Christmas means many things to many different people. People, Christian or otherwise, celebrate it in their own way. Traditions vary, but one thing that Christmas has always meant to me is football. If I was to draw up an ideal scenario for a festive fixture at Molineux, this would have been it.
This is the kind of occasion we are here for. For all of Sky’s sins, Friday night football is a winner in my eyes. Under the lights, the week before Christmas. against an unbeaten, table-topping Liverpool who are as efficient a side as I’ve seen in a long time. Chuck an in-form Wolves side into the mix and you have a Christmas cocktail that is likely to crackle, fizz and stir the senses.
I’d just like to start by saying that this was a proper game of football. This was a genuine locking of horns, of two teams happy to amplify their strengths against each other and see who comes out on top. It was a fascinating tactical battle of two managers who are wedded to their beliefs like a barnacle to an underwater rock. There were no histrionics, no drama – we were just allowed to enjoy the theatre and spectacle that football brings, so thank you to both sides for that.
The first half was an intoxicating affair and for a team who have Liverpool’s defensive record they gave up plenty of chances and half-chances. It was a case of same old story on many occasions where some better finishing or better decision making would have seen us in on goal. There was always the problem of having to get the better of Virgil Van Dijk, the defensive cyborg brought to this planet to conquer strikers everywhere. I remember watching clips of him playing for Celtic and he gave the impression that he was a fully-grown man playing against children. Little appears to have changed for him over the years, just bigger crowds and better settings for his work.
The three-man midfield appears to be paying dividends for us and no one has profited more from this than Romain Saiss. Here, he was a colossus in working from back-to front, popping up in all manner of positions offensively and defensively, even having two good chances to score. For me, he appears to have broken the Moutinho-Neves duopoly in midfield and he deserves a starting spot ahead of the pair for now. Joao Moutinho being positioned slightly ahead of them didn’t really work for me, and a more mobile presence could have made more of some of the opportunities to press Liverpool that were afforded to him. Ruben Neves’ influence on games is waning massively. It comes with the territory and he’s clearly paid a lot of respect by opposition managers, but he seems unable to play his way out of situations at this elevated level. He was also the one to lose track of Fabinho in the build up to the goal. Whether he miscommunicated with Boly could be argued, but for me if he tracked the man, they could have dealt with it and had the conversation later.
The selection of Adama Traore was an interesting one and I think he came out of this one in credit. He gave us some fleeting reminders of what he is capable of and he seemed to simplify his game much more. He played the way he was facing, as simple an instruction as that sounds, but too often he has been guilty of turning into players and losing possession. Most of the dribbling he did was one-on-one where you fancy his chances against anyone – except Van Dijk.
There’s a lot to be learnt from this game I feel. Liverpool are clearly a team that is well-versed in what their manager requires of them and they seem an evolved version of their team from last season. There was some familiar pressing and the way they cut off passing options from the front of the pitch was well deployed. We did our own good job of this and it felt like a lot of the game was looking for opportunities to set a trap for the opposition to pass into and win the ball. It’s also worth noting how individual players play and carry themselves. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane in particular struck me as very raw talents at previous clubs, but here you saw them play in such a refined manner, evidence of a confidence that comes with familiarity at this level. We will get there and we have a stable of players who all have the potential to reach such levels. They just need time, positive reinforcement and success as a group.
It’s testament to the side that periodically Jurgen Klopp made more negative substitutions. Liverpool will be pleased as punch to emerge from this game with 3 points. We’ve already proven to this league that we’re ready to take points off the big boys and the performance was evidence of this again, if not the result.
Ultimately, if we produce the levels we did yesterday for each and every game for the rest of the season, I can see us ending the season in the position we’re currently in