Semi Ajayi grabs point at Liverpool to kickstart Allardyce’s West Brom era

Sam Allardyce’s reputation is not built on annoying Liverpool at Anfield but he has developed a rare knack of doing just that nevertheless. The last visiting manager to win a Premier League game here – over three years and 67 matches ago – became the first to deny Jürgen Klopp’s champions all three points on home soil this season as West Bromwich Albion grabbed a valuable draw in their bid to scramble out of the relegation zone.

Liverpool had previously dropped merely two points out of a possible 48 at Anfield throughout 2020 but their final home game of the year proved one of unexpected frustration. In terms of performance and the result. They led through Sadio Mané’s exquisite early finish but thereafter failed to rediscover the clinical and ruthless edge that destroyed Crystal Palace 7-0 last time out. Albion, encouraged by Liverpool’s increasingly subdued attacking display, finally displayed some intent of their own following a purely defensive first half and levelled in the 82nd minute when Semi Ajayi headed in from a corner.

Typical Allardyce you might say, who is unbeaten in his last four visits with four different clubs – Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Everton and now Albion. Roberto Firmino almost won it in the final minute but Sam Johnstone produced a superb finger-tip save from the Brazilian’s back-post header. That was only Liverpool’s second attempt on target of the game.

“It was a great save but to be honest I didn’t have that much to do in the game,” the Albion goalkeeper correctly stated. “Everyone knows what the manager is like. He has come in and things change very quickly and the lads are reacting to it. We dug in deep, we ran for 94 minutes, it was tough at times but we got an equaliser and it is a great point away from home. It feels more like a win.” Klopp admitted it felt like a defeat and, fairly, that Liverpool had no one to blame but themselves.

Albion kicked off with five players stationed on the half-way line ready to pursue a long ball deep into the Liverpool half. And that represented both the start and finish of their attacking intent for the duration of the first half. Karlan Grant, the lone striker in Allardyce’s initial 4-5-1 formation, quickly morphed into a sixth midfielder and Albion’s 4-6-0 system predictably ensured there was only an occasional release from the champions’ constant pressure. The containment policy was quickly disrupted by the brilliance of Mané, who made a difficult chance look so easy when Joël Matip pinged a pass into a crowded penalty area. The Senegal international controlled the defender’s ball on his chest, turned and volleyed beyond Johnstone in one flowing, lightning movement. Ever alert, the striker needed only a moment’s hesitation from Albion defender Ajayi to find the space required to score his sixth league goal of the campaign.

Sadio Mané scores for Liverpool in the first half. Photograph: Nick Potts/Reuters

The rest of the first period brought few clear-cut chances in relation to Liverpool’s dominance of possession and almost permanent residence in the final third. Albion almost went two behind early in the second half when Georginio Wijnaldum teed up Jordan Henderson and the captain’s shot faded wide but from that moment on the visitors showed a willingness to commit bodies forward and unsettle Liverpool. Klopp’s frustration started to boil when Dara O’Shea collected the first booking by catching Henderson from behind with a trailing leg.

The midfielder was unhurt but moments later Matip pulled up with an abductor strain and immediately signalled to the bench that he could not continue. Liverpool’s injury problems have started to ease of late, as evidenced by the return of James Milner and Xherdan Shaqiri to a strong and experienced substitutes’ list that includes the fit-again Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but it is the concentration of knocks in central defence that has tested resources. Rhys Williams replaced the stricken Matip for only his second appearance in the Premier League and, when the next decision went against Liverpool, Klopp found himself the second person booked for his demonstrative dissent.

The visitors went close to capitalising on Liverpool’s defensive disruption when Romaine Sawyers created their clearest opportunity with a penetrating long ball towards Grant. The striker beat Williams for pace down the left and advanced into the penalty area but Alisson, as is so often the case, proved immovable and blocked the low shot with his legs.

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Mohamed Salah had a decent chance to double the home side’s advantage when Wijnaldum delivered a perfect cross into the area but, having found a yard on Albion’s central defenders, the Liverpool forward headed high over Johnstone’s bar. The miss assumed greater, and unexpected, significance when the visitors levelled. A loose pass from Curtis Jones plus some defensive uncertainty led to Albion winning a corner on the right. Matheus Pereira, a late substitute, exchanged passes with Sawyers before sweeping in a delightful cross that Ajayi met with a towering header above Fabinho. The defender had his head in his hands as the ball struck the inside of the far post but was soon racing to the corner flag in celebration when it dropped down over the line with Alisson well beaten.