I looked at Jurgen Klopp last night.
I always do at the final whistle, looking to feed off his ebullient celebration of victory or to seek assurance when things haven’t quite gone to plan. For the first time this season, after an insipid Liverpool performance, the mask had slipped somewhat and a terse discussion with Manuel Pellegrini followed by exasperated remonstration with the referee laid his emotions bare.
Klopp is feeling the strain like any supporter but there is comfort in seeing an agitated manager. He knows something is amiss.
He recently admitted that he can’t enjoy the tension of the matches themselves, but takes pleasure in being with “my boys” on the training ground.
One suspects that the harmonious, paternal demeanour towards his players might for once take a back seat. With Liverpool still three points clear, it seems harsh to suggest that Klopp should rant and rave but a reminder about the need for urgency and intensity needs to come soon.
The truth of the matter is that Liverpool aren’t playing well. Earlier in the campaign, despite racking up the points, the talk was that the Reds weren’t at their fluent best but the run of games since that first defeat at the Etihad has seen look worryingly fallible. Crystal Palace and Leicester exposed hitherto unseen defensive frailties and a more clinical West Ham might have made Liverpool pay a higher price for a shoddy showing.
The London Stadium might hold nearly sixty thousand people but it’s an awful place to watch football. It feels like the heart and soul of West Ham United still resides back at the old Upton Park; their new home devoid of the atmospheric acoustics that provide the essential beat that football matches need to avoid becoming just another form of entertainment. They can pipe as many bubbles into the air as they want but that East End vibe is gone forever.
The Liverpool team sheet immediately brought a sense of unease. The unexpected absence of both Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum is just a bridge too far when it comes to maintaining a defensive shield while at the same time robbing the midfield of its tempo and momentum. In the opening stages West Ham exposed gaps through the middle with Aaron Creswell firing narrowly wide and Alisson Becker forced to save well from Chicharito.
One of the features of Liverpool’s season is an ability to score without a build-up of pressure. Adam Lallana’s touchline trickery befuddled West Ham on the right and James Milner’s cut back allowed Sadio Mane to turn on a sixpence and fire home left-footed.
That Milner was a yard offside matters not a jot to the Liverpool end which temporarily casts off a torpor brought by the remoteness of the away section.
The euphoria didn’t last long. With Liverpool stationed in a curiously tight high line, the Reds were caught napping by Felipe Anderson’s quick free-kick. Michail Antonio’s run in behind the defence went undetected and a precise shot across a flat-footed Alisson cannoned into the net off the far post. The goal was symptomatic of Liverpool’s flakiness throughout the first period; powder puff in attack, lethargic in midfield and uncharacteristically shaky at the back.
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) February 5, 2019
The Reds upped the tempo in the second half with Mo Salah suddenly more prominent and testing the keeper on a couple of occasions. But, with Mane playing in fits and starts and Roberto Firmino enduring a night when his every touch let him down, Liverpool toiled in their quest to create meaningful chances. Only when Divock Origi – on for the hapless Firmino – spurned a last minute chance did the Reds threaten a winner.
At the end, the Liverpool players trudged off disconsolate and weary with only a cursory nod to a subdued Liverpool contingent. Their form has deserted them, injuries have started to hit hard and a modicum of self-doubt has crept in.
However, no-one said it was going to be easy.
When building a lead in a title race the cushion is comforting for a reason. The Reds still lead the way even if the buffer is now slender thin.
*Odds are subject to change.