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There comes a point in any team’s season when we have to take a step back and consider the state of the club from an objective viewpoint. Beyond your opinion of the coaching or playing staff or even of the ownership it becomes imperative that even the most passionate football fan is able to think clearly about what is best for the club going forwards.
With that said then how do we view a 2-1 defeat in the FA Cup by Championship side Wolves? First of all the positives, no more cup distractions will allow 100% of the coaching time to be dedicated to upcoming league opponents as Liverpool look to chase the title, younger players like Ejaria and Woodburn continue to impress when exposed to first team football.
The negatives? Defeat in the FA cup takes away one trophy that could well have been achievable this season, young defender Joe Gomez whilst undoubtably a talent looked raw and unprepared for this exposure to the first team, and there is still a dearth of tactically intelligent players in the first team squad.
Whilst some will place the blame on the first team coach Jurgen Klopp it is my opinion that he needs to be given more time in order to build the squad further in his own image. I would expect a busy summer of transfer activity from the club.
The team chosen by Klopp for this match at first glance appeared to be an intriguing blend of youth and experience.
Once more we saw Karius preferred in goal for the cup competitions with Mignolet dropping down to the bench. The choice of Connor Randal at right-back instead of Trent Alexander Arnold spoke more to the first team status of the latter than the former with TAA now being seen as a regular part of the first team squad. Joe Gomez partnered Ragnar Klavan in the centre of the defence and Alberto Moreno slotted in at left-back.
In midfield we saw Lucas, Eljaria and Wijnaldum whilst in attack Woodburn started on the right with Firmino on the left and Origi centrally.
Wolves started well
It is difficult to analyse a defeat without first of all giving some credit to the winning side. Wolves may be a Championship side but they showed little in the way of an inferiority complex in this match and they set out to impose themselves on the match from the outset instead of sitting back and trying to absorb the pressure from the Premier league side.
Admittedly this strategy was probably easier to implement for Paul Lambert’s side given their early goal which settled any pre match nerves.
From the onset of the match Wolves were happy to apply pressure on the Liverpool build up high up the field. The typical structure of the Wolves press was to utilise only two or three players in the initial movement. This meant that there were enough advanced players to make the Liverpool defenders uncomfortable but there was a deeper structure should Liverpool be able to bypass the initial press.
Indeed it was indicative of the struggles for Liverpool within this game that they struggled so much to play through the initial press from Wolves even when they had the numerical or positional advantage over their opponents.
As well as being proactive by pressing high up the field in their defensive phase, Wolves were also willing to commit resources forward in the attacking phase as they continually posed problems for the Liverpool defence.
Here you can see a series of potential overload situations across the back four for Liverpool. As Moreno has committed out to the wide player of Wolves we see Klavan moving across to cover the run through the half space. This runner should have been tracked by a Liverpool midfielder although they are passive in the defensive phase here.
You can see that this piece of movement has left the Wolves centre forward in a considerable pocket of space between the two centre-backs. This will then attract Joe Gomez over to cover and leave the far sided full back overloaded against two Wolves players.
Again and again we would see the Liverpool defence isolated and overloaded in various sections of the pitch.
Struggles in the final third continue
Over the last few weeks we have seen Liverpool struggle to find adequate penetration in the final third when they are in their attacking phase. This can now, in part at least, be attributed to the absence of Sadio Mane who should be returning from the African Cup of Nations shortly. The most obvious cause for this lack of attacking movement however has been the different role given to Roberto Firmino as the last few weeks have progressed.
The Brazilian forward shone in a central role playing at times almost like a false nine and dropping in and out of spaces across and in front of the opposition’s defensive line. When he is played on the left, there is less selfless movement in the central areas with Origi still being too raw and Sturridge being slightly more selfish in his approach to the game.
In this instance the advanced players in the Liverpool move are all more or less static with no movement to pull the Wolves defensive block out of position.
With Wijnaldum in relatively safe possession of the ball.in the centre of the park, Liverpool should be in an extremely strong position. Instead the two most advanced attacking players are positioned almost on top of one another with neither looking to move with any urgency in to a space to take possession of the ball.
The two players off Wijnaldum have the capacity to find space to take possession of the ball, but only in front of the Wolves midfield, who are well positioned to prevent Liverpool from playing through. It is a similar story with Randall in the wide right position as usually the Liverpool full-back is free and in space with an attacking player occupying the opposition full-back in the half space. Instead, Randall is well marked and unable to make a significant impact on the game.
This time there is a lack of numbers in the final third and with limited movement ahead of the ball the man in possession is left with no option but to reset the ball back to a deep midfielder instead of looking to take the initiative and move the ball through the opposition lines.
With Wolves positioned with a line of four and then a line of five they were set up to make it difficult for Liverpool to play through. Passing lanes from the man in possession to the two advanced players are both blocked by the positioning and the body shape of the Wolves player. Without vertical runs from the midfield to stretch this defensive block there is little chance that Liverpool will be able to play through.
Lack of ambition from Gomez in possession
One of the keys to the Liverpool attacking structure this season has been the willingness of the central defenders to step out with the ball and take responsibility for passing forwards in to advanced areas and breaking the defensive lines of the opposition.
Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren in particular have impressed in this area this season. With that said, you would expect other squad players to have practised the same movements on the training field.
I should start by acknowledging that Gomez has had a hard year and has only recently returned from long term injury, that accounts in my opinion for the positional mistakes and lack of physical dominance that he displayed in this match. It was in possession however that he disappointed me the most.
Here Gomez has possession and is taking the ball out in to the middle third of the pitch. He has two clear options (1&2) that would allow Liverpool to move the ball forwards and to play from a more advanced platform thus stretching the defensive structure of Wolves and creating spaces and opportunities for Liverpool to move further up the field.
Instead Gomez chooses option three and dumps the ball short to Lucas. There is nothing wrong with choosing the safe option for the most part but with Liverpool already behind in the match there is a need for them to be aggressive in possession to create chances in the final third of the field.
Once again Gomez is taking the ball out from the back and he has a number of options to progress the ball. Options 1&3 would allow Liverpool to play from an advanced platform whilst option 2 would see Gomez drive forwards with the ball to break the opposition lines with his movement.
Again though, Gomez chose option four instead of being progressive in possession of the ball.
So where are Liverpool? There are now signs that the club needs to put its recruitment plans in place for next summer. Tactically intelligent players are required in order to make the most of the tactical system that has been implemented by Klopp not only at first team level but also at the first tier of possible replacements.
The return of Mane should help but there is a real need for Liverpool to re-find their best form in order to continue their challenge for the league title.