Premier League 2020/21: Newcastle vs Liverpool- tactical analysis
The final game of the Premier League in 2020 saw reigning champions Liverpool travel to Newcastle United looking to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League. Just a few days earlier, Liverpool almost got a practice at this game from a tactical perspective, with Liverpool taking on a compact, defensive West Brom side and drawing the game 1-1, although it felt like more of a loss. Steve Bruce’s Newcastle were looking to create the same frustration on Wednesday night, and the Magpies were able to do exactly that, securing a 0-0 draw in the game despite Liverpool’s late pressure.
It was a solid defensive performance from Newcastle, and despite some reactionary takes, Liverpool’s performance was by no means terrible, with the side creating key chances in the game and recovering defensively as the game went on. In this tactical analysis, I will look at the defensive system used by Newcastle and examine how it sought to target one part of Liverpool’s build-up, as well as looking at some of the faults in Liverpool’s positional play and decision making, which is what ultimately led to them being unable to find a winner.
Both teams lined up in an unsurprising manner, with Newcastle opting for a 5-4-1, with Joelinton starting as a left winger while Callum Wilson acted as the lone striker. Liverpool went with their usual 4-3-3, with Nat Phillips the latest player rotated into Liverpool’s back line.
The base shapes of both teams are outlined below to show the general shape of the game on paper. When Liverpool built up in their base formation of a 4-3-3, Newcastle aimed to stay compact and manage the overload in midfield. To do this, they would often become more passive, and so they dropped deeper and allowed Liverpool’s centre backs to have possession of the ball up until around the halfway line at times.
Their pressing scheme against the back four involved the wingers within the 5-4-1 pressing the Liverpool full-backs, while Callum Wilson and the two Newcastle central midfielders would look to cut central options by creating a 3v3 where possible. Callum Wilson would also apply pressure on the centre backs when certain triggers were present, which is something I’ll discuss later in this analysis.
The advantage of this 5-4-1 against the 4-3-3 of Liverpool is that it allows the wingers to press the Liverpool full-backs, as we can see here fairly high up the pitch. Callum Wilson has shielded the pass to Henderson from the centre backs, which forces the ball wide, where Joelinton can press Alexander Arnold and prevent progression. It is particularly key that Joelinton is responsible for pressing the full-back, as this allows for the wing-back to sit deeper and help to crowd the half-space higher up.
We can see another example below in a high pressing situation where Wilson looks to cut access to the Liverpool pivot Jordan Henderson. This allows for the Newcastle central midfielders to not be overloaded in a 3v2, and allows instead for them to focus on Curtis Jones and James Milner in higher positions. Joelinton also does a good job of covering the half-space here, which forces the ball into a wide area again where Newcastle are in a stable shape.
However, as you can expect, and as Newcastle knew also, Liverpool mainly adopted a back three in the game, with Liverpool employing their usual tactic of having a central midfielder drop into the back line. We can see the advantage Liverpool gain by employing this tactic often below. Dropping into the back three when playing against a fairly active pressing 5-4-1 means that the wingers of the defending team (Newcastle) now are pressing up against the wide centre backs of Liverpool, with the additional player helping Liverpool spread horizontally. As a result, the Liverpool full-back now needs to be pressed by the Newcastle wing-back, meaning the cover in Newcastle’s back line is reduced.
Because the wing-back is now engaged higher, Liverpool have a greater chance of creating overloads in the half-space, and can do this against what tends to be a slower centre back who does not want to be matched up against the likes of Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. Roberto Firmino, or a higher central midfielder will look to move higher and create a 2v1 in the half-space, which is something I’ll discuss in detail later.
We can see an example of the impact of a back three below. Curtis Jones drops deeper to jin the back line here, and so Nat Phillips can move considerably wider, meaning Liverpool’s access to the half-space generally increases due to the stretching of the opposition horizontally.
We can see an example here where Liverpool initially form a back three, with Henderson dropping in before moving forward once the ball is switched. Here again we see the Newcastle winger is forced to engage the wide centre back, while the right wing-back (Yedlin) is forced wider to deal with the wide Liverpool full-back. This combination of width and half-space occupation from Liverpool is what allows them increased access to the half-space in these areas. We can also see Liverpool’s midfield overload, with Curtis Jones dropping behind the lines and not being marked by Newcastle due to Milner and Henderson’s positioning.
