Liverpool vs. West Brom score: Sam Allardyce stuns Jurgen Klopp’s league leaders to earn hard fought point

Semi Ajayi’s late header earned West Bromwich Albion their first point of Sam Allardyce’s reign in thrilling fashion as they held firm against wave after wave of Liverpool attacks in a 1-1 draw.

If the first half was effectively a training exercise, Liverpool’s ten attackers probing the ranked masses of West Brom’s defence, it proved to be one where the visitors did enough, restricting their hosts to only one shot on target. That was Sadio Mane’s goal, a superb spin and low shot, and for a time it seemed that would be enough.

However as the game wore on West Brom committed more bodies in chase of parity, Karlan Grant going close before a sloppy pass from Curtis Jones handed the visitors the set piece that always seemed their best avenue to a point. That it was, as Ajayi rose highest to meet Matheus Pereira’s corner, the ball bouncing agonizingly off one post and across the line as Liverpool dropped two points in the title race.

Allardyce picks his poison

It may not have seemed it, as Liverpool monopolized possession and territory against a West Brom side perfectly willing to cede both to their hosts, but Jurgen Klopp’s side were taking quite the risk in the opening exchanges at Anfield. For much of the game every outfield player was firmly ensconced in the Baggies’ half.

Fabinho and Joel Matip are hardly blessed with searing recovery pace, while West Brom had energetic forwards such as Grady Diangana who could theoretically make hay on the counter-attack. Yet, rather than worry about the space in behind, Klopp pushed his “center backs” so high up the pitch they were effectively forming a three man shield with Jordan Henderson. Rather than the last line of defense the two center backs were the foundations of Liverpool’s attack.

This was the most extreme of chokeholds, one that West Brom did nothing to break. So obsessed were they with keeping their shape and choking up the avenues to goal that the Henderson-Fabinho-Matip trio could have the ball whenever they wanted it with no pressure applied to them. Sam Allardyce evidently reasoned that his team could not hope to close off every avenue to goal for this exorbitantly gifted side, that they would have to totally cede the game somewhere to have any hope of still being in it by the closing stages.

Arguably he got his tactics right. For all that Liverpool kept the ball to a ludicrous extent they struggled to create much to test Sam Johnstone in the first half, indeed they registered just one shot on target in that period and even that took a moment of excellence from Mane to bring Matip’s through ball under control before striking home.

As laid out on Christmas Day, Allardyce’s brand of football does not have to be this negative. By the time he had made his mark at Crystal Palace and Sunderland his side’s were deadly on the counter-attack, today they did not even attempt to threaten on the break. It is fair to assume that against opposition who are not as manifestly superior to them in every facet of the game West Brom will attempt more than to park the entire bus depot. 

Indeed from the second half onwards the likes of Diangana and Callum Robinson pushed forward with greater purpose, earning the chances that would force a corner from which Ajayi headed home the equalizer. For all that it was a deeply unsatisfying sight, West Brom were only able to make those sallies forth later in the game because they had approached the early stages with the view of not suffering irretrievable damage. 

Liverpool’s defensive tightrope

With Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez sidelined, Matip has excelled in the Liverpool backline. He has the aerial quality to snuff out many an attack and delivers passes with the sort of vision and accuracy that saw him register an assist for Mane’s opener. He and Fabinho have made for an impressive pairing, such that you could be convinced their title challenge could weather the storm of losing two top tier central defenders.

What about three? Matip may yet give us the answer to that question after limping out just before the hour mark clutching his groin after what seemed an innocuous enough attempt to clear the ball. That he immediately signaled his wish to be substituted would suggest this was no minor problem even if it will take time before the true extent of the injury is clear.

Despite the loss of Van Dijk and Gomez Liverpool have indicated a reluctance to move for another center back in the market with Klopp convinced of the qualities not only of Matip and Fabinho but also Rhys Williams, who replaced the Cameroonian, and Nathaniel Philipps. 

Losing Matip with the January transfer window mere days away will test that faith. Even if this injury proves to be minor the 29-year-old has one of the strongest indicators of future injuries a player can possess: a lengthy track record of previous issues. If one of them were to be severe then Liverpool’s tightrope act would be even harder than it has already been.

Notable performances

Sam Johnstone: As has been the case throughout this season, Johnstone made the saves West Brom needed to stay in the game. Few that he has made or will make were quite as spectacular as the flick of the fingers that denied Roberto Firmino late on. RATING: 7

Sadio Mane: The reason West Brom’s approach seemed destined to fall short was that Mane was always capable of moments of great brilliance such as the control and finish that put Liverpool into the lead. After a lengthy drought his return to the scoresheet proved to be worth the wait. RATING: 8

Romaine Sawyers: It was a match where few West Brom players got to express their technical qualities but Sawyers showed an impressive ability to win the ball back and pick out a pass as the visitors looked to counter. RATING: 6

Premier League outlook

Liverpool now have a three point cushion over nearest rivals Everton at the top of the Premier League table. West Brom, meanwhile, still have plenty of work to do to extricate themselves from the relegation zone, they are five points off Burnley and safety having played a game more.

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