Wolverhampton Wanderers – Liverpool: Pragmatic Liverpool Impress by Defeating Brave Wolves (0-2)
Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk reaffirmed Liverpool’s Premier League title charge by scoring the deciding goals in an impressive away win. Wolves managed to create some half chances by pressing bravely, but Liverpool’s quality allowed them to take control of the match and secure the result.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Williams.
Wolves have performed well against the top sides this season, managing draws versus Arsenal, Manchester City, and Manchester United. Nuno Espírito Santo’s side also managed to beat Chelsea 2-1 earlier this month. Additionally, Wolves had won their last three matches prior to their encounter versus Liverpool, indicating a stern test for the league leaders.
Liverpool approached this match in impeccable form, having won their last six league games. Their latest victory came against Manchester united, allowing Liverpool to go into this game on top of the Premier League by a single point. Perhaps even more impressively, Jurgen Klopp’s men also stood as one of the only three unbeaten teams in Europe’s top five leagues, alongside PSG and Juventus.
Nuno Espírito Santo made two changes to his side. Jota was displaced due to a minor hamstring issue and Morgan Gibbs-White left the side for tactical reasons. They were replaced by Adama Traoré and Romain Saïss.
Espírito Santo also tweaked his usual formation. Instead of employing his favoured 3-4-3 shape, his side formed up in a 3-4-1-2 structure. The system was largely the same, except for the fact that Wolves had a central midfielder playing ahead of the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. instead of having three attackers. Raúl Jiménez and Traoré were the two who took up the remaining advanced roles.
Jürgen Klopp similarly made two changes to his team, starting James Milner and Jordan Henderson in place of Nathaniel Clyne and Georginio Wijnaldum. Milner took up the right back role due to the relative injury crisis, with Henderson playing in a central midfield pairing alongside Fabinho.
Klopp deployed them in the same formation that was so effective in the recent games against Manchester United and Bournemouth – a 4-4-1-1 shape that morphed into a 4-2-3-1 structure in possession. However, it is worth noting that the composition of the players was open to interpretation due to Liverpool’s fluid movements. What is clear, though, was that Mohamed Salah was once again used as the most advanced forward, with Roberto Firmino behind him, and Naby Keïta on the left.
Naby Keïta’s exploitative positioning
The early proceedings were somewhat scrappy due to the intensity of the play combined with the awful weather. Nevertheless, Liverpool eventually gained a comparative foothold by being the more assertive team and ultimately having more individual quality.
During this period, Liverpool exploited the free space in Wolves’ formation through the clever positioning of Naby Keïta. When the ball was in Wolves’ half, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino would often deliberately stay high to pin the opposing five defenders back.
Hence, space was available to the side of Wolves’ midfield pairing, as the Ruben Neves and Saïss would often shuffle over to the side of the pitch where the ball was located. Once doing so, Keïta would then regularly drift into the vacant area, allowing Liverpool to quickly play into his feet from the opposite side of the field.
Naby Keïta’s exploiting Wolves’ narrow midfield structure
The inclusion of an additional midfielder alongside the double pivot would have prevented this, but Espírito Santo instead deployed João Moutinho behind the strikers. Moutinho was likely used in the hole with view to him feeding Traoré’s explosive pace when counterattacking, but that rarely happened. If Espírito Santo had deployed Moutinho so that he formed a three-man midfield, the space that Keïta operated in would not have been so easily accessible.
Regardless, Liverpool and Keïta failed to properly take advantage of these moments. Keïta’s positioning in the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces 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. as a narrow wide player allowed Liverpool to progress into the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. fairly easily, although they struggled to penetrate.
Such issues were also present against Manchester United last weekend, as Klopp again took advantage of Keïta’s ability to carry the ball in the left halfspace. But once the team reached the opposing back five, the attacking play broke down.
Liverpool’s passmap shows they transitioned to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with important roles for both fullbacks.
Liverpool take the lead and Wolves respond with a brave pressing scheme
Despite Liverpool’s struggle to penetrate Wolves’ bank of five, the visitors did eventually take the lead following the recovery of a failed set-piece. After Salah initially tried to cross from the left, the ball fell to the feet of Fabinho at the right corner of the box. Fabinho then played a one-two with Sadio Mané and hit a low cross towards the penalty spot. Salah was the quickest to read the direction of the delivery and finished with a clever one-touch flick.
Wolves responded well to going down and had the better of the play up until half-time for two main reasons. Firstly, Liverpool were not able to sustain large possession spells due to Wolves’ brave pressing against the man on the ball and the next pass receiver.
Secondly, this pressure, when combined with the poor playing conditions, resulted in Liverpool making regular errors on the ball. Consequently, Wolves created many immediate counterattacking opportunities.
Unfortunately, the home side were unable to finish their half chances, as they failed to hit the target most of the time. Liverpool occasionally managed to beat Wolves’ pressing, resulting in space to advance into, but Klopp’s men appeared wasteful and sloppy.
Thus, the attacking of both sides suffered for differing reasons, as Wolves could not finish, whereas Liverpool could not progress seamlessly.
Wolves packed the center of the pitch, with an extra midfielder in this 3-4-1-2 shape, compared to their regular 3-4-3 formation.
Wolves switch things up
In addition to forcing Liverpool into uncharacteristic errors, Wolves also improved by switching the play A pass from one side to the other. consistently. Klopp’s team defended in a narrow fashion, with his players congesting the space around the ball and covering passing options well. Wolves combatted this by regularly hitting quick, direct passes to the available wing-backs on the opposite side.
Whenever Wolves switched the play to their wing-backs, the relevant Liverpool fullback would be immediately exposed. This fullback was typically Andrew Robertson, and he often had to decide between closing down Matt Doherty or blocking off one of the strikers that could be accessed after the switch.
Wolves switching the play to expose Robertson.
Liverpool assume control of the game
In the second half, Liverpool moved up a level in class. The sloppiness from the first forty-five minutes disappeared and Liverpool were no longer making poor decisions or risky passes in dangerous areas.
Their increased level of composure and secure possession resulted in Wolves having less opportunities to counterattack. If Liverpool did lose the ball, it was lost in a safe area and at a moment that allowed recovery to occur seamlessly.
Instead of trying risky passes regularly, Liverpool attempted them when the timing was right. This meant that defensive cover was immediately available, and that Klopp’s men regained the ball instantly and simply recirculated. As a result, Wolves found it a lot more difficult to switch play like they had done in the first half.
Virgil van Dijk doubled Liverpool’s lead in the 68th minute, as Wolves were again undone during the second phase of a set-piece. Salah picked up the ball on the edge of the area and chipped the ball from an angle into the box. Van Dijk was alert to Salah’s intentions and coolly side-footed the ball into the net from six yards out.
Liverpool ran out deserved winners after demonstrating some of their title credentials against a tough opponent. They cleverly utilized Naby Keïta to exploit Wolves’ structural weakness in midfield, before recovering from their sloppiness and gaining control of the game.
The win was not vintage Liverpool, but it once again showed their ability to adapt and innovate – qualities that will surely be crucial come the latter stages of the title race.
While Wolves’ supporters will undoubtedly be disappointed with the result, they should be relatively pleased with their team’s performance. Santo’s instructions to switch play to the far side The far side is the side of the pitch where the ball is not. and press bravely gave Liverpool a lot of trouble, which is sometimes the most you can do against a side that is currently invincible in the league.
If Wolves continue to play at about this level, few will be surprised to see them qualify for Europe come May.
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