Liverpool – Wolverhampton Wanderers: So Close, Yet So Far (3-1)
The day was out of Liverpool’s hands, but Wolves’ combative approach threw early problems their way. An uphill battle with an opening insight: although they got the control they needed, the clouds drew over the shine of Premier League silverware.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
The greatest of domestic prizes, culminating on the final day of the season, is a rare occurrence that builds the highest of stakes. The fact that both Man City and Liverpool have been here before, under the same coaches, is indicative of the sheer quality both of these teams possess.
Liverpool’s position was a curious one, one which could see them crowned quadruple winners or lose the two biggest competitions in football, in the space of a week. It’s only natural that they’ve slowed down towards the climax, but this is a team that has continued to churn out results, even if highly organized and compact teams can slow down their super attacking play.
Earlier on in the campaign, a home game against Wolverhampton Wanderers would have been a more daunting prospect. Eight defeats in their last thirteen league games saw Bruno Lage’s team fail to build form towards a European spot and an organized defensive block look a lot more vulnerable when compared to the start of the season. A disappointing end to a promising campaign, but an opportunity to spoil the party for someone else’s.
Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk were only fit enough to start on the bench, as Jürgen Klopp brought the big guns back into the team. Seven changes were made from the win against Southampton, which saw Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Thiago Alcântara, Naby Keïta, Jordan Henderson, Luis Díaz, and Sadio Mané all return.
José Sá was welcomed back between the posts, as Lage made three changes from the team that drew at home to already relegated Norwich City. Rayan Aït-Nouri came in at left wing-back, whilst Leander Dendoncker also returned to the midfield three, as Wolves lined up in a 3-5-2 formation.
Wolves pull no punches
The weight of the situation could be felt from the start, as Wolves broke into a very early lead. A goal kick should have been swept by Ibrahima Konaté, but the mistiming of the ball put Raúl Jiménez behind the center-back. As Joël Matip moved across to cover, space opened for the pass back across goal for Pedro Neto to fire in an opener within three minutes.
Liverpool is renowned for their fast relentless starts, but the dynamics between the two forwards caused the hosts big issues at the start of the game. On the long ball, neither center-back could match Jiménez in the aerial duel and the lateral header towards Neto was constantly available. Though Wolves didn’t break into any more meaningful attacks, other than the goal, off a long ball towards Jiménez, the extremely wide circulation made it difficult for Liverpool to get the ball back straight away. Klopp’s 4-3-3 zonal press is geared to suffocating teams in the center of the field, but if a team plays the ball wide and hits long passes towards the wing-backs, Liverpool has always tended to keep their staggered shape and build from deeper positions.
That being said, Wolves did have a way to find Neto free on the left, with the forward constantly positioned high up on the last line. With play funnelling on the opposite side, a pass back to Rúben Neves or João Moutinho, in space, enabled either midfielder to whip the ball around Matip and towards Neto’s path.
17th minute: Buildup to Dendoncker chance. Up-back-and-through combination (Grey ball, first pass: black ball, second pass) which constantly put Neto behind the last line.
Lage’s team could trigger these transitions pretty quickly on the up-back-and-through. In the 17th minute, such a counterattack took place after a breakdown in the Liverpool build. Neto instantly moved behind Keïta, who had shifted just on the right of Matip, and sprung into action from a Neves long pass. Neto slid Dendoncker through, once he had carried the ball into the box, but the Belgian failed to hit the target.
Neto proved a thorn in Liverpool’s side, but the visitors’ offensive effort was hampered as the young Portuguese man was taken off after twenty minutes due to injury. Hee-Chan Hwang took his place, without replicating Neto’s effect on the field.
More success on the direct
Liverpool had a threat on the left themselves, as Díaz was found once he slipped inside Jonny Otto. Willy Boly often engaged with Mané or Keïta between the lines, by moving out of the defensive line. Wolves’ coverage on Boly was pretty poor and miscommunicated. Jonny ignored Díaz’s direct runs inside, Conor Coady was not in a position to mop up and engage. As a result, Díaz got in behind twice, one from a Matip ball over the top and the other through Andrew Robertson curling the ball behind Jonny as Boly was out of position.
