Liverpool fire warning to contenders as they show another gear

Posted by Kristian Walsh

The start of the second half at Anfield against West Ham on Saturday signalled approximately the 215th minute of football played by Liverpool in the past six days. In the 216th, they turned one-nil into two-nil; by the 235th they had completed a stunning 20 minutes, their best attacking showing of the season.

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It may be a strange way to consider such a performance, by the accumulation of minutes, but this is how the league must be considered right now. As teams around them drop points in all sorts of unexpected and brutal manners, Liverpool will strive to maintain momentum and ensure their good start is complimented with a good middle third of the season. This was not just a game for Liverpool, but their 15th of the season; this was not just three points for Liverpool after their 4-1 victory, but three points to bring their running total to 30. That is two points per game, a total historically good enough to earn Champions League football at the end of the season.

Brendan Rodgers will acknowledge his team's inauspicious start. He will recognise the troublesome period after Martin Skrtel's own goal allowed West Ham back into the game. But more than anything else, he -- like those who watched it from the stands, mouths open -- will remember the football Liverpool produced, intelligent and relentless, at the start of the second half.

It was remarkable both individually and collectively, but also because it came at the end of a difficult, tiring week. A defeat to Hull and home victory against Norwich were both routine in their own way, but both still saw energy expended over the 90 minutes. Yet here fitness levels remained high and minds were sharper than ever. That was possibly the most impressive thing.

There was a lot to be impressed by. Joe Allen blossomed with the extra responsibility he was given in midfield, rarely relinquishing possession and moving forward to find the spaghetti-like movement in front of him. Raheem Sterling continued his improvement, making no more than two or three touches at a time and looking to keep the ball moving; Luis Suarez, not as good as Wednesday, was still as good as anybody else in the world with the ball at his feet; Philippe Coutinho, dropping deeper and central, tried to find the space ahead.

And so the list continues; and so West Ham found no reprieve. Alongside them, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson moved higher up the pitch, as did Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson, full-backs of fortitude on this afternoon.

The result was the game being played in West Ham's half, maybe even penalty area, at the start of the half. James Collins and James Tomkins would, in an act of sheer futility, toss the ball towards the midfield; there stood Allen, Gerrard, Coutinho, Henderson to reclaim it. Possession signalled movement; movement signalled chances, 32 of them in all. Losing the ball would prompt an unnervingly determined effort to regain it in those fabled five or six seconds Rodgers has spoken of previously.

Liverpool are a curious team. Here they were curiouser and curiouser, beginning the second half with a mad-hatter style of football far removed from what had been seen for the majority of this season. This was closer to the football that Rodgers was expected to impose upon the club: winning the ball back within three seconds, let alone five or six; control on the ball and fluidity off it; resting with ball at feet.

For these 20 minutes, Rodgers saw an ideal Liverpool performance, a prototype of what will bring them trophies in the future. With every attack came a genuine goal-scoring chance; Allen in particular was ingenious, constantly picking the right pass at the right time.

But after Liverpool's second goal from Gerrard's excellent set piece -- a goal that everybody, including Ian Rush, could claim as his own -- they didn't score. Though it should not curb fans' enthusiasm too much, the fact that Liverpool did not score again should temper it slightly; the period of utter dominance, in all its obliterating glory, needs to be accompanied by ruthlessness in front of goal.

It did not come, and instead West Ham were given an opportunity to grab an undeserved point. There will be worry about how the home side wobbled for 10 minutes after Skrtel's own goal, as well as the injury to Gerrard. But eventually Allen and Lucas Leiva formed a good partnership in midfield, which proved the catalyst for Liverpool to regain control. They found their style on and off the ball once more. Suarez, discontented by no goals, grabbed one (and maybe two) to finish the game off.

But it was in those 20 minutes that everybody was afforded a glimpse into what Liverpool are truly capable of. Sitting in second with 30 points, this is important. Liverpool have won games by twos, threes and fours this season, not to mention their early-season one-goal defensive bonanzas. But that period, just after the second half, represented what the Liverpool the manager wanted them to be from his first training session. Pressing, movement, creativity, flexibility: it was all there as part of an optimum performance. Only the finishing was lacking, something that the return of Daniel Sturridge will improve.

It provided confirmation that this side could improve further -- something that will be necessary with trips to Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea over the Christmas period. It also provides optimism and a reminder of how a lot of the 30 points won so far have been won by a team with potential alone. In the eternal wrangle over whether Liverpool are underachieving or overachieving, a case for the former was presented against Sam Allardyce's frozen side.

There were other notable showings aside from that 20 minutes. Even disregarding that magnificence, Allen was excellent; his confidence, even after the miss to send out a thousand Scouse decrees at Goodison Park, was evident -- he routinely made himself available for the pass and had no worries about moving with the ball at his feet. Mamadou Sakho's reintroduction into central defence also brought energy, the Frenchman highlighting his ability both on the front foot and when having to make vital goal-saving interceptions; Daniel Agger, who missed the game through illness, may be turning another shade of green after Sakho's display.

But despite Suarez's double, and despite a dogged first-half endeavour, it will be that fantastic opening to the second half that pleases Liverpool and hurts West Ham. They may not have won Saturday's game with that bursting performance alone, but Liverpool will win plenty in the future if they can replicate it. Rodgers should hope, and expect, that they can; their opposition in the race for Champions League football won't.


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