Tactical Breakdown: Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-1 Liverpool

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Liverpool won 1-0 at the Mollineux as they strung together back to back victories and clean sheets for the first time since beating Wolves and Ajax, last December.

Jürgen Klopp named an unchanged team, following his side’s victory against RB Leipzig. Most significantly, this meant Fabinho played as the no.6 and Jota as the no.9.

Liverpool’s system was their usual 4-3-3, however the personnel changes made an impact to how the side played.

Jota’s presence in the front three differed to Firmino’s because of how he moved around the pitch. Like Firmino he dropped deep, however, he did not stay in deep positions too long, and also looked to break in behind more frequently.

The presence of Jota in the final third and penalty area gave the Wolves defence three players to watch, rather than the two they may have faced if Firmino were involved and positioned deeper in possession phases. The extra presence gave Salah and Mané more opportunities to rotate, drop deep and drag defenders disruptively.

Wolves’s system was a 5-3-2 off-ball shape. In possession, this did develop into a front three, with Neto, Willian Jose and Adama moving across the front. However, when Liverpool won possession this changed into a 5-3-2, with the ball-side winger dropping to cover either the deepest midfielder or the fullback. This tactic was fairly effective in reducing the capacity of the visitors to play through the centre.

Similarly, Wolves also progressed the ball through the wide areas, rather than in the centre, where Liverpool hoped to press.

The presence of the Wolves wingers did a good job in keeping Liverpool’s fullbacks at bay for the opening 25 minutes. Because of this, they were not able to establish control in the final third with structured possession and overloads – instead, most of the visitors’ play was in transition.

Nuno Espirito Santo would have been happy with the manner in which his side were able to progress the ball forward. The progression down the wings and into Adama in particular reduced Fabinho’s ability to win the ball in the middle third, as Moutinho and Neves avoided playing in the heart of the pitch.

As is usually the case against Espirito Santo’s Wolves, the game was slow, sticky and hard work. Liverpool for the opening twenty minutes were second best but as the game went on, the side did manage to manufacture a few chances, despite not having sustained on-ball pressure in the final third. A few moments of individual strength, like Alexander-Arnold’s cross to Mané, offered some hope of a goal, but as the first half neared its end, a goal did not seem particularly likely.

The Mané chance was an important one from a tactical perspective, because it demonstrated the value of Jota moving up against the Wolves defensive line. His presence, and that of other players like Wijnaldum and Robertson in the box, kept the Wolves defenders occupied, and provided Mané the opportunity to run from a deeper position, where he was unmarked, and into space. With a more regular forward presence against opposition defensive lines, and support from the no.8s, Liverpool may have more success in breaking down defences.

Liverpool’s goal, just before the end of the first half came as the forwards broke from an aerial duel near the halfway line. The ball allowed the front three to break in transition, and as Coady stepped out to Mané, a three-on-three situation became a three-on-two. The front three were able to run forwards into space, which generally in this game and recent league games, they have been unable to do. Not only this, but the ball moved from the middle, to the right, back into the middle and then over to the left. This lateral movement of the ball, combined with the vertical progression, is exceptionally hard to defend against, and this is a hallmark of Klopp’s attacking sides. This was as perfect a break as anyone could hope for, and was a moment of genuine skill and quality in the match, even if Jota was fortunate that his shot was nearly saved by Rui Patricio.

Liverpool improved in the second half, but the game retained those sticky and attritional characteristics from the first half. The goal itself gave Klopp’s side the gamestate advantage, but they did not really make good use of it. By the 78th minute, they had not had a single shot on target since their first-half goal. A flurry of shots followed, with three shots on target within two minutes, and finally, the Reds livened up. A few more breaks opened up, with Salah seemingly scoring, only to be ruled offside – a consequence of the pass into him being delayed for too long.

The main Liverpool story from the second half though was the defending. Ozak Kabak, in particular, shone and displayed signs of growth. When put in a number of challenging situations he dealt with danger cooly, and in possession he not only dribbled into midfield with a progressive run that we often see from Matip. He also made a few passes forward that may help relieve some of the pressure to supply the forwards that currently rests with the midfield. More of this will be very welcome and may allow the midfielders and fullbacks to get further forward, so they can support the front three, without worrying too much about leaving space in behind.

Generally, Liverpool were defensively competent during this game and there were a few issues with bad decision-making and execution in the final third. The performance itself was not one of the best we have seen since January, but it is another clean sheet and most importantly a league victory, which may be the platform for something more. Liverpool undoubtedly have to improve on this if they wish to make it into the top four and displace Leicester, but with a more favourable run of fixtures compared to both Chelsea and Leicester and most importantly with Jota and Fabinho back in the side, there are signs than more consistent results are on the way.

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