Mane, Keita and Salah renew Liverpool’s licence to thrill in statement swatting of West Ham
The clock had struck 55, Liverpool had already scored thrice, and the volume of Anfield’s voice was turned to full dial...
On 88 minutes, when Daniel Sturridge made it four with his first touch against West Ham, the stadium erupted again to revel in the mastery.
The flow was back, the fun too, as was the picture of perplexed opponents not knowing who or where to mark in the midst of an attacking hurricane.
There was a difference, however, and there was no escaping it as it circled the air, dominating conversations outside L4 and painting the expressions of home supporters.
The optimism for the new season was not manufactured, forced or far-fetched. Being clothed in belief ahead of Sunday’s kick off wasn’t a thing Liverpool fans had to compel themselves to do, it was now inherent, it was automatic.
Jurgen Klopp had spent his first day on the job on and every one of them since building up to this point of collective conviction.
During the previous two summers, first in California and then Hong Kong, the manager addressed the psychology of his squad and the wider Liverpool world.
He wanted his players to see themselves through his eyes, to amplify his voice rather than the social media criticism, and to shatter any shackles or ceilings they had placed on themselves.
The German had also implored supporters to stop being “doubters” and help “write a new story.”
Here, 1039 days after his appointment, the confidence on the pitch, in the technical area, and on the terraces for 2018-19 couldn’t have been more aligned.
Captain Jordan Henderson used his programme notes to highlight that none of his team-mates were “satisfied” by reaching the Champions League final last season, which ended in a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid, and that “standing still” was not an option.
Xherdan Shaqiri went bolder, insisting “nothing is impossible. We can be everything we want to be.”
Klopp, meanwhile, reminded: “We are Liverpool; there is no one on this planet that expects more of us than we expect of ourselves,” and on the walk to Anfield, fans fizzed as they discussed the possibilities the season could present - chiefly, the chance to erase Manchester City’s designs on defending the title.
Against the East London side, Liverpool tattooed their intentions at every possible juncture. By halftime, they were 2-0 up courtesy of supreme build-up from Naby Keïta, who fed Andy Robertson to cross for a Mohamed Salah finish before James Milner broke West Ham’s offside trap and Sadio Mané punished the rearguard’s inability to react.
Manuel Pellegrini’s men could feel aggrieved by the third goal, which should have been ruled offside, but they were also fortunate to exit Merseyside without a more ballooned scoreline.
Roberto Firmino played in the Senegal international, who spun and shot low past Lukasz Fabianski with no flag forthcoming, before Sturridge needed only 24 seconds after being introduced to claim his side’s fourth.
And yet, it wasn’t solely Liverpool’s ability to illuminate in the final third that courted applause.
Klopp has overseen three Premier League openers during his tenure and his charges have beaten the opposition keeper 11 times in those.
This was the first occasion, however, that the Reds had kept a clean sheet with 21-year-old Joe Gomez excellent alongside Virgil van Dijk. His four clearances and nine ball regains were the most in the match.
Alisson was largely a spectator in-between the sticks on his competitive debut, with the Reds restricting the Hammers to a shot on target in each half.
Liverpool’s midfield provided the foundation to both scorch and stifle with Gini Wijnaldum controlling well at the base, while Milner was core to every facet of play and Keita exposed spaces the visitors knew nothing about until he weaved through them.
The mesh of explosiveness and steel was one of the most encouraging elements from Klopp’s side, which they will have to continuously implement - especially in more challenging fixtures.
The other eye-catching factor at Anfield were the outfield players on the bench who didn’t get a kick: Fabinho, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne.
Klopp’s strength in depth has been greatly elevated, even without having a full roster to select from yet.
Post-match, the German observed the shift in mood and sharpened expectancy around the place, but also underscored that the coming weeks won’t be as comfortable. “It’s good that the people are positive, but the people know as well that this season will be unbelievably hard,” he said.
“We cannot be anything different from the challenger because we didn’t win anything since I am in anyway, [and] it’s long time ago. So we have to invest more, we have to fight more, we have to create more. That’s what we expect from ourselves and then we will see where it leads to.
“West Ham will play for sure a good season, but they are not then the Uniteds, Citys and all that stuff. That’s how it is, they know that and we know that and we have to be ready week in, week out for all the different challenges. Expectation - ours is the highest, but that changes nothing.”
Pellegrini was more succinct in his assessment of the encounter. He admitted: “It was a tough before the game, during the game and after the game!"
The Chilean can take solace in the fact he won’t be the only opposition manager left feeling that way after facing Liverpool this season.