Liverpool did enough to beat Wolves in the FA Cup third round, and after the torrid time they had at Brighton, perhaps that’s all Jurgen Klopp really needed.
Jurgen Klopp arrived in the Black Country for an unwelcome FA Cup third-round replay against Wolves with much on his mind.
Some have recently started firing at the previously bullet-proof Liverpool manager, and with six defeats from their first 18 Premier League games of the season (which most assuredly is mid-table form) and even getting back into the Champions League starting to feel remote – they are ten points off fourth place – pressure has been starting to build.
This was certainly a game that Klopp could likely have done without – he’s railed about FA Cup replays before – and it came at just about the worst possible time.
There haven’t been too many worse Liverpool performances in recent years than that which they put in at Brighton three days earlier, and this came on the back of a similarly pallid defeat at Brentford.
And while Wolves have a wretched record against Liverpool in the Premier League, they had previously beaten them in the FA Cup in 2017 and 2019 and came into this match in fairly rude health, revitalised under new manager Julen Lopetegui, with two wins and a draw from his first four league games in charge.
Unsurprisingly, changes were made. Eight from the first game between these two teams and eight from the Brighton debacle, with only Ibrahima Konate, Thiago and Cody Gakpo keeping their places from their previous game.
There has been bad luck with injuries, their transfer policy hasn’t been great, with two wingers and a striker having been signed when the team’s midfield has really looked like it needed an overhaul, and the squad looks unbalanced. Klopp was doing what he could by reshuffling his midfield for this game.
Somewhere between what Alan Shearer later described as “Danny Murphy’s phone going off” (Gary Lineker tweeted that it was an act of sabotage – it turned out to be some idiot ‘prankster’, lord help us) and the floodlights going out at Molineux within seconds of the game starting, there was a slightly cursed feel to the FA Cup match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool from the off.
And regardless of your personal opinion of VAR, all sides of that debate surely understand that this is a big change for the players, who play almost every competitive game under its icy glare, and for those watching, who’ve now had several seasons to – whether we like it or not – get used to it calling back split-hair decisions. It came back after about ten minutes. “Crisis” averted.
There was certainly no controversy over Harvey Elliott’s 12th-minute opener. Charging forward from his own half, under no challenge of significance and spotting Jose Sa off his line, Elliott sent a perfectly weighted shot over the Wolves goalkeeper and in to lift a load off Klopp’s mind.
The goal had come about in no small part because of Sa’s dreadful positioning, but Liverpool had started with considerably more substance than they’d delivered in their previous game and continued to press throughout the half against surprisingly lightweight opposition. Put briefly, it wasn’t difficult to see why Wolves are the lowest goalscorers in the Premier League.
It wasn’t all pretty. Liverpool put in a string of tactical fouls in the middle of the pitch without particular sanction from referee Andre Marriner until more than ten minutes had been played in the second half, when Thiago finally pushed his patience to snapping point and a yellow card was finally issued.
But by the time an hour had been played the home side still hadn’t had a shot on target, with Adama Traore blazing the ball somewhere in the direction of the city centre as the clock ticked past 60 minutes. Caoimhin Kelleher, in the Liverpool goal for Alisson, still hadn’t been tested.
But Liverpool didn’t have quite the control in the second half that they had in the first. Wolves found a gap on the right twice in the space of thirty seconds, but on neither occasion was there a Wolves forward near his position.
A free-kick on the edge of the penalty finally required the fingertips of Kelleher, although the referee wasn’t impressed and gave a goal kick.
As the second half wore on Liverpool seemed to fray at the edges, and they had cause to feel some relief at the fact that Wolves became so blunt when they got within 30 yards of the Liverpool goal. With six minutes to play, Wolves threw on Diego Costa – who is looking increasingly like a knock-off Fozzie Bear soft toy these days – but to no avail.
To a point, this was a match that Jurgen Klopp couldn’t quite win. He was never going to get an enormous amount of credit for winning away at Molineux in the FA Cup, even if Wolves’ recent record against Liverpool in this competition has been decent.
But detractors would have seized upon any slip-ups from a match like this, so mission accomplished; he got through the evening without anything further exploding in his face.
With the Premier League (and perhaps even a Champions League place) beyond reach and already out of the EFL Cup, the FA Cup might come to matter to Liverpool come the end of the season, especially if they are still hanging around mid-table in the Premier League and need to it guarantee some form of European football for next season.
This was an improvement on Brighton. Stefan Bajcetic – who Klopp is now starting to ease into the first team – was impressive in a remodelled midfield. Harvey Elliott’s goal was the one moment of real quality of the entire evening, but his overall performance was also very good, and Liverpool’s midfield shape was considerably improved.
It’s fair to say that they couldn’t have played as badly again as they did at Brighton but this was an improvement, although they clearly remain some considerable distance from where they were at their best.
Liverpool did what they needed to do at Molineux, and considering the state they were in by the time they left the pitch on Saturday afternoon, perhaps that’s more than enough for Jurgen Klopp, for now. Next up in the FA Cup fourth round is… Brighton away. Ah.
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