At Etihad Stadium last Thursday, Liverpool suffered their first defeat of the Premier League season against fellow title contenders Manchester City, ending a 20-match league unbeaten streak. They were looking to rebound from this loss in an FA Cup third round tie against Wolves, and regain their momentum upon return to league play.
In the midst of a claustrophobic time in the schedule and with a glut of injuries to the squad, Jurgen Klopp opted to start a number of young players and back-ups. Amongst those were two debutants in Rafa Camacho and Curtis Jones. Ki-Jana Hoever would come off the bench early on for Dejan Lovren to become the third. This was of course risky, but it provided many key players like Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, and Sadio Mané some much needed rest. In total, the German manager made nine total changes to the starting XI.
Nuno Espirito Santo on the other hand sent out a full-strength starting XI, choosing to continue with the back-three system he has been utilising all season. The Portuguese manager has guided Wolves to ninth spot in the table after winning four of their last seven league matches, including a 3-1 win against Tottenham Hotspur. One of those seven matches however was a 2-0 loss to Liverpool at Molineux Stadium.
Camacho, James Milner, and poor build-up
Klopp’s organization of the starting lineup in a 4-4-2 formation suggested he wanted to have a defensively sturdy team. There were a number of reasons this failed however, one of them being a lack of discipline from the right-back Camacho. Although he is most frequently a winger, his movements in defence were at times too brash. This left the right side of Liverpool’s backline open for the opponent.
While some of Camacho’s intercepting runs were well-timed and with pace, they often left him too high up the pitch. Here, Camacho’s pass was too far behind Origi, and as a result was easily intercepted.
Camacho’s positioning left Vinagre with plenty of space ahead of him, forcing Camacho’s teammates to attempt to cover it. Another problem Liverpool had at the back was in the build-up of possession. With Lovren subbed off early due to injury, the 16-year-old Hoever was thrust into the match.
While he was composed on the ball throughout, this was a difficult task for the Dutchman. James Milner was often forced to drop back from midfield to both receive the ball and instruct Hoever on where to position himself or where to play a pass. Milner doesn’t usually control the midfield, let alone play almost as a midfield pivot in the build-up, and it showed. His poor reception of a back pass centrally led to Wolves’ first goal.
After dropping deep to try and aid in distribution, Milner moved forward to become a back pass outlet. He received the ball with a poor first touch however, and the Wolves players around him quickly took advantage.
Diogo Jota did a good job at timing his sprint so that his body was between Milner and Raul Jimenez, which gave Jimenez plenty of time and space to make a decision on how to shoot the ball around the keeper.
Another poor aspect of Milner’s play was his distribution. While he did complete 95 passes at a 90% completion rate, many of these were sideways or back passes, even when he dropped deep between the centre backs. The times he did play a pass forward, his slow turning and slow passing held him up.
After receiving the ball from the backline, Milner looks up while dribbling to find a forward player to pass to. He looks at his potential receiver, Jones, for too long, and telegraphs the pass. This pass was easily picked up by a Wolves player.
Perhaps the only positive that came from this match for Liverpool was the play of Fabinho. At Monaco, Fabinho played both at right-back at times and as a central defensive midfielder. With the lack of personnel this match, the Brazilian was forced to play as a centre back, and did so with poise, picking smart passes and controlling connections to the midfield.
Lovren’s exit could become a problem with Joe Gomez and Joel Matip already injured, but if Liverpool do somehow end up without those three for a match or two, Fabinho proved he is capable of stepping into that role in some form.
Lack of attack
At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool’s attack lacked both intensity and consistency. Naby Keita had a few effective dribbles through the midfield, but the connecting player rarely completed the end product. Origi’s equalising goal showed good control in a tight space, but the Belgian didn’t show much intent the rest of the match. Xherdan Shaqiri had a brilliant free kick that hit the post. His passes also failed to find a useful outlet, and he didn’t contribute much defensively when needed.
The last time these two clubs met, Wolves had a number of opportunities in Liverpool’s half, but were stopped by Virgil van Dijk and Alisson. This time around, the Liverpool defence didn’t have either player to rely on, and the Midlands club’s attackers got around the back four with relative ease.
This is too much space to give Ruben Neves, a midfielder known for shooting and scoring from well outside the box.Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were subbed on with 20 minutes remaining, showing Klopp’s intent to advance in the tournament. The compact defending from Wolves was enough to limit the chances.
There were numerous areas of disappointment in this match for Liverpool. Simon Mignolet was unsteady, the backline’s inexperience was evident, the midfield struggled to progress with the exception of Keita on occasion, and the forwards were underwhelming. Playing this level of a line-up, especially in a rather unlucky draw against another Premier League club, was always a risk.
While the loss was a poor one, the view ahead isn’t terrible for Liverpool. The loss against City intensified the league title race and the club is in the knockout stages of the Champions League. With these being the only competitions remaining for the Reds, you can be sure Klopp will go full steam ahead with first team players and make the remaining matches count.
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. Get your copy of the FIRST of two December issues for just ₤4.99 here, or the SECOND of the December issues with an annual membership right here.