For almost 80 minutes, things were ticking along perfectly for Jurgen Klopp. Having arrived in the Black Country on a hiding to nothing, the Liverpool manager had seemingly found the perfect balance between self-preservation and maintaining momentum.
Despite the Champions League having taken on greater significance in recent weeks, the Reds still had domestic matters to attend to, with the trip The Hawthorns more than simply an inconvenience ahead of Roma’s visit to Anfield on Tuesday.
Retaining their place in the Champions League has been Liverpool’s aim since the start of the season, and though a descent beyond the top four is unlikely, here was an opportunity to move within a couple of points of putting fifth-placed Chelsea completely out of reach.
Late sloppiness leaves the Reds within the Blues’ grasp but more irritatingly for Klopp, they slip further off Manchester United’s pace while allowing Tottenham the chance to move level on points. The focus for now may be on the Champions League semi-final, but this was an infuriating and entirely needless slip.
As too often still occurs with Liverpool, the mood changed so quickly. It was a perfectly pleasant stroll in the West Midlands sunshine until they offered West Brom a way back into the game and eventually gift-wrapped them a point that appears of little use to the hosts anyway.
Having likely considered his to be a job well done as the clock ticked down, Klopp’s mood was noticeably darker by full-time. All that good work ruined by some familiar old failings which have not yet been completely eradicated.
With his side featuring five changes, including the opportunity taken to give Roberto Firmino some of the afternoon off, the Reds appeared relatively untroubled through the first hour. Virgil van Dijk was selected as the only regular presence in an otherwise completely refreshed back four and even when he went down clutching his knee after appearing to twist it during a challenge for a loose ball inside the opening 10 minutes, the sight of him returning to his feet in little discomfort was typical of the momentum and positivity that the Reds had built up of late.
Already by that early point, their pre-match buoyancy had been enhanced by the arrival of Danny Ings’ first goal of the Klopp era.
Not since the Merseyside derby in October 2015 – the final match of Brendan Rodgers’ reign – had Firmino’s stand-in found the net after breaking down in Klopp’s very first training session. It was a simple finish after West Brom – Kieran Gibbs especially – had inexcusably nodded off, allowing Sadio Mane to make a mug of Jay Rodriguez before squaring for Georginio Wijnaldum to tee up the scorer.
It prompted the release of 930 days’ worth of frustration – though Ings would probably testify that his reaction was restrained. It would be only the most partisan of Man Utd or Everton fans who begrudged him his moment.
Perhaps West Brom too, given it was Ings who they seemed to target thereafter. Salomon Rondon was perhaps fortunate to escape a caution for catching the Liverpool striker on the knee with a swipe that followed a lunge after a loose ball, while Ahmed Hegazi was lucky to stay on the field early in the second half after the Egyptian defender gave the floored Ings a dig in the ribs. It was a glancing blow but the sheer stupidity warrants closer inspection from the FA early next week.
Hegazi also took a catty swipe at Salah after missing a second header late on, though by that point the Liverpool hitman struck his record-equalling goal with a cute yet familiar finish after a flowing move that included Klopp’s substitutes, Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Then, as the clouds in the Black Country became darker, so too did Klopp’s mood.
Liverpool have dropped 14 points from winning positions this season in the Premier League.
10 of those points dropped coming in the last 10 minutes of the game.
— Anfield Express (@AnfieldExpress) April 21, 2018
Jake Livermore offered West Brom a smidgen of encouragement when he poked in his first goal for the club after Liverpool had allowed their hosts first go at three loose balls following a right-wing corner. The Reds were similarly accommodating nine minutes later when Joe Gomez was too casual before conceding a free-kick on the left, one Rondon was granted a free run at.
It will provoke yet further debate on the merits of zonal marking, but the system cannot be entirely to blame when individuals fail to carry out their assigned duties. Firmino was culpable in both instances, failing to challenge Craig Dawson on the first goal before being brushed aside prior to the equaliser, which came after Dejan Lovren failed to make up enough ground to stop the Baggies hitman.
The failure of Liverpool to defend set-pieces was a recurring theme last season and it was exposed again on the first day of this campaign when they let slip another two-goal advantage in similar fashion at Watford. Van Dijk’s presence has helped reduce their vulnerability but Roma will note the leak has not been plugged completely.
Perhaps this slip will serve to benefit Liverpool. Whatever complacency there was among the Reds ranks – it was certainly present after going 2-0 ahead at The Hawthorns – will surely be addressed by this result and Klopp’s inevitable inquest.
The Liverpool manager was seething after the match and he will most likely make the players feel his pain. It seemed like perfect preparation for their upcoming European assignments until the final stages. But when put in context at the end of the campaign, this blip might viewed as a jolt the Reds needed. It is certainly a warning they cannot afford to ignore.