Premier League 2019/20: Wolves vs Liverpool – tactical analysis
A well-drilled machine vs another well-drilled machine. Wolves vs Liverpool. Nuno Espírito Santo vs Jürgen Klopp. It was safe to presume the tactical battle this Premier League fixture would offer would be colossal and both managers did not disappoint. It was a to and fro battle between the German and the Portuguese.
Liverpool may have taken home all the three points from Molineux but if xG of both the teams are considered, it would give a vivid idea of the close battle both the managers fought. Liverpool recorded an xG of 1.39 while Wolves recorded an xG of 1.22. A closely fought battle, right?
Now, let’s dive deep into the tactics of both the managers and how both tried hard in nullifying each other’s tactics. This tactical analysis also focuses on the set-piece techniques of both the teams.
Wolves struggled against Southampton with a 3-4-3 formation in the first half. In the second half they came out with a modified 3-4-1-2 and completely outplayed and outclassed the Saints. Nuno Santo started against Liverpool with a successful 3-4-1-2 formation. There was no change in the personnel from him, with Pedro Neto positioning himself in the hole behind Raúl Jiménez and Adama Traoré.
Klopp has drilled the Liverpool side in the 4-3-3 formation a zillion times and he stuck with the same formation as well as the same personnel that started in the last game against Manchester United. Though the formation and personnel remained the same, the tactics used by Klopp varied throughout the game.
Liverpool’s defensive setup in the first half and Wolves’ methods to breach it
Klopp has modified his pressing methods a bit from the last year. Last year, the German adopted a high man-to-man aggressive pressing. However, he understood the aggressive pressing throughout the season may take a toll on the players when the games are far too many. Klopp changed his approach and focussed more on cutting the passing lanes through the centre while keeping his defensive lines high.
Liverpool created a central overload in the opposition half against Wolves, as the Reds did the entire season. The front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané acted as the first line of defence and cut the passing lanes to the Wolves midfield. The midfield trio of Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum acted as the second line of defence and sealed the press.
As you can see in the image above, the two Wolves midfielders have been caged by the front six of Liverpool. Conor Coady played a lateral ball to Romain Saïss, unable to find any forward passing option. Roberto Firmino did not indulge in pressing, rather kept the defensive setup compact. When Coady played the ball to Saïss, the entire Liverpool unit moved towards the right. Salah pressed Saïss from inside so that the Moroccan doesn’t find an easy passing option to Moutinho. Salah forced Saïss to carry the ball wide and pass it to Jonny.
When the ball was played wide to Jonny, Chamberlain moved in quickly to press the Spaniard and forced him to cause a turnover. When Wolves did not turn over the ball, the wing-backs would pass the ball back to the centre-backs.
Unable to progress the ball forward, Wolves’ centre-backs often resorted to long balls to the forwards. Coady played a staggering 18 long balls in the match without much success. It shows the tactical advantage Liverpool had against Wolves when out of possession.
When in possession, Wolves would attack the opponent with a 3-4-3 formation. Neto would move to the left-wing from the hole. When Salah does not remain close to Saïss, the Moroccan would look to carry the ball forward as much as he could and then pass the ball to his immediate forward players, dropping deep.
When Salah did not close Saïss down immediately, the Moroccan carried the ball forward as much as he could before being closed down by the Liverpool winger. As you can see, the distance between Salah and Saïss is much greater than the first screenshot.
The wide centre-back then passed the ball to Jonny who positioned himself wide and slightly ahead of the Liverpool six, who then turned over the ball with a poor touch. Whenever Jonny would try to break the shackles of Chamberlain, the England international would closely follow him and then create a turnover or Trent Alexander-Arnold would move up and press the wing-back.
Another way Wolves tried to pass the ball forward was through Neto dropping deep to open up another passing lane for the centre-backs.
Here, you can see Neto dropped deep to open up a passing lane for Saïss. When the Moroccan passed the ball to the Portuguese, Henderson quickly closed him down and forced him to pass the ball back to the Moroccan. But Wolves rarely progressed through the middle channel, as can be seen in the image below.
The 27 positional attacks Wolves created, only five were through the middle and that too mostly in the second half where Liverpool changed their formation, which I will discuss later.
The ball travelled short, mostly through Saïss, and Coady generally resorted to long balls when Wolves progressed the ball forward. It was mostly down to Salah’s pressing how Wolves progressed the ball. When Salah would close the Moroccan down immediately, he would pass the ball back to Coady, who would look for a long pass or find any alternate options, which was rare. When the Egyptian was not able to close down immediately, Saïss would carry the ball a bit forward, and look for a short passing option.
Wolves’ defensive setup in the first half and Liverpool’s methods to breach it
Wolves too tried to prevent Liverpool’s attack through the middle rather than pressing the opposition but the Wolves’ players kept their distance from the players they had marked. Out of possession, the home side would set up in a 5-2-1-2 formation, with both the strikers marking the Liverpool centre-backs and Neto closely following the pivot’s run. The midfield two would often stay compact and move in unison to the side Liverpool is attacking from, like a well-drilled machine.
