Wolves vs Liverpool: Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk see Reds canter to Christmas Premier League lead

Wolves 0-2 Liverpool: Jurgen Klopp’s side weren’t at their irresistible best, but sauntered to another valuable three points to extend their lead at the top of the table

Simon Hughes
Molineux Stadium
Friday 21 December 2018 23:06
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Liverpool FC: A look back at 2018

To understand the evolution of Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp is to understand space and new freedoms. This team’s capacity to overwhelm was visualised here by Fabinho suddenly becoming an attacking midfielder even though Jordan Henderson was in an unusually advanced position as well.

It had been Fabinho rather than Henderson acting as the defensive shield until that point and Henderson had been Liverpool’s outstanding player as the captain, driving his team forward with a display that fused intelligent anticipation, tenacious tackling and assertive passing.

Suddenly, though, Fabinho was ahead Henderson and ahead of Ruben Neves. Suddenly, he was sending a cross towards Mohamed Salah. Suddenly, the ball was racing past Rui Patricio. Suddenly, Liverpool led. Suddenly – despite playing well – Wolves were in that place no team wants to be against Liverpool, chasing an opponent only Arsenal have been able to catch this season after falling behind.

And so, the red tank rolled on. Liverpool are now four points above Manchester City and they will be top of the Premier League table at Christmas whatever the outcome of City’s home fixture with Crystal Palace tomorrow afternoon. This is a good Wolves side who pushed Liverpool as far as they could but the comfort with which Liverpool eased to victory on a filthy winter night at a stadium where City failed to win at earlier in the season – a stadium, indeed, where Chelsea lost more recently – helps outline why Klopp’s side are serious title contenders.

While an opposition manager can predict and try to prepare for fury that usually fires from Liverpool’s attack and while he knows he will have to find a way to pass Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker who have contributed enormously to the joint best defensive record at Christmas in the Premier League era, their midfield is a lot more difficult to calculate and this is a major problem because the shape there determines the set-up of the whole team.

This was Liverpool’s tenth different midfield combination in eighteen Premier League matches. What that reveals in basic terms, probably, is that a greater expectation exists on whoever plays there under Klopp to run, run and run and still have enough left in the tank when it comes to the moments where history is defined.

Here, Klopp resisted the temptation to begin Xherdan Shaqiri, whose goals on Sunday secured Liverpool’s victory over Manchester United. Instead, he returned Henderson and James Milner to the starting XI in place of Georginio Wijnaldum and Nathaniel Clyne.

Henderson was starting his 300th game for Liverpool, a player who in many ways symbolises a decade where promise has not been realised in the most ultimate way. Henderson has only one trophy winners’ medal from 2012, a League Cup final where he was substituted before the hour mark. His starting place has been threatened by the arrival of new competition but that competition is pushing Liverpool on, making them tougher to read, tougher to outstrip and ultimately tougher to beat. Maybe it seems they are freer and maybe it seems like they have more space when it matters because they are fitter and fresher through the rotation policy that Klopp has adopted.

Initially, Liverpool had been the more confident team but Wolves were creating the better chances. Twice, Adama Traore was found in space to run at van Dijk and twice he was able to get shots away but twice, they did not trouble Alisson. In response, an opportunity came van Dijk’s way, who skilfully side-stepped an attempted block from Matt Doherty following a Milner corner, only to send a drive fizzing into the shins of Ryan Bennett.

Liverpool did not have to be at their best

Another opportunity soon came for Romain Saiss, who latched onto Conor Coady’s well disguised pass and in the driving rain, Alisson spilled the subsequent shot. Back up the other end it went and with that, there was the goal involving the courage and accuracy of Fabinho as well as the iciness of Salah, who finished the Brazilian’s fired cross beautifully, silencing a previously raucous Molineux where the attendance was the biggest since 1981.

The first half finished with Liverpool making defensive errors and Wolves in the ascendency because of those mistakes. One of those defensive errors was not necessarily made by Milner who approached Doherty and planted his foot into the turf before the wing-back collided with his shin and fell. From a distance, it looked a clear penalty but in reality, it was more a case of Doherty connecting with Milner than Milner connecting with Doherty.

Wolves were looking to win four top flight games in a row for the first time since January 1972 when a sequence was ended, ironically by Liverpool. There was a feeling that if Liverpool could cut out the mistakes, their threat in attack would at some point punish a Wolves team pushing forward for an equaliser. That moment came mid-way through the second half when van Dijk, with Salah the architect, finished like a striker in a rich vein of form rather than a defender scoring only his second goal for the club since his debut in the FA Cup against Everton last January.

For Liverpool, Molineux is one of those grounds that holds an emotional significance. It was the venue where, in 1976, Bob Paisley clinched the first of his six titles in the most dramatic of circumstances, having been a goal behind on the final match of the season, ten days after their nearest challengers Queens Park Rangers concluded their own campaign.

It was night where Phil Thompson smuggled supporters into the stadium through the back door of the stadium before smuggling them back to celebrate fully clothed in the enormous bath tanks as they drank Champagne. It is unlikely that such a communion will have happened this time; instead, just the cold satisfaction of another clean sheet and another three points that inches them closer to the place where they were all of those years ago.

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