Premier League 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Liverpool vs Wolves
The Premier League will conclude on Sunday with the destination of the title still unknown. Man City travel to Brighton in a game they will be fancied to win, while Liverpool must solely focus on themselves and hope it is enough against a tricky Wolves side. Anfield will once again be alive, and Liverpool will look to match this with their tempo in the hopes of disrupting an expected defensive display from the away side. Wolves caused Liverpool problems in the reverse fixture despite Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Molineux, and in this tactical preview, I’ll look at what both sides could have learned from the reverse fixture and how Liverpool’s injury problems may hinder their game plan.
Mohamed Salah is back available for selection following his injury in their win over Newcastle and he will likely play a key part in replacing Roberto Firmino in attack. Liverpool are likely to be without three players who started the reverse fixture. Andy Robertson picked up a knock against Barcelona in the midweek, while Roberto Firmino and Naby Keïta have longer-term injuries.
This will mean Liverpool may struggle to find natural replacements for these players, particularly if they choose a 4-2-3-1 which I don’t expect them to. Liverpool opted to play a double pivot against Wolves in the reverse league fixture, with Fabinho and Henderson operating as the double pivot and Keïta just in front. I would expect Henderson to fill Keita’s role with another midfielder while Fabinho sits to limit Wolves’ counter-attacking threat. We can see below the counter-attacking threat Wolves posed and with Fabinho and Henderson operating as a double pivot, space between them could be found.
Below we see Henderson is the furthest player back of the midfield, while Keïta is committed forward and Fabinho is just behind. I would expect Fabinho to operate as a holding midfielder while Henderson continues his new role further up the pitch. Notice how in the image below Jiménez is given the opportunity to pin the centre back with no frontal pressure, as the double pivot is caught too far up the pitch.
We can see an example of Fabinho’s positional play in this position against Chelsea this season, where he operated as the lone pivot in a 4-3-3, with Henderson and Keïta in more advanced roles. This allows the Brazilian to cut off passing lanes to the opposition striker as part of a diamond structure, as we can see below.
The loss of Firmino
In a game that Wolves are expected to look to sit back and counter-attack, Firmino will be a huge miss to Liverpool. Firmino is Liverpool’s key player in breaking down opposition blocks, creating space for his teammates with diversion runs and dropping deeper to find pockets of space and progress the play. Below we can see Firmino’s superb ability to receive the ball between two players, breaking lines and helping to penetrate the opposition block.
But with Firmino out and Origi likely replacing him, Liverpool will in my opinion look to play Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané through the middle, as they are much better creators of space and better technically on the ball than Origi, which will allow Wolves’ low block to be penetrated more effectively.
Much of Liverpool’s success in the game will also rely on Jordan Henderson’s role in the game or whoever Klopp opts to play as the more advanced midfielder. Liverpool’s build up in the reverse fixture was greatly helped by the movements of Keïta and Firmino, with Keïta in the image below making a diversion run to create space for Firmino to receive the ball. If Henderson can replicate these kinds of situations and get Mané or Salah driving at the Wolves defence, Liverpool could cause Wolves problems.
Breaking down the five at the back
When breaking down the low block, Liverpool’s front three are likely to be outnumbered without additional help, so how do they try to create overloads against Wolves’ back five?
In the reverse fixture, Liverpool’s full-backs looked to occupy the Wolves wing-backs, in order to allow Liverpool’s front three to match up against a central defender and play around them. Below we can see Liverpool’s high and wide full-backs look to occupy the wing-backs, not allowing them to tuck in and help their central defenders, giving more space to Liverpool’s narrow front three.
Will Liverpool alter their build-up play?
Liverpool’s build-up play against Wolves was superb and Wolves had little joy in terms of pressing the ball. This was largely down to their shape, in which the double pivot of Henderson and Fabinho often dropped deeper and wider in order to receive the ball behind a pressing Wolves player. In the image below, we can see Fabinho drops wide in order to escape the three-man press which Henderson is trapped in. Creating this angle means that Liverpool can progress in wide areas more effectively, as there is an easier route to the full-back through Fabinho rather than one long pass to the full-back which is much easier to intercept.
This image also highlights a drawback to playing a single pivot, as if Liverpool look to build up with just Fabinho, Wolves will likely look to press him and look to cut the passing lanes to him as they have don’t to Henderson in the image below. For this reason, we may, therefore, see a double pivot in build-up change to a single when further up the pitch, again with Fabinho looking to prevent counter attacks.
We can see another example below of this time Henderson dropping into the space left by Wolves’ wide pressing forwards. Fabinho drops into the central space which is left empty as Henderson attracts a press from Wolves.
Liverpool need a win to have any chance of winning the league and will face the conundrum of a deep block at Anfield one last time this season it appears. Wolves will look to frustrate Liverpool and shock Liverpool in transition, but if Fabinho is able to complete his role effectively Wolves’ threat should be numbed greatly. It may not be enough for them, but Liverpool will look to end on a high and do all they can to overcome Wolves and possibly secure their first ever Premier League title.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the April issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.