With the obvious exception of Jurgen Klopp, Sam Allardyce remains the last manager to win a Premier League game at Anfield.
April will see the fourth anniversary of Crystal Palace’s victory and, as the champions extended their subsequent unbeaten run to 67 home league games, there was no repeat. In its own way, however, this was as much of a surprise. It amounted to a second triumph of sorts.
If Allardyce’s damage-limitation exercise had appeared intended merely to prevent a major dent in West Bromwich Albion’s goal difference, instead he pilfered his first point for his eighth Premier League club. It came in typical Allardyce fashion, with a header from a set-piece.
It proved a redemptive moment for Semi Ajayi, the giant centre-back whose header hit the post, spun along the line and eventually nestled in the Liverpool net for his first top-flight goal.
Ajayi had been at fault for Sadio Mane’s opener, even if it still required sublime skill from the Senegalese. He defended admirably thereafter and made his mark in the opposing penalty box. Matheus Pereira, the flair player Allardyce had benched, came on to deliver the cross Ajayi met. Classic Big Sam, perhaps.
There was definitely an irritated Jurgen Klopp, even before his team passed up the chance to take a five-point lead at the Premier League summit.
Klopp’s frustration with the visitors’ tactics was apparent when a display of dissent brought him a booking. It came a few minutes after a club already without the injured Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez saw Joel Matip hobble off with a groin problem.
At that stage, it appeared Liverpool scarcely needed a specialist centre-back, but Matip’s importance became apparent even before the equaliser.
Albion striker Karlan Grant had spent the majority of the game in his own half but raced on to Romaine Sawyers’ long pass, away from Rhys Williams, Matip’s replacement, and drew a terrific save from Alisson. There was nothing the Brazilian could do, though, when Ajayi rose above Fabinho.
Liverpool had thrashed Palace 7-0 eight days earlier and the initial impression was that Allardyce was determined to avoid a repeat.
This began as an attack-versus-defence exercise. Liverpool dominated much of it. Jordan Henderson saw so much of the ball that he completed 85 passes to West Brom’s 35 before the break. Neutrals may miss Slaven Bilic’s more open approach, but Allardyce lived up – or down – to a reputation for defensiveness.
His ultra-defensive blueprint did not change when they conceded inside 12 minutes. Allardyce can excel at drilling a defence but one of his stoppers was found wanting.
Ajayi tried to intercept Matip’s chipped pass, failed and Mane, in a wonderful touch, chested the ball down on the turn and volleyed it in. After his longest Liverpool goal drought, the Senegalese now has two in as many games.
Mane illustrated again that he could still find room in a crowded penalty box. He stooped to head Henderson’s cross just wide. Yet there were relatively few clear-cut chances.
Mohamed Salah’s half volley flew over the bar. Henderson flashed an effort wide. Salah headed over. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s menacing free kick only just missed the near post. But it was only in the 89th minute, when Roberto Firmino’s header was tipped wide, that Sam Johnstone had to make a fine save. He had relatively little to do. Allardyce’s policy of safety in numbers brought him some protection.
There was no lack of effort from Liverpool, but they encountered the mass ranks of a packed defence.
If bringing in Callum Robinson for the banned Jake Livermore suggested attacking intentions, the forward was tasked with policing Andy Robertson at times.
Albion often had all 11 players behind the ball, none within 70 yards of the Liverpool goal in what became a 6-4-0 formation.
Robertson still delivered some enticing crosses as Liverpool had an absurd amount of possession. Albion had so little of the ball that six of their outfield players did not complete a pass in the first 16 minutes.
By half-time, they had 18 percent of the ball. They showed some more intent thereafter and got an unexpected reward, but they scarcely needed much of the ball to harm Liverpool’s title push.