The key then for Liverpool was to create this wing-back on full-back press from Newcastle, however as the game went on, Newcastle became more passive, meaning Liverpool struggled to do this and that Newcastle just retreated deeper and deeper. Within this next section, we will discuss Liverpool’s build-up play and also look at how Newcastle looked to combat and adjust to this.
Liverpool’s positional play
In several previous articles I’ve highlighted Liverpool’s positional play principles, and naturally, because they are principles, they showed themselves in this game again. Below is almost an ‘ideal situation’ that Liverpool want to create structurally, with several roles required for this to be achievable.
We can see Liverpool have dropped into the back three, which gives them depth in the half-space. The left back stays wide to provide width, while the inside forward occupies the half-space with his back to goal. A midfielder moves higher to occupy the half-space and has forward facing body orientation, and so a 2v1 can be created in the half-space given the right conditions. The centre forward can move into the half-space also or drop off, and can also run in behind to provide height to the attack, as can the far inside forward.
We can see a similar concept below in terms of an overload being created, with Curtis Jones acting as the overloader in this scenario looking to create a 2v1 on Newcastle’s right centre back. We can see the lane into the half-space opens thanks to the ball being moved quickly, and Jones arrives into the space ready to receive. Firmino looks to make a run in behind, while Salah occupies the far centre back, and so overall Liverpool have a 4v3 on Newcastle’s centre backs. As was the story of the day though, Liverpool’s technical ability and sharpness in their passing and touches just wasn’t there, and so they aren’t able to take advantage.
We can see another example below where Firmino this time comes across to overload the half-space, with the Brazilian moving wide behind the pressing wing-back while Mané looks to provide height by running in behind. Robertson here though doesn’t choose to play into Firmino for some reason, and so Liverpool don’t take advantage again.
Liverpool’s half-space occupiers just get their coordination wrong here, with both players moving towards the ball to receive it, meaning both players perform the same role in the attack.
As a result, when the ball is received by Curtis Jones, there is a lack of immediate height in the attack, as Firmino has came shorter towards the ball. If Firmino made a run in behind and allowed Jones to receive, Liverpool can potentially get through on goal.
Liverpool try to use dynamic space occupation here, but the execution is again poor. The advantage of Firmino starting deep and arriving into this space is his improved body orientation, as he can receive and play forward immediately. James Milner here supplies the width and plays the ball in, but he passes the ball to Mané, who we can see isn’t facing forward. If the ball goes into Firmino here, he can control the ball, and Mané can continue his run to penetrate in behind. Instead, Mané receives the ball and loses it.
Liverpool work the ball well here in order to find the overload, but the way in which they execute it could be improved again. The positioning of Henderson and Thiago allows for a central lane to open up for Firmino to receive, who looks to find Wijnaldum who is unmarked. Wijnaldum though, starts the play facing away from goal, and so when he receives, he isn’t fully turned and ready to go forward immediately.
Therefore, there is a just a slight delay in Wijnaldum’s play, which means that the ball over the top to Roberto Firmino is not available. These small technical and tactical details are what prevented Liverpool from scoring their breakthrough goal, as well as Newcastle’s disciplined defending.
In this example, Salah receives the ball earlier on and engages his centre back to press him higher up. Salah then lays the ball off, and Wijnaldum moves higher to exploit this space left by Salah’s marker. Trent Alexander Arnold finds the pass into Wijnaldum well, but the final ball across goal from Wijnaldum is intercepted by Newcastle again.
Thiago came on and did his usual thing in midfield, with some excellent passes made to look incredibly easy. We can see here Thiago is able to receive the ball on the half turn and just curve the ball round the onrushing presser into Firmino. Wijnaldum can then act as the overloader, but Firmino cannot get the ball into Wijnaldum to take advantage. Once the ball goes wide, Liverpool again don’t move the ball quick enough to release Wijnaldum in behind.
A common trend in Liverpool’s build-up within the game was their failure to recognise when to play in behind Newcastle. Liverpool of course got probably their best chance in the game from playing in behind, but there was many more situations where the ball just wasn’t played.
We can see this example of Liverpool’s big chance below, where Liverpool drop into a back three and Newcastle’s second line simply backs off too much, resulting in no pressure being applied on the ball carrier. As a result, Henderson is free to play a ball in behind the Newcastle back line into a well-timed Salah run. Salah received the ball, but couldn’t finish past Darlow thanks to an excellent save.
In examples like this though, where Newcastle applied more pressure to the ball, Liverpool struggled to find the runs of the front three in behind. We can see here Mané makes a run from deep and has the run on his defender thanks to his pace, but Henderson doesn’t look for the ball over the top, instead spreading the ball wide. There were multiple circumstances in which Liverpool could have maybe played the ball in behind, and I’ve included more examples in my notes, which are available on my Twitter.
