Liverpool top of the tree at Christmas
Salah sets Klopp’s side on their way as Wolves are tamed in style
Wolves 0 Liverpool 2
Salah 18, Van Dijk 68
The presents have come early this year for Liverpool, who can look forward to spending Christmas Day enjoying the view from the top of the Premier League table. The fact that the team in that position in eight of the previous nine seasons has gone on to win the league is the good news. The bad news it that Liverpool, back in 2013-14, were the one club to come up short.
This Liverpool team, however, is intent on writing their own history and victories such as this one will do nothing to dampen the belief that Jürgen Klopp and his players have their best chance yet of winning the Premier League title. Another terrific goal from Mohamed Salah, who is now the Premier League’s top scorer with 11, set Liverpool on their way to a seventh successive top-flight win.
Virgil van Dijk, with his first goal for the club since he scored on his debut against Everton in the FA Cup, added the second from close-range to enable Liverpool to open up a four-point lead over Manchester City at the top and extinguish any hopes that Wolverhampton Wanderers had of salvaging something from the game.
Liverpool are now unbeaten in 19 Premier League fixtures and it was particularly impressive to see Klopp’s team close out this game with the minimum of fuss, bearing in mind that Wolves have beaten Chelsea here and taken points off both Manchester clubs and Arsenal this season.
Optimism abounds at Wolves these days. Although to provide a bit of context, Mark Lawrenson and Bruce Grobbelaar were making their debuts and Liverpool were European champions the last time Wolves beat them at Molineux. 37 years ago.
Going behind inside 20 minutes was not part of the plan but that was the position that Wolves found themselves in after Liverpool scored from their first meaningful attack. The goal was simple enough in its construction – Fabinho played a one-two with Sadio Mané on the right – but exquisitely finished by Salah, who was standing almost sideways on when he nonchalantly flicked the Brazilian’s astute cutback beyond Rui Patricio with the outside of his left boot.
Wolves, in fairness, had carried the greater attacking threat in the early stages. Adama Traoré’s pace was always going to be a useful outlet in behind and Raul Jiménez, who played alongside him in attack, was happy to come short and receive the ball with his back to goal. Those two combined in that very way to create a decent chance for Wolves in the 10th minute. Jiménez took the ball down superbly on his chest and released Traoré, who galloped into the space that opened up in the inside right channel before dragging a low shot beyond Alisson’s far upright.
Traoré had enjoyed another sight of goal earlier in the game. Fabinho’s wayward pass arrived at the feet of Traoré via Joao Moutinho but the winger rather snatched at a shot that flashed wide. That mistake by Fabinho was far from the only one made on a sodden pitch as the rain lashed down relentlessly. Conor Coady was fortunate to get away with an error at the other end and Naby Keita was grateful that Alisson came to his rescue after Matt Doherty latched on to another misplaced pass.
Doherty, who has been so impressive this season, was causing Liverpool plenty of problems with his desire to get forward on the Wolves right. Coady’s raking pass, after a prolonged period of Wolves possession, picked out Doherty. The Ireland international intelligently slid the ball into the path of Romain Saiss, whose run into the area went untracked, but the midfielder’s curling shot was saved by Alisson.
Salah’s goal four minutes later could easily have discouraged Wolves but, to their credit, the home team continued to attack with conviction and belief. Jonny Castro, teed up by Traoré’s first-time pass, saw his shot saved by Alisson and Doherty had claims for a penalty turned down when his sinuous run into the Liverpool area was brought to a halt by James Milner. Replays appeared to suggest that Craig Pawson, the referee, got that decision right given that Milner, back in the Liverpool team at right-back, had planted his foot before Doherty ran into him.
As much as Wolves were playing well, chasing a game against this Liverpool team is far from ideal, especially on an evening when Klopp had been particularly bullish in his approach. At times Roberto Firmino, Salah, Mane and Keita were playing like a front four, leaving Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, who was making his 300th Liverpool appearance, holding the fort.
As the game passed the hour mark, Liverpool were beginning to look more and more comfortable and it was no real surprise when they doubled their lead. Adam Lallana, on for the injured Keita, saw his close-range effort blocked and Liverpool profited from the corner that followed. Saiss’s clearance dropped for Salah and his perfectly flighted cross picked out Van Dijk, who coolly side-footed home from just inside the six-yard box.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed interim manager to lift the mood at Manchester United post-José Mourinho, and his opening media performance delivered, even when he insisted there was a “hairdryer” ready for the players.
The Norwegian does not come across as someone inclined to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous blasts of temper, but he said he would not be afraid to repeat the off-field tactics of a man he still refers to as the manager and the boss.
