It will be ominous for the rest of the Premier League if Mohamed Salah starts defining matches like this again. West Ham United were, if a little passive, holding their own as the game approached the hour mark at the London Stadium before the Egypt international produced two stunning moments 11 minutes apart to earn Liverpool a 3-1 win and move within four points of leaders Manchester City.
Salah had plenty to do when collecting a pass from Curtis Jones, on as a substitute for James Milner moments earlier, on the Liverpool right. He moved into the box with typical close control and mesmeric dribbling before gaining a yard on Hammers defender Aaron Cresswell and curling a shot past goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski.
What followed 11 minutes later was even better.
Jarrod Bowen took a West Ham corner and within 15 seconds, the ball was in their net at the other end. Andy Robertson headed the ball clear, Trent Alexander-Arnold hit a raking pass to Xherdan Shaqiri, who sent a first-time looping cross into the box for Salah. The control with his right foot was breathtaking, rendering the finish with his left a glorious formality. The entire move totalled seven touches and was a the purest example of the devastating attacking football that has largely been missing from Liverpool’s play since Salah’s last Premier League goals, in their 7-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace on Dec. 19.
There have been signs of Salah stirring in the past seven days. A week earlier, he scored twice in an FA Cup defeat at Manchester United and had a goal disallowed upon VAR review in Thursday’s 3-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur.
At the London Stadium, he elevated a Liverpool performance that had begun to look a little tired and toothless with Sadio Mane missing due to a minor muscular problem and Roberto Firmino dropped to the bench. It is only the second time this season — and the first since the opening weekend win over Leeds United – that Salah has scored the match-winning goal, turning a draw or defeat into victory through his contribution alone. Salah also became the first Liverpool player to score 20-plus goals across all competitions in four consecutive seasons since Ian Rush did so six times between 1981 and 1987.
The 28-year-old has nine goals in eight Premier League games against the Hammers, and he stepped up in the absence of Mane and Firmino, the latter entering the game as a late substitute to lay on Liverpool’s third goal for Georginio Wijnaldum before Craig Dawson headed in a consolation for the home side three minutes from time.
Asked if he felt additional pressure with Mane and Firmino missing from the starting lineup, Salah told Sky Sports: “To be fair, yes. Before the game I knew they were not going to start. I know there is a big responsibility on me but I try every game, not just now, to help the team. Of course, they both didn’t play today so a big responsibility but I play without them before and we win so it’s OK.”
Klopp has been feeling the responsibility of late, too. He claimed after Liverpool lost their 67-game unbeaten home record against Burnley that, “If I make clear which movements make sense because it will hurt the opponent and we don’t do that then I need to make it clearer,” and a tactical tweak was required here to help Liverpool add potency to their 67% possession.
“Little adjustment at half-time, offensive positioning slightly different and it paid off,” Klopp continued. “We scored wonderful goals and all three were unbelievable. I’m really happy.
“You can only play more direct when you are in the right positions. In the first half, too often we had all three midfielders on the wrong side of the ball. That means we’d found Shaq but Shaq turned and he had no options to pass about from passing back so we had to adjust that. We wanted a bit more in the centre and a double 10 with Thiago.
“I thought he passed the ball too early but what Mo made of it was unbelievable. We spoke a lot in the last few weeks as you can imagine and maybe in the last week we spoke the right stuff. Maybe that was it.
“These boys are a really good group and they are not happy with not being successful. They always have the right attitude but they need the right information. I said it after the Burnley game, this was my fault. And now we found a way for us, how we can be uncomfortable again for other teams.”
There was, however, another reminder of the issues at centre-back with Klopp forced to field his 12th different centre-back pairing this season with Nathaniel Phillips and Jordan Henderson selected in the heart of defence. News filtered through during the game that the club are seeking to rectify the issue before Monday night’s transfer deadline.
Klopp refused to confirm reports of the club’s interest in 25-year-old Preston North End defender Ben Davies, but adding a centre-back — even a surprise name from a Championship club — will only enhance the sense of momentum they are generating, even if the Reds boss admits he is “constantly concerned about injuries” given the relentless schedule.
At least concerns about Salah’s form are rapidly receding.
“He scored a goal at Tottenham but for VAR,” added Klopp. “That goal was a good sign for him that things are clicking again. Tonight he played a superb game. He was really in the game, really involved, was flexible, all these kind of things, kept the ball, controlling the game was really good. The first goal is just super smart and the second goal, what a counter-attack. First touch Mo, outstanding and a nice finish.
“I work on a daily basis with him. He will never stop having a massive desire for scoring goals. He is a world-class player and in the last few weeks when you don’t score that many, the only thing you can do is try, try and try again and make good decisions.”