking about? Here’s where it started. That was the beginning of our putting the offensive third under siege, because suddenly nothing was getting through the midfield for the Hammers and everything was coming through for us at a much faster pace. His aggression, his tempo, his fearlessness to engage at all points on the field were all visibly evident. It energized the whole team and put us on the front foot. Keita wasn’t doing that and I’m open to questioning whether he can on a consistent basis. I don’t want to condemn the guy for one mediocre game because, again, I want him to succeed. Finding the key…ita could push the squad to even more ridiculous heights than we already occupy. But my doubts are prevalent.

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Goalkeeping deserves a small mention. Our first two goals were stops that you’d normally expect Fabianski to make. Gini’s header glanced off of him and wasn’t moving that fast. Mo got a great feed from Robbo but didn’t really get all of it and still managed to get it not only through Fabianski’s legs but past a hand, as well. Similarly, West Ham’s first goal, while from an unexpected angle, was a save that Alisson probably could have pulled off in the average game. However, it’s also only the second time we’ve conceded at all in the past 12 games and only the second time this season that we’ve conceded more than one goal. This is football. Weird shit happens. Just because the numbers look stupidly good doesn’t mean they’re always going to look that way.

Speaking of stupid numbers.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t even know what to say anymore. Hope they can do the Invincibles thing so Arsenal fans will finally shut up? OK. In addition to all of the ways that we’re obviously good or better than other sides, Opta keeps coming up with their usual strange nuggets in the middle of games. After Gini’s goal, they mentioned that we have more headed goals than any other side in the PL this season (14.) What does that mean? It just means we’re good. They also pointed out that we now have as many points as United’s treble winners of 1999 and as many wins as that Invincibles squad of 2004. It’s February.

Next up is a trip to the London suburbs and the Elkhornets. This is like Gamma World. Imagine 8-foot hornets but with, like, antlers. And green laser eyes. They’re a menace as surely as any team with Troy Deeney can be. After that, the U23s take on Chelsea. Apparently, Curtis Jones was again staking his claim to first-team action with a couple stunners today. This could be fun…

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