Coming off a hard-luck loss against their nearest rivals in the chase for the league title, Liverpool detoured to Wolverhampton for the third round of the FA Cup. The Reds fell to Wolves 2-1 at Molineux Stadium.
This was a Liverpool side that looked like they saved introductions for the tunnel before taking the pitch. The Reds fielded a mix of veterans and youth with hopes of supplying enough to get the club to the next round. Without much sense of what each other was likely to do, the side faltered. Wolverhampton fielded a side with purpose. The difference was obvious.
The first half found Liverpool uncertain and unassertive, while the home side recognised an opportunity when they saw one. Nine changes from Thursday’s line-up might explain the poor performance as a side but individual struggles compounded the problems too. At the break, Liverpool trailed by a goal that saw self-inflicted errors get punished.
The second half suggested that maybe there was something yet in the contest when Divock Origi equalised. However, it did not take long for Wolves to reestablish their lead and possibly pull the curtain on Simon Mignolet’s time at Liverpool when Ruben Neves beat him from some distance.
Back on top, Wolverhampton rode their luck and the lead until the end. Even adding Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino could not rush to rescue the Reds from crashing out of the cup once again.
Here are four findings from the match.
Myriad of mistakes
In a way, Wolves’ opening goal encapsulated Liverpool’s first half. A series of mistakes resulted in the Reds falling behind before the break. Initially, James Milner failed to control a ball that caught Fabinho neither close enough to intervene nor comfortable enough to drop off.
The out of position Brazilian made a poor decision to dive for the ball, which released Wolves to race down the right. Milner made things worse, recovering poorly and never closing down the ballcarrier. Finally, Mignolet failed to read the situation or leave his line early enough to challenge. Thus, Wolves’ forward Raúl Jiménez slotted it home.
Multiple players playing slightly different roles, errors compounded, and a keeper incapable of digging out the side with a big save at a critical moment. It might have been understandable but it was still shocking to see.
In truth, Liverpool’s more seasoned players looked the most off on the evening. A midfield of James Milner, Naby Keita, and Xherdan Shaqiri failed to impress or give the manager much to think about. Milner lacks match-fitness, Keita still needs time to adapt, and apart from a near miss off the post on a late free kick Shaqiri failed to show the quality that supporters have been savouring lately.
Even Daniel Sturridge, undoubtedly the most talented player on the pitch, struggled to show much of his quality and never really got into the match before being substituted in the second half. Origi may have scored but that was about it, as he routinely slowed play down or ran out of options.
Fabinho might have been the only ‘veteran’ starter to really play well, even though he left his feet as the last man in the sequence that led to the goal. Alberto Moreno and Simon Mignolet likely saw their last action as Reds, barring some catastrophic injury crisis, with performances that no one will miss.
Multiple changes were required with a number of senior players suffering from niggles that forced the inclusion of some academy graduates into the side.
With a series of festive fixtures just behind the Reds and a competition that had more potential to cost the club precious points in the league, Curtis Jones and Rafa Camacho got some long-awaited minutes with the first team.
Given the stakes of a title challenge and the loss in the cup competition, it is likely to be the last time Jones will be seen in the near future. Camacho may find a role as a break-glass deputy fullback, however.
Yet, the real bright spot was Ki-Jana Hoever. The 16-year-old was forced into action after Dejan Lovren went down with a hamstring injury in the sixth minute in a first-team debut that raised eyebrows. Of course, he was far from perfect. He is just a kid. Still, he never looked overawed, found his way into the match in the heart of the defence, and that move in the second half made to drive up the pitch made everyone sit up and take notice.
If there was any suspicion about where Liverpool’s priorities lay the starting lineup should have been all the indication needed.
Rather than risk senior players that showed even signs of wear and tear, Jurgen Klopp put together the best of what remained. On another day, it might have been enough to earn a result.
Away at Wolverhampton, without much time to prepare and multiple players far from minutes required to find form, there was not much of a platform to build a performance. The side looked like they had never played together before because they had not. It was too many changes all at once to manage a mid-table team that should be taking a cup run seriously.
The pursuit of the league title surpasses any stress an early FA Cup exit could induce. A deep run for Liverpool undoubtedly would have eventually meant some dropped points in a title race that will offer little reprieve to the club that does so. While wanting silverware should not be dismissed, hardware is far from equal. All distractions from winning the league can wait, although a European Cup would not be too bad.