Liverpool-Wolverhampton Wanderers: Sadio Mané double not enough as Liverpool miss out on the Premier League title by a point (2-0)
With the Premier League title hanging in the balance, Liverpool hosted Wolves in a must win fixture that would bear a direct result on the title race. Could Jürgen Klopp’s side overcome a steely Wolves outfit with a daring record against the top six? Even if they could, they would have to rely on Brighton cancelling out Manchester City if they were to win the Premier League for the first time in their history.
Tactical analysis and match report by Tom Quartly.
Jürgen Klopp’s men had won the reverse fixture 2-0 back in December but this game felt more like a cup final than a league tie. A must win. Golden boot-chasing Mohamed Salah was recalled to the lineup in place of Xherdan Shaqiri whilst the rest of the side remained relatively unchanged in Klopp’s usual 4-3-3 formation that oversaw a remarkable comeback in midweek: a 4-0 win against Barcelona in the Champions League.
Wolves had ten points from a possible eighteen at home against the top six, but away, they had been woeful. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo had all but guaranteed 7th place for a side making their return to the Premier League, an outstanding achievement. The Portuguese manager made no changes from their 1-0 win against Fulham the week before, sticking to the same 3-5-2 shape that had worked all season.
Liverpool’s possession pays off with early goal
Kicking off at the same time as the AMEX Stadium two-hundred and fifty miles south-east, Anfield’s initially raucous atmosphere broke way to a nervous, tense buzz. This could be seen in the play, as Liverpool tediously occupied possession in the opening exchanges, shifting it from side to side. This slow buildup against Wolves’ low block, A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. accompanied by Matt Doherty’s marshalling of Sadio Mané, meant that the Senegalese international was starved of the ball; the wide man ultimately had to come short to collect the ball out of pure frustration.
Big role for Trent Alexander-Arnold tonight, being Liverpool’s most important passer once more.
Sixteen minutes in, however, Mané’s deep role came to benefit Jürgen Klopp’s men. Picking up the ball around the halfway line, Mané whipped a fleeting pass out to the onrushing Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose one-two pass with Jordan Henderson allowed him to gain a yard of space in behind the Wolves fullback, Jonny. Similar to his cross in midweek for Georginio Wijnaldum against Barcelona, a low driven ball from the young England international undid Wolves and found the late run of none other than Sadio Mané; a first time finish on the bounce gave Rui Patricio no chance in the Wolves goal. 1-0.
Mané dropping deep and spreading the play against Wolves’ low block.
Note Wijnaldum’s advanced role on the left.
Wolves’ attacking output surprises Liverpool
One reason why Nuno Espírito Santo had got his side to seventh in the Premier League table was his bravery to send players forward on the counterattack. Even against 97 point Liverpool, there was still a flood of orange shirts every time Wolves broke forward. This came as a result of their 3-5-2 shape and it often overwhelmed Liverpool: the 45th minute saw Doherty hit the crossbar following an overload on the right third of the pitch, whilst the 68th minute had Jota denied by Alisson from close range.
Wolves’ classic 3-5-2 formation, with heavy wing-back input.
A short spell of twenty minutes after half-time saw intriguing, end to end football, where both sides had overloads in the final third. Despite the chances Espírito Santo’s side had to equalize, this high risk method of attack did leave Wolves exposed; Belgian Divock Origi came closest to putting the game beyond doubt for Liverpool, but his half volley was blocked brilliantly by the determined Conor Coady.
More Alexander-Arnold quality puts the game to bed
With news filtering through that Riyad Mahrez had found City’s third goal against Brighton, the focus changed to celebrating Liverpool’s performance this season rather than on the title that had ultimately slipped from their grasp. The initial pattern of attack against attack fizzled out as Wolves returned to their low block, adamant on limiting Liverpool’s freedom in the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.
A second goal arrived nonetheless. A trademark ball from Alexander-Arnold once again avoided the Wolves back line and found Mané. The winger added to his tally with a low diving header that had Patricio rooted to the spot. 2-0 with ten minutes to play. Manchester City were 4-1 up and had the title in both hands but the Anfield atmosphere was still lively, a testament to the loyalty of Liverpool Football Club.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is already at the pinnacle of European right backs. One of the best crossers of a football around, the twenty-year old has work to do in his defensive positioning, but that comes with experience. As for Jürgen Klopp’s side as a whole, this season certainly illustrates that a club is better off investing in a project, rather than chasing short term success. Manchester United are in tatters whilst Mauricio Pochettino and Klopp battle it out for a Champions League medal.
Nuno Espírito Santo, on the other hand, has showcased himself this season as a top manager in Europe. His flexible 3-5-2 formation becomes a five at the back without the ball, giving his sides an unparalleled security in defense, whilst still allowing for significant attacking output through splendid counterattacking. The challenge for next season will be to improve their performances against teams willing to absorb the pressure and sit back. Wolves are certainly a side to watch next season and if they can break into the top six, the sky is the limit.
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