Case Study: Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-2 Liverpool 23/1/2020

Case Study: Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-2 Liverpool 23/1/2020

Wolverhampton Wanderers Liverpool line-ups

Victory over Manchester United last Sunday was what it finally took for Liverpool supporters to sing that they were going to win the league. Stung too many times before, many supporters remain steadfast in their refusal to believe until it becomes mathematically impossible, yet with each passing game it’s becoming harder to imagine the collapse in form it would take for unbeaten Liverpool not to win the league.

Jurgen Klopp is leaving little room for complacency though. The German put out the same eleven that beat United, however he switched from their usual 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2, moving Mohamed Salah up alongside Roberto Firmino with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain moving out to the right flank.

Wolverhampton Wanderers were in a better position to test Liverpool at home. Last time around, Nuno Espirito Santo ended up putting out a weakened team after fighting to victory against Manchester City just two days before, but with more rest Wolves’ full-strength team had a better chance of denting Liverpool’s title charge, making no changes from the team that beat Southampton. Nuno adapted his team’s shape from the last time these sides faced each other though, changing to a 3-4-1-2 formation, with Pedro Neto tucked in behind Raul Jiménez and Adama Traore in attack.

After their pressing was rendered ineffective by Jordan Henderson dropping into the backline in their prior meeting, Wolves preferred to drop off and block passes into the midfield rather than chasing down the centre-backs in this match. Traore and Jiménez would still close them down but with less intensity, to hurry the centre-backs rather than any real hope of winning back the ball in attack, preferring to instead offer greater protection in front of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho. The centre well-protected, this encouraged Liverpool to play out to the full-backs, where that side’s wing-back would push up to close them down and the other would tuck in on the opposite flank to support his centre-backs.

Henderson drops into the defensive line to form a makeshift back three, but Wolves sit off to protect the centre.
Henderson drops into the defensive line to form a makeshift back three, but Wolves sit off to protect the centre.

Despite this more defensive set-up, Wolves still ended up conceding before the game had really settled into any pattern. Just as Virgil van Dijk had against Manchester United, Jordan Henderson got himself free at a corner and headed home. There was less cleverness required to get this opener: Wolves used a mixed-marking system, lining up zonally along the six yard box with Moutinho just ahead of them, then marking runners man-to-man. There was only three man-markers to four Liverpool runners though, so, as the deepest man, Henderson went completely free to finish.

No one's marking Henderson
No one’s marking Henderson
Henderson makes a free run
Henderson makes a free run
Henderson scores
Henderson scores

At times Liverpool would look indistinguishable from their normal set-up. Salah had a habit of drifting off to the right side and if the ball went down their left, Sadio Mane would curve his run to block the pass into right wing-back Matt Doherty as usual. If the ball went to Liverpool’s right though, Salah wouldn’t do the same – he would instead stay central and block the pass into the midfielders.

Mane blocks the pass into Doherty
Mane blocks the pass into Doherty
Wolves switch play, but Salah stays central, blocking the pass into Moutinho
Wolves switch play, but Salah stays central, blocking the pass into Moutinho
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn't block the pass into Jonny Castro (off-screen) but he does position himself wide, opening up a gap for Neto to receive the ball
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t block the pass into Jonny Castro (off-screen) but he does position himself wide, opening up a gap for Neto to receive the ball

Instead, it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who played a wider role. He wouldn’t block the pass into the wing-back as Mane did on the opposite flank – Jonny Castro took advantage of this by pushing up high on the left away from Oxlade-Chamberlain – but he would position himself wider than usual, closer to the touchline so he could quickly get out to close Jonny down.

This posed a problem for Liverpool though as it left space inside. Out of possession, Neto would tuck inside behind the forwards, but when Wolves had the ball, he would move out to the left. With Oxlade-Chamberlain positioned wider, this left more space inside for Neto to pick up the ball in the gap between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson. Liverpool were essentially asking Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to cover the ground usually defended by three Liverpool midfielders, so it was unsurprising that Henderson was looking leggy in this game, especially given Liverpool’s busy schedule.

Neto receives the ball in the gap between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson
Neto receives the ball in the gap between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson
Neto receives the ball in the gap between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson
Neto receives the ball in the gap between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson

Although it left them looking a little light defensively, this change did help Liverpool going forward. Liverpool’s threat on the counter often comes from the fact that they leave three men up the pitch against two opposition centre-backs, but Wolves’ back three meant the home side wouldn’t be outnumbered. Klopp’s solution to this was to have four men in attack, restoring Liverpool’s man advantage against Wolves’ last line of defence. This ensure that Liverpool looked deadly anytime Wolves pushed up and left space behind them.

Liverpool counter four-against-three
Liverpool counter four-against-three
Liverpool counter four-against-three
Liverpool counter four-against-three

Wolves were also looking dangerous though. They were struggling to break into the final third from open play in the first half, however they always looked threatening from set-pieces, with Traore’s dribbling posing Liverpool’s defenders enough of a problem to be a good source of free-kicks.

At the start of the second half, Wolves managed to catch out Liverpool’s high line with counter-attacks several times and they were soon back on level terms. A one-two with Neves after a long throw forward from Rui Patricio saw Jiménez running at Liverpool’s backline, and a horribly-telegraphed attempt at a tackle saw him waltz past Andy Robertson to put four Wolves attackers through against three Liverpool defenders. Van Dijk moved out to stop Traore’s cross when Jiménez passed wide and Joe Gomez had to cover behind Van Dijk as Doherty made a run through the middle, leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold alone at the back post against Jiménez and Neto, making it easy for the Mexican to finish.

Jiménez dribbles past Robertson to put Wolves four-against-three
Jiménez dribbles past Robertson to put Wolves four-against-three
Van Dijk comes across to stop the cross and Gomez moves across to combat Doherty's run in behind Van Dijk, leaving Alexander-Arnold two-against-one at the back post.
Van Dijk comes across to stop the cross and Gomez moves across to combat Doherty’s run in behind Van Dijk, leaving Alexander-Arnold two-against-one at the back post.

The tide mainly changed due to the influence of Traore. He had looked dangerous in the first half, but was mostly picking up the ball in deep central areas. In the second, Wolves were hitting direct balls in behind Liverpool’s high line for Traore to chase, making use of his pace and dribbling ability. Tripping the Spaniard just on the edge of the box, Robertson was also now on a yellow card, giving the defender less margin for error.

Back in the game, Wolves also kept hold of the ball more. Their numerous defenders ensured they outnumbered Liverpool’s forwards if the away side tried to press, allowing them to switch the ball from side to side. To try to take back control, Klopp changed back to the 4-3-3. Mane had already gone off injured in the first half, replaced by Takumi Minamino, and the Japanese and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched sides for the second half. When Fabinho came on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Henderson and Wijnaldum were freed up to push forward, while Firmino moved left, leaving Salah alone in the centre flanked by the Brazilian and Minamino.

Liverpool didn’t get their winning goal from any tactical change though. Instead it was the brilliance of Salah. The Egyptian picked up the ball surrounded by four Wolves players and held them off, nutmegging one, allowing Henderson to slide a pass through to Firmino to finish. It was Salah’s last influence on the game as he was about to be substituted for Divock Origi.

Regaining the lead, Liverpool now looked to protect it, dropping back into a 4-5-1 shape, and, despite Traore and Jiménez panicking them again, they held out to claim another three points.

Wolves have provided some of the sternest tests Liverpool have faced this season and yet they somehow come away from their two games with zero points. As much as they ooze with quality, it speaks to just how dogged this Liverpool side are that their nearly spotless record continues.

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