“Maybe I should get the hairdryer out of my pocket because I’ve got a hairdryer,” he said. “When my hair needs lifting I use it on myself but I am also not afraid of, if you like, laying down the law.
“You know with your kids when they disappoint you, you tell them off, you don’t give them some chocolate, do you? So you treat players similar to how you treat your kids, really, because you want the best for them, you want to guide them, you want to help them, but if I get disappointed?”
Solskjaer considers Ferguson – who signed Solskjaer in 1996 and made him United’s reserve team coach when he retired 11 years later – his mentor. Solskjaer held the post until 2011. Seven years on, looking slightly bedazzled in the Jimmy Murphy Centre at United’s training ground, Solskjaer peppered thoughts on his six-month reign – in theory he will move aside for a permanent manager in the summer – with references to Ferguson.
The line about the Scot’s legendary manner when dressing down players was cutely delivered, and more crowd-pleasing came in Solskjaer’s plans to tap into Ferguson’s knowledge. He said: “I don’t know what input he had [in my appointment] but when I got the call, of course I texted the boss and I have been in touch with him. I am going to enjoy a nice cup of tea back at his house to sit down and enjoy and discuss a few ideas.”
United got rid of Mourinho partly because of how he disaffected virtually all of his squad, but Solskjaer moved to shut down any suggestion the club’s players now hold the power once wielded solely by Ferguson. “I’m not sure about you saying the power has gone to the dressing room,” he said. “The power is with the manager. He picks the team, the tactics, the strategy. The philosophy is in these walls. That legacy is more important than any player power.”
On the day Mourinho was sacked, Pogba posted a smirking Instagram image of himself with the legend: “Caption this.” It was later taken down, but such a situation would have been unthinkable under Ferguson.
Solskjaer was asked whether he had discussed it with Pogba. “We’ve spoken about what we expect, what standards we have on and off the pitch,” he said. “I trust the lads to know what they’re doing, to help the team. Everything we do is to help the team.”
Solskjaer stated earlier this season that he would build United around Pogba, who was dropped for the last three games by Mourinho. Not wishing to play favourites, Solskjaer gave a measured response to a question on that, now he is actually in charge.
“He’s a World Cup winner. Paul is a terrific lad and when I had him as a kid he was always there, the happy-go-lucky lad. He hasn’t changed personality-wise. He’s a better player, of course, and he’s one that I want to get the best out of. You have so many quality players that I want to get the best out of. He’s no different to anyone else in that respect.”
On his announcement, Solskjaer said he wanted the players to enjoy their football “again”. If this hinted at an awareness of Mourinho having soured his charges, it caused Solskjaer’s stickiest moment as he tried to claim the “again” was down to his grasp of English – which is close to flawless.
“I don’t know if they haven’t been enjoying it because I haven’t asked them,” he said. “‘Again’ – that’s just maybe my English. My job is to make them enjoy football and play their best football because when you are a kid you love playing football.”
He admitted he would like the job permanently at the end of the season. “There are so many managers who would love to be manager of Manchester United. I’m one of them but it’s not something we’ve talked about,” he said. By the close Mourinho’s shadow had faded to the sunshine of Solskjaer. The closest he came to suggesting his predecessor failed to play the United way was in the neat “philosophy in these walls” comment.
Challenged on whether he thought the ethos had been lost in the post-Ferguson era he was, again, smooth. He said: “Well, Sir Alex – and even going all the way back to Sir Matt [Busby] – installed that way of playing fantastic football. They’ve had three fantastic managers since. I have to say I’ve got huge respect for all three of them. They’ve managed the club their way. On their own merits, you can’t criticise Mourinho, David Moyes, [Louis] van Gaal.
“It’s not down to me now to talk about the last five years. It’s down to me to talk about the next five months and to work the next five months towards getting us happy, getting us smiling, getting us winning games. Because we’re too far down the league.
“We’re not used to being sixth. We are used to challenging for the league. Of course, that’s maybe a step too far now, too many points, but that’s where we have to aim and to look forward.”
Solskjaer’s quest starts at 5.30pm today against Cardiff, the club he took down to the Championship in May 2014. He will hope his second tilt at Premier League management goes far better.
‘‘ The power is with the manager. He picks the team, the tactics, the strategy. The philosophy is in these walls. That legacy is more important than any player power.
Above: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at yesterday’s press conference; Left: Solskjaer with coaches Emilio Alvarez, Michael Carrick, Mike Phelan and Kieran McKenna at Manchester United’s training ground.