The visitors were eventually caught out but through a different pattern. Thiago stepped forward, behind Dendoncker and Neves. Boly reacted too late as Konaté moved the ball into the Spaniard and gave Thiago enough time to backheel the ball in behind. Mané’s run in front of Coady was not picked up and the striker was able to equalize.
23rd minute: Buildup to Liverpool equalizer. Wolves’ 5-4-1/5-3-2 shape was easily exploited, lack of coverage on Thiago and too much space between on the right side left Mané free (Grey ball, first pass: black ball, second pass.)
From this point, Wolves were unable to break into offensive transition, whilst Liverpool attempted to build as many fast attacks as possible. Klopp’s team still had slower phases: Henderson and Thiago started on the same line, but Thiago moved further up as the half progressed, whilst Wolves sat in a scattered 5-4-1 medium-to-low-block, with Dendoncker shifted on the right side.
More successful moments came from more direct passes, into a front three which was a lot more central than usual. We often see rotation between the right center-midfielder and Alexander-Arnold, but the right-back didn’t come inside as often as we recently associate with him.
The hosts emphasised direct passes from the right towards Boly’s area, whilst also building attacks as quickly as possible when Wolves were out of their defensive shape and backtracking towards the goal. This led to sporadic attempts in the second phase and headed efforts which didn’t cause Sá too many problems.
The boiling kettle
As news filtered of a Villa lead, Liverpool was still in a position where they were unable to take the title off Man City’s hands. An injury at the end of the half to Thiago was a huge blow, with James Milner on to replace him. Wolves also made a change, with goalkeeper Sá replaced by John Ruddy.
Fortunately, Liverpool moved into the controlled game state that often sees so much success. Their varied 2-3-5/2-5-3 approach was clicked into gear and thought they had found a crucial breakthrough down the left once again, with Mané scoring behind a pressing Boly, but the striker had slightly moved into an offside position.
A Thiago-less left side was still the main route for their buildup to move down. Wolves combination of a 5-4-1/5-3-2 low block, which changed as Hwang moved into the forward line, didn’t stop the passing lanes from the center-backs to midfielders but were able to keep things congested by the positioning of the back three improving as the game continued. Boly was less reactive when the ball filtered out wide, but Robertson’s influence grew more, especially on the underlap.
55th minute: Improvement in the Wolves backline as the center-backs dropped off and Jonny Otto moved more central as Mané received. Liverpool still progressed, but lead to Díaz moving the ball back inside and a blocked shot in a crowded area.
Though Liverpool wasn’t creating constant high-quality chances, when they move into this control, it’s only a matter of time before the openings begin to appear. Klopp replaced Jota with Mohamed Salah before Keïta came off for Roberto Firmino. Despite a short flurry of Wolves attempts, this was a much more controlled and effective second half from the hosts.
By the time Liverpool broke into the lead, not only did Man City go 2-0 down, but they scored three times in five minutes to put the title’s fate firmly back in their hands.
From a corner, Matip’s header was blocked on the line by Jiménez but was still in the danger zone. Matip headed the ball into Salah’s path and was turned in by the attacker. Liverpool eventually did their part, with six minutes left, but title hopes were well out of their control.
A third was added before the end, another creative backheel opened up the right side of Wolves, this time from Mané. Robertson was the benefactor, who was able to slip Firmino in and was rewarded when Firmino gave the ball straight back, with Ruddy out of his goal. A well crafted Liverpool goal to put the game well out of Wolves’ reach, but not the title grabbing late surge that was flirted not ten minutes earlier. A triumphant Barclays conclusion.
Two league defeats and all three cup finals reached, it’s utterly remarkable how good this Liverpool team has been. Focus can now switch to a Champions League final in which they are favourites, but if there is one coach who has been a nuisance to Klopp’s Liverpool, Carlo Ancelotti is within this discussion.
His trusted 4-4-2 formation often drops into a 5-3-2 block, with the right-winger dropping back into the last line. Not only did this create Liverpool problems in Napoli, but even Everton built defensive solidity too. Even though Liverpool was hardly the beast they are now in these fixtures, awkwardness can still be met when the front five is matched. If Madrid goes for such a game plan, finding the gaps, such as the openings on Wolves’ right side, will be the big game-changer into grabbing more success.
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