This screenshot vividly describes Wolves’ structure out of possession. The two centre-backs are closely followed by the two Wolves’ strikers. Henderson, the pivot, is marked by Neto. When the ball moved from centre to Liverpool’s right, the two midfielders moved to their left in unison, with João Moutinho, the LCM, closely followed Liverpool’s RCM, Ox, in this case, and Rúben Neves maintained the shape.
Unable to progress the ball forward, Alexander-Arnold played a cross-field ball to Robertson. Even with the cross-field balls, Neves would quickly move to his right and prevent Robertson from making a bursting run forward.
To tackle the situation, Henderson dropped back for a few minutes, creating a three-man backline. When that happened, Neto closely followed Wijnaldum who acted as a pivot.
Wolves allowed Henderson to progress the ball to their middle third and then Neves closed him down, leaving him with only Andrew Robertson as the only passing option up front. When he passed the ball to Robertson, Matt Doherty moved up to closely mark Robertson. Unable to progress the ball forward, they resorted to a safe option and played the ball back to a centre-back.
With no success, Henderson moved to his initial position and the game mainly revolved in Liverpool’s half or the middle third.
Wolves adopted a mid-block and allowed the full-backs to progress the ball to their middle third and then pressed the Liverpool full-backs, leaving them no option but to resort to a back pass. Liverpool defenders mostly played among themselves unable to progress the ball forward. It’s evident from the 16.57 PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) Wolves had.
Liverpool could hardly penetrate Wolves’ structure and neither Wolves could penetrate Liverpool’s high block. It was the story of the first half.
Liverpool’s 4-4-2 and Wolves’ high flying wing-backs
Unable to break Wolves’ structure in 4-3-3, Klopp resorted to a traditional 4-4-2 formation, with Takumi Minamino, who came in place of injured Mané, tucked in right. Ox moved to the left-wing.
It left an enormous space for the Wolves wide centre-backs to progress the ball. The Wolves’ midfielders, when not restricted inside the cage, started to position themselves where they could open up a passing lane for the defenders.
This screenshot vividly describes Liverpool’s conundrum in 4-4-2. With Salah withdrawing to close on Saïss, because of Liverpool’s structure, gave the Moroccan enormous time and space to carry the ball forward as well as gave him time to look for a better pass. It’s also visible that Neves moved to a wide position to give the centre-back a passing option. The other reason Neves moved to a wide position was to push the left wing-back, Jonny, further to an attacking position.
With 4-4-2, Klopp unknowingly opened up a passing lane through the centre. Nuno was quick to his task and came with an attacking approach in the second half. He instructed both the wing-backs to push up, especially Jonny. Doherty was asked to engage the Liverpool left-winger, giving Traoré the opportunity to go on 1 v 1 against Robertson. Both the change in tactics completely played in Wolves’ favour. The nine shots Wolves took, four came in the 25 minutes Liverpool played with 4-4-2.
Wolves also adopted a bit of vertical passing in these 25 minutes. ‘Up, back and through’, that’s what vertical passing is all about and in one such instance Wolves almost scored a goal through the approach.
Moutinho stayed behind Liverpool’s second line of defence and Leander Dendoncker used the Portuguese as a bounce pass to progress the ball through the centre to Neto.
The mistake Wijnaldum did over here is that he did not maintain the line and moved ahead to press Dendoncker when the ball was played back to him. It left Moutinho completely free. The thing to note over here is that Doherty stayed back, engaging Ox with him and Neto was pushed further up, occupying the half-space between Robertson and van Dijk.
When the ball was played to Neto, Van Dijk moved up with him but what it also did was that it attracted Robertson’s attention. Wolves used Neto as a bounce pass in this situation and Moutinho played a through ball to Traoré and we all know the insane pace the winger has. Robertson had no option but to play a tactical foul in order to save him from the blushes.
Wolves played mostly with a front four in the second half when in possession. Jonny was pushed up to act as a left-winger. Jiménez and Neto occupied the half-space between the full-backs and the centre-backs. Traoré acted as the right-winger. Doherty and the Wolves RCM often occupied the positions that would often engage the Liverpool midfielders, leaving Traoré isolated with Robertson.
In this situation, Jiménez, Jonny, and Neto created a 3 on 1 overload against Alexander-Arnold. Analysing the overload, Dendoncker quickly played a perfect diagonal ball to Jonny.
When Jonny received the ball, Alexander-Arnold moved towards him and Joe Gomez followed Neto. Wolves still managed to keep a 3 vs 2 with the Liverpool defenders. No one marked Jiménez and Jonny played a simple pass to the Mexican.
As I have previously mentioned, Doherty often positioned himself in such a manner that it left Robertson isolated with Traoré. However, in this situation, sensing the opportunity, he moved to the box taking the Liverpool left-back along with him. It left Traoré completely free and his shot was brilliantly saved by Alisson. Ox was poor in the second half and failed to give Robertson any cover. Though it was mostly the fault of the structure, Ox was a bit lazy and left Traoré one on one with the left-back multiple times. Klopp reverted back to his 4-3-3 by subbing off Ox for Fabinho after 70 minutes.
