Heading to Merseyside just two days after a superb performance in their comeback against Manchester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers looked to put a dent in the Liverpudlian title hopes they had just boosted.
Nuno Espirito Santo made a host of changes to the team that beat City, switching to a 3-5-2 formation. Jurgen Klopp made only one change to the side that defeated Leicester City to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League, swapping out Naby Keita for Adam Lallana as Liverpool altered their shape to a 4-2-3-1.
Although on paper a weakened team, the immense effort that Wolves put into their tireless performance against City and the two day turnaround meant this eleven was probably more capable of standing toe-to-toe with Liverpool. For example, Leander Dendoncker, one of those to start both matches, was clearly struggling with fatigue, taking his time to stand still or walk back into position whenever he could get away with it, rather than exerting himself to sprint back.
With Pedro Neto offering fresh legs in attack, Wolves tried to press Liverpool quite high up the pitch, although this never really posed much of a problem for the Reds. They would match Wolves’ 3-5-2, having Jordan Henderson drop back to form a back three, pushing the full-backs forward down the flanks as Lallana tucked in alongside Roberto Firmino behind the Wolves midfield, Sadio Mane doubled up on Jonny Castro on the left, and Mohamed Salah stayed up front. Simply outnumbering Wolves’ attackers in their first line made it easy for Liverpool to play out from the back, pulling wide enough so that they couldn’t cover all three of them.
Wolves would sometimes switch to a 3-4-3 shape to try to combat this problem, pushing Dendoncker up alongside the attackers as Diogo Jota pulled out to the left. This also didn’t really work either though. In order to keep in a position to press the backline, Jota and Dendoncker would often have to leave Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson as they moved into midfield, essentially leaving the pair free behind them. Ruben Vinagre and Jonny would then leave the backline to close them down so this wasn’t a major threat to Wolves, yet it rendered the pressing pretty much pointless: the Wolves attackers would press to stop the centre-backs playing out, only for the centre-backs to pass out to the unmarked full-backs.
It would also leave only Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho to protect the defence, making it risky for either man to push up. This meant that Georginio Wijnaldum was often left free at the base of the midfield, again making it easy for Liverpool to play out from the back.
The benefit of playing with a back five is that even if the opponent can get into the final third pretty easily, you at least have plenty of men back to defend against them. Liverpool would ease into attack using the full-backs but struggled to create much once they got there. They didn’t just resort to crossing into the crowded box as they have sometimes done previously, instead combining with neat little passes and one-twos to work the ball into the box, using the central positioning of Lallana and Firmino to drag defenders out of position and change the angle.
Liverpool’s attackers were interchanging well with sharp touches but Wolves had plenty of cover to plug up any gaps that opened up between them, ensuring that while Liverpool looked dangerous, they couldn’t quite find that last move to convert their threat into a goal.
That was until Virgil van Dijk picked out a long ball over the top to Lallana running in behind, who layed it off for Mane to fire past Rui Patricio. Liverpool had been trying to work their way past the defenders around the box, but got their goal by taking advantage of when they left their penalty area unguarded. Van Dijk caught the Wolves backline as they were pushing up, meaning their body shape wasn’t ideal for immediately turning and dropping off, and, as Patricio prefers to stay rooted to his goalline, there was little chance the goalkeeper would come out to collect the ball. Mane easily nipped ahead of Ryan Bennett to finish.
Wolves offered little in attack, generally trying to catch Liverpool’s defence out on the counter by keeping two attackers forward to compete against the centre-backs for long balls in behind.
Chasing the game, Nuno changed to the 3-4-3 in the second half, bringing on Adama Traore and Raul Jiménez. Traore’s direct dribbling allowed them to advance the ball quickly and worry the Liverpool backline, while Jiménez did a good job of winning long balls and laying them off to his teammates – a more reliable way of getting the ball into Liverpool’s half than just pumping it long to chase.
As Liverpool began to drop off to protect their lead, Wolves’ momentum grew. Splitting the centre-backs wide, Liverpool couldn’t easily press them, allowing them to work the ball out from the back, while they now managed to get their wing-backs high and wide, regularly attacking Liverpool’s backline with five players. However, much like Liverpool in the first half, they couldn’t convert this pressure into clear-cut chances. Their dubiously disallowed goal followed on from a set-piece, where they could push all their players into attack, and their next-best opportunity came from Van Dijk giving away the ball on the edge of the area – hardly dependable strategies to get an equaliser.
Knocking off two title challengers in two days was a step too far for Wolves and, despite all the crying about VAR, this ended up a fairly comfortable game for Liverpool.