West Ham vs. Liverpool: Pablo Fornals, Kurt Zouma end Jurgen Klopp’s unbeaten start to Premier League season

LONDON — The first time West Ham found themselves leading against Liverpool, they followed the instincts of so many who have found themselves in this position before: Hold out for as long as possible and maybe, just maybe, you could get away with it.

The proof that there is something special developing at the London Stadium, a team that is capable of challenging for a top-four berth throughout the course of the season, came in their response to a Liverpool equalizer that seemed to reorientate this game in their favor. West Ham went for it again. It soon became apparent to them, their visitors and everyone in east London that on this Sunday — maybe not every day, but today — they had the quality at both ends of the pitch to beat one of Europe’s super teams.

A 3-2 victory was no less than West Ham merited, a win that places them in the thick of what was supposed to be a three-team dust up at the top of the table. It is far too early to suggest that Moyes’ side might be able to keep up with the pacesetters for a further 27 games when they seem more vulnerable than most to injuries in the wrong position. Take Michail Antonio, Declan Rice or Aaron Cresswell out of this team and it may not have the look of England’s fourth-best side. But they are in it right now and with them in place, there is no reason why this statement win cannot be followed with further balmy moments in Stratford.

From the outset, West Ham had a plan to hit their opposition where it hurt the most. Their approach was not as progressive as it has been this season but, as Moyes noted, their desire to keep the ball came up against a Liverpool side that could take it off them very swiftly. Still, they found the weak points. Trent Alexander-Arnold showed why he is worth the defensive sacrifices that Liverpool make with the superb free-kick to level the scoreline at 1-1 but he left space behind him that the Hammers were more than ready to exploit. Down that flank Antonio, in particular, was able to make something out of nothing, a stuttering run down the left forcing Virgil van Dijk into giving up a corner early on. That is a far more dangerous concession against this team than most.

Jurgen Klopp was far from impressed that the opener stood, Pablo Fornals’ corner clipping Alisson’s glove as he went to punch it clear only for it to fly into the net. Angelo Ogbonna was offering robust competition to win the ball but if Craig Pawson deemed it to be fair there was little chance that video assistant referee Stuart Attwell would overturn it. Add another early incident that favored the hosts — Aaron Cresswell rolling his studs over the top of the ball and into Jordan Henderson — and there was a sense of indignation that might have taken Liverpool’s focus off the challenging task in hand.

“The first [goal] they score is a foul on the goalkeeper, the arm goes into Alisson’s arm so how can he catch it? That makes no sense,” asked Klopp after the game. “Aaron Cresswell’s was a reckless challenge on Jordan Henderson, even when he touched the ball before so you have to control your body. Two situations which were influential but West Ham did not make the decisions and they won the game.

“What can Alisson do? That is why the goalie is protected. If a player goes up in the air with his arm, it is an important part of the body for the goalkeeper. People will say I am making excuses but I am calm. You need normal decisions from a referee and he did not do that.”

Moyes, meanwhile, contended that the Premier League is a better competition for not allowing goalkeepers complete aerial freedom. That is perhaps unsurprising considering his players can beat pretty much anyone in the air if they don’t have the advantage of being able to catch it anyway.

That it was a disrupted first half from the own goal onwards suited West Ham’s purposes rather more than their opponents. Twice there were lengthy stoppages for Ogbonna to receive treatment on his knee, by the 22nd minute, Craig Dawson was forced to enter the fray. Those circumstances meant that Liverpool struggled to build any great rhythm to their attacks, they could advance the ball up to the final third but then found themselves unable to create the angle for that final pass or shot.

In every Premier League match this season prior to Sunday, Liverpool had had at least one effort on goal by the 11th minute. It was telling then that, even though Ogbonna’s injury added plenty of dead time to the clock, it was not until the 29th minute that a visitor managed to get a shot away, Sadio Mane’s strike from outside the box Klopp’s side are the Premier League’s chief volume shooters. Against the massed ranks of the West Ham defense, they just could not get into good scoring positions. 

West Ham could hold Liverpool away from the most dangerous spots on the pitch. They could offer a threat on the counter. The issue was that after the opener they leaned rather too much into the former, plugging gaps and trying to limit the visitors’ opportunities in the box. 

“I think the aspect we’re improving on is our possession, our ball retention,” said Moyes, a comment echoed by Klopp. “We weren’t able to do it as much because Liverpool are such a good team.”

Ultimately, the pressure would tell when Mohamed Salah went down under a challenge from Declan Rice 22 yards out, all too easily in the West Ham captain’s view. Alexander-Arnold shrewdly knocked the ball out to the side, ensuring that his shot curled over Jarrod Bowen, the shortest man in West Ham’s giant wall. Lukasz Fabianski did not dive. He may not have got close if he had.

What would have been frustrating for Moyes is that the immediate aftermath of the goal brought far greater attacking vigor from his side, a return to the approach with which they had begun the game. A player of Alexander-Arnold’s qualities is worth the gaps he leaves behind him at the other end. Equally, he does leave them and West Ham found time and time again that they could exploit them through Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma. But for a heavy touch by the former just before the interval he would have found himself one on one with Alisson with a chance to restore the Hammers’ lead.

Ultimately, it was from that area that Fornals ghosted in to restore West Ham’s lead, though it took exceptional strength, control and composure from Jarrod Bowen to not buckle under the pressure of three defenders before slipping a pass through Joel Matip’s legs. Alexander-Arnold was trailing behind as Fornals rolled the ball under Alisson.

West Ham had learned their lesson. This time, they would not just stack men behind the ball. Their frontline needed no second invitation to counter. It took supreme defending from Virgil van Dijk to deny first Bowen then Antonio, half chances separated by Alisson’s left-footed block of Fornals.

It seemed inevitable that the pressure would ratchet up when Moyes’ side regained the lead. No one in the London Stadium could have imagined it would be applied on Liverpool’s goal. Aaron Cresswell’s set-piece delivery was customarily excellent. Tomas Soucek’s blocking run carved out an avenue for Kurt Zouma, who found Alexander-Arnold had not even left his feet as he rose to thud a header beyond Alisson.

The victory was not quite secure. With seven minutes — plus added time — left to play, substitute Divock Origi kept Liverpool’s hopes of an unbeaten season alive with a smart spin and volley around Dawson. The chance came for an equalizer and there would have been a certain irony if West Ham’s win had been stolen from them by a set play, Mane heading across the face of goal when Alexander-Arnold’s tempting effort eluded Dawson.

The London Stadium, so often decried as a soulless enormo-dome not fit for football, boomed to the sound of over 50,000 supporters in rapture. Rice, the colossus at the heart of this exceptional side, looked visibly moved by the outpouring of jubilance. He was determined to soak up every minute of it. Moyes seemed determined to celebrate with every corner of the ground. 

In the afterglow of perhaps his best win as West Ham manager, Moyes was not afraid to set his heights on the loftiest positions. “I want us to challenge whoever are going to be the teams of the top four, that’s what I’ve laid down to the players,” he said. “I want to challenge those teams. I don’t know who they’re going to be. I hope one of them could be us.”

Why couldn’t they?

With 11 games played, West Ham find themselves third in the Premier League, firmly between Manchester City and Liverpool. It is not a false position. Moyes and his players showed they can go toe to toe with the best teams in England and emerge victorious. They are not going anywhere for a while yet.

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