Not many will have expected Liverpool to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers in their FA Cup third-round replay at the Molineux on Tuesday, especially after failing to do it initially at Anfield and getting hammered a week later away to Brighton and Hove Albion. But they did, courtesy of an intelligent and skilled strike from young Harvey Elliott.
Klopp wrings changes
Liverpool have had an appallingly bad season so far, arguably the worst since Jurgen Klopp became their manager, and ahead of this clash, the German spoke about changes at the club, changes that didn’t necessarily involve him. It appears to have been a thinly veiled warning to some of the more established players, some of those who were a big part of everything good that’s happened at the club in the last couple of years.
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The way he selected his team to take to the Molineux pitch may have seemed a sign of giving up on this competition, with the likes of Alisson Becker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Joel Matip, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah all left out of the starting XI. But it now seems to have been a sign of faith in those who started in their places – Caoimhin Kelleher, James Milner, Kostas Tsimikas, Joe Gomez, Stefan Bajcetic, Naby Keita and Harvey Elliott. The same probably goes for Fabio Carvalho too, though the former Fulham attacking midfielder might have been included simply because Cody Gakpo played as the central striker in the absence of Darwin Nunez, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota.
Be that as it may, the latter group of players obviously saw their chance and decided to grab it as firmly as possible. Keita and Bajcetic showed that they had the energy frequently missing in the middle of the park with Fabinho and Henderson in recent matches, and Thiago Alcantara, one of the few who kept their place, seemed to be flourishing around players willing to fight for every ball.
It was a refreshing team performance on the whole, probably as good as such a rotated lineup can show. And that’s exactly what Liverpool needed at every level – young players capable of making the older, more established ones, realize that they can be replaced if they don’t do their job properly.
All that remains to be seen is how sustainable this approach is, and what choices Klopp makes when Chelsea come to Anfield at the end of the week.
Even though Liverpool looked much stronger in midfield and more stable at the back than in some previous matches, it was actually Wolves who had the greater possession percentage (58) and took more shots in total (11, Liverpool seven, two on target each). The only problem for the home side was that the clever one by Elliott in the 13th minute beat goalkeeper Jose Sa and hit the back of the net, while the two of theirs barely troubled Kelleher at the other end at all.
Wolves’ greater possession and basically domination through numbers wasn’t exactly a surprise, given the home ground, the level of rotation by Liverpool and the fact that they went 0-1 down very early in the game which forced them to chase the result for the majority of its course.
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There were spells when Wolves had the visitors’ backs to the wall, keeping the ball in the opposition half continuously and whipping it frequently into the box, but they always missed that final pass, that moment of creativity or inspiration needed to punch through a very organized Liverpool defence. In the end, a couple of half-chances was all they could manage – not enough to turn the scoreline around.
Klopp may have hoped to get more feel for Matheus Nunes, a reported Liverpool target for the summer, but the Portuguese midfielder entered the fray for Wolves at the start of the second half and his presence on the pitch, while initially bringing some new energy with it, didn’t make too much of a difference in the end.
Minute 12 was barely up when Milner and Gomez combined their efforts to stop Rayan Ait-Nouri who had burst forward down the left and into the box, and Tsimikas and Carvalho played the ball out on the left before the Greek fullback found Thiago. Thiago switched the side and found Elliott, still deep in his own half.
But the former Fulham youngster pulled it forward and his teammates picked up on his lead. He had options, both on the left and the right, and as the Wolves defence and Sa in the goal looked on trying to guess his choice of pass, he arrived to within 25 yards from the goal, saw Sa off his line, and let one fly and it went in just under the bar.
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While Lopetegui will have analysed the situation since and arguably instructed his players to act more decisively in the future, it took notable cunning and skill to cheat them all and put the ball into the net like that.
All in all, it was a fine game by Elliott. Still only 19, he’s had plenty of fine games in a Liverpool shirt so far, and if his development continues in the same direction as up to now, there’s very little doubt that we could be looking at a world-class player of the future.
It’s obviously never a good thing to lose a game, but being out of the FA Cup (as well as the Carabao Cup), Wolves can now focus on surviving in the Premier League. They started the season badly and it eventually led to Bruno Lage being sacked and making way in the dugout for Lopetegui. Now they seem to be on the right track again, and having drawn away to Aston Villa early this month, they beat West Ham at the Molineux on Saturday to rise above the relegation zone.
Sitting 16th with 17 points, just two more than the trio of West Ham, Everton and Southampton which lies at the bottom, Lopetegui’s men obviously have a lot of work to do between now and the end of the season. Hard tasks await next, with a trip to Manchester City to come, followed by Liverpool coming to the Molineux again, and while they shouldn’t perhaps bear too much hope of getting anything from those opponents, they simply must get results away to Southampton and at home against Bournemouth in mid-February.
As for Liverpool, their prospects for the season remain bleak from their point of view. They most likely won’t make the top four and the battle for the remaining European places seems the best they can do come May, given that they’re now 10 points behind in-form rivals Manchester United in fourth place.
But to get anywhere, they obviously must improve their performances on a longer run, starting with the Chelsea clash in a couple of days. After that, they return to the scene of the nightmare from a couple of days ago – this victory over Wolves now has them facing Brighton at the Amex in the fourth FA Cup round. Klopp will be hoping his players have learned the numerous lessons from the last trip to the Amex, in which they were lucky to lose just 3-0.