Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez returned to Anfield in a Boxing Day match that was dominated by the home side. Dominated, rather, is an understatement. Coming off a massive 3-1 win against archrivals Manchester United and a 2-0 win against Wolverhampton five days later, Liverpool were looking to continue this resilient run of form against a Newcastle side that had only won once in their last five matches and had scored the second-lowest number of goals in the league, only ahead of last-place Huddersfield.
Knowing it was very likely Liverpool would control a majority of the possession, Jurgen Klopp organized the XI in a 4-2-3-1 with the two defensive midfielders, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson, rotating dropping into the spaces alongside or just in front of the center backs, Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk, in possession. With his squad seeing more of the ball, these two midfielders would also help block any potential counter-attacks.
Newcastle’s 5-3-2 was meant to get the ball around Liverpool’s defense via long balls from the back line and deeper-playing midfielders. Despite attempting only 233 passes, over a quarter of them, 66 approximately, were long balls. These were often unsuccessful as Liverpool’s defenders, most notably Andrew Robertson and van Dijk, blocked or intercepted the passes with ease.
Heat maps for Liverpool and Newcastle. Liverpool maintained possession throughout, ending with a 75%-25% advantage in that statistic.
Liverpool attacked with ease
Newcastle’s match plan was to successfully execute counter-attacks with passing from an eight-man medium block. With little pressure against them and going against a three-man midfield, Liverpool found it easy to penetrate the forward half-spaces between those midfielders, with most of the scoring chances coming through those areas.
The 11 key passes Liverpool had this match (the orange dots) came primarily from the half-spaces. The few times Newcastle pressed, the loss of shape created space in these areas left by the defender.
Liverpool’s attacking three took advantage of the space around Newcastle’s medium block, even within the first 10 minutes. Here, Roberto Firmino, in his typical false nine role, dropped into the space between the midfield and defensive lines. The left centre back, playing forward to block the connection between Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri, left space behind him, and Mohamed Salah played a quick one-two passing sequence with Firmino to exploit the space.
The space between Newcastle’s lines were also easy to exploit. Not only did this eventually lead to the corner kick that resulted in the first goal of the match by Lovren, but it also became the primary method in which Liverpool attacked. Newcastle was highly unorganized throughout the match, partly due to the intelligent runs made by Liverpool’s attacking players.
Even late in the match, Liverpool continued to win in space. In this instance, Sadio Mane has the ball on the left side. Salah moved backwards and inside the right half-space, thus dragging his marker with him. This gave Trent Alexander-Arnold space to make a run behind the defender, resulting in a cross into the dangerous area. One minute later, this tactic would be used in similar fashion to score Liverpool’s third goal.The remainder of the match was more of the same as Liverpool continued the potent attack. Some valuable substitutions were made later as well, with heavy runners Wijnaldum, Firmino, and Robertson given some well-deserved rest in the midst of a dense winter schedule.
Liverpool continue their tear through the Premier League schedule, now having won six straight league matches on a telling GF:GA ratio of 17:2. Liverpool also have the least goals conceded(7) at this point in the season, less than any other team that led the league over the past 20 seasons. This was one of the more lopsided matchups this season for the Reds, and with two heavyweights- Arsenal and Manchester City– lined up over the next six days, the confidence gained is just as important as the three points to preserve Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table.
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