The Wolves gaffer played a masterstroke in engaging Doherty with the left-winger, Ox, which left Robertson isolated with the speed-star. Robertson struggled throughout the second half to contain Traoré. Wolves scored their only goal through a counter-attack initiated by Traoré’s pace and came close to scoring a second many times in the second half.
A game of set-pieces
A fixture between a team with second-most set-piece goals vs a team fourth in set-piece goals guarantees a set-piece spectacle. In 2019/20 Liverpool scored 11 set-piece goals and Wolves nine and the first goal Liverpool scored was also from a set-piece. Wolves too came close two times in scoring from a set-piece.
Liverpool’s tactics from corners
Wolves and Liverpool both follow zonal marking when dealing with set-pieces. Let’s dive deep into the tactics Klopp used during corners. The German used Henderson brilliantly from corner situations, especially when taken from the right-hand side.
Let’s focus on the first goal Liverpool scored.
Four Wolves players maintained their position in and around the six-yard box. Three Wolves players marked three Liverpool players. Rather, it was the other way around, three Liverpool players blocked three Wolves players for Henderson’s run. Moutinho maintained his position in the zonal marking. Since it was an out-swinger from Alexander-Arnold, Wolves maintained a high line from the corners. They did everything right but one. As you can see, Henderson was left completely unmarked.
In all those tussles and shuffles from the corner, Wijnaldum’s run ahead of Moutinho bamboozled the Portuguese, which left Henderson completely free. As you can see in the image above, Moutinho looked clueless and Henderson scored from a lucky header (lucky, since he did not meet the ball properly).
There were two other chances for Liverpool from the same situation which I would touch upon lightly.
The problem with zonal marking from the corners is most evident from the situation below.
Again, the three Liverpool players blocked the three Wolves players. Moutinho assumed his position in the zonal marking. Henderson was again free to make his run. When Alexander-Arnold floated the ball, Henderson made the same run.
This time, Moutinho tried to stop Henderson’s run but he could not deal with Henderson’s strength. Since Wolves were following the zonal marking strategy, Moutinho could not leave his position and move along with Henderson to trouble him. Henderson again met the ball, but his header was weak as the last time (but not lucky enough).
Alexander-Arnold deserves a special mention because of his perfect delivery both the times. He floated the ball just at the edge of the six-yard box both the times, exactly in between the four defenders guarding the six-yard box and Moutinho.
There was a similar chance from another corner but Fabinho’s obstruction halted Henderson’s run this time.
Again Liverpool followed the same blocking technique but kept two players for the run, Fabinho and Henderson. The idea was perfect only if Fabinho had let the ball through to Henderson.
Liverpool scored the winner from a throw-in situation which again Liverpool focuses on immensely. The Reds have 18 different throw-in routines which Klopp revealed last year, and it might be one among the 18 which resulted in Liverpool’s winner.
Wolves’ tactics from corners
Liverpool too follows zonal marking when dealing with corners. The difference between Wolves and Liverpool’s zonal marking can be seen below.
Liverpool maintains two lines, close to each other. The deepest line has five players compared to Wolves’ four, which covers the entire width of the six-yard box. The front line consists of two players ready to block the run of Wolves player, if any. It looks perfect. Isn’t it?
Nuno Santo developed a perfect method to deal with the rigid Liverpool defence from corners. Liverpool maintained a deep line as they should since it was supposed to be an in-swinger from Moutinho. Rather Moutinho played the ball short to Neves. It drew the defensive lines out from a deep position.
The Liverpool defenders did great and moved out in unison and looked to have successfully dealt with the corner. But, Liverpool’s tactic of defending corners must have been analysed by the Wolves analysts and they did great in pointing out one aspect where Wolves could succeed.
When Liverpool moved out in unison looking for an offside trap, Neves waited for the perfect opportunity to play the ball into the box. Doherty patiently waited in the onside position and made a perfectly timed run behind the back of Alexander-Arnold. Doherty’s header was poor and Liverpool was saved from their blushes.
Let’s take a breath before I conclude the analysis and applaud the tactical battle fought between the two masterminds.
Klopp has become the epitome when it comes to flexibility within a match. He constantly changes his formations, tactics in order to deal with opposition’s tactics. Unable to penetrate the Wolves structure in the first half, he tweaked his formation. When it went against his team, he reverted back to his 4-3-3 formation and controlled the game.
Nuno Santo wasn’t far behind. His tactics gave no space for the Liverpool players to progress the ball forward. Unable to penetrate the midfield, Klopp changed his tactics and fell into Nuno’s trap. The idea of engaging Doherty with Ox and moving Jonny to play as a winger worked immensely in their favour. What it did was, it left Robertson isolated with Traoré and we all know what Traoré’s pace can do to opponents.
The set-piece battle was top notch. Liverpool could have scored four goals through a set-piece, they were lucky to convert two. Wolves could have easily scored two from a similar situation but couldn’t find any luck. Were Liverpool lucky to come away with a win? Maybe, maybe not.