Newcastle target Phillips
An interesting part of Newcastle’s out of possession plan was their targeting of Liverpool centre back Nat Phillips. Newcastle would stay compact within their shape, but at times would jump or adjust this shape in order to force the ball into Phillips, either to apply intense pressure, or to force Phillips to build up rather than Fabinho.
We can see an example here where the pass back to Phillips acts a s a trigger for an aggressive press from Joelinton and Wilson. Joelinton would usually stay deeper and protect the pass to the full-back, but here presses forward quickly and cuts the lane wide, while Wilson presses in from the centre.
This intense pressure cuts many of Phillips’ nearby options, and so it forces him to panic a bit, with his attempted pass to Milner falling to a Newcastle midfielder.
We can see in this example that Newcastle press from the same trigger again with a pass back to Phillips. Joelinton again makes a quick arced pressing run to cut the passing lane wide, while Wilson also makes a diagonal pressing run in order to cut access towards Fabinho.
As a result, all nearby passing options are cut off from Phillips, who in the end is lucky to escape by just about getting the ball past Joelinton, with the Newcastle forward getting a touch on the ball.
Phillips didn’t help himself in some situations, and in this example above he basically sets the trap for himself. Liverpool had the ball on the left wing and work the ball backwards to switch play, but Phillips instead goes back to Fabinho again, who subsequently plays the ball back to Phillips. This delay and the number of passes between the centre backs just gives Newcastle time to get set and gives them a trigger to press. A centre back such as Joël Matip here would likely drive forward with the ball or attempt some kind of progressive pass.
Newcastle’s aim wasn’t just to get Phillips on the ball so they could steal it. Instead, they often looked to have him receive the ball in order to limit the progression ability of Liverpool, with Phillips far less comfortable on the ball than Fabinho. With Phillips on the ball under little pressure, Liverpool struggled to utilise any overloads or indeed find them, as a result of that poor progression ability.
We can see another example of this here later on in the game. The Englishman only completed 15/23 forward passes compared to Fabinho’s 24/26, and so the lack of great with Phillips on the ball was obvious.
Liverpool managed the game well apart from maybe two counter-attacking opportunities for Newcastle early in the first half, with Liverpool’s two sitting midfielders shielding any attacks and counter-pressing well after the first 25 minutes.
We can see the example of Newcastle’s best chance below, and how poor preparation around the pass nearly cost them a goal. Fabinho has possession of the ball, and Liverpool’s structure is prepared to attack down the left, with Curtis Jones, Mané, and Firmino all in the half-space. James Milner even comes across slightly, while Jordan Henderson drops into the back three to switch the ball across the back line if needed. Instead of taking this option though, Fabinho attempts a direct pass across the pitch towards Salah.
Because the build-up is direct, it doesn’t give time for Liverpool players to get higher up the pitch and into better counter-pressing positions/angles, and so when Newcastle win the ball and clear, there is a large space on the far side of Milner to play the ball into. Newcastle pick up the ball and play Callum Wilson down the line, who gets a decent chance blocked by Fabinho in the box.
We can see a much better example of a counter-press early on, with Liverpool assuming their usual rest defence of two nearby central midfielders and the far side full-back remaining close enough to the ball on this occasion. Milner is able to win the ball cleanly and restart the attack for Liverpool, something which they largely did well for the whole game, with the Reds limiting Newcastle to just 0.48 xG.
Liverpool’s high line is also a very useful in transition, and Newcastle’s runs were timed poorly in transition against this high line, meaning they were often unsuccessful. We can see a typical example here where the ball carrier has received the ball and still has it in his feet, meaning he cannot play a pass. However, the runner in behind has to receive the ball now due to the timing of their run, or they will be caught offside. As a result, Newcastle’s attack loses its pace as they have to wait for supporting players and for higher players to get back onside. Timing these runs is very difficult in transition, and Liverpool’s regular starters are excellent at playing this high line. Their rotating centre backs Phillips and Williams don’t seem to be 100% comfortable yet, with Phillips making some mistakes in this game (see my notes) and Williams’ body positioning helping to play Son onside against Tottenham.
Liverpool probably did enough to win the game from a performance standpoint, but an excellent performance by Karl Darlow helped Newcastle to a point which they weren’t bad value for. Liverpool were fine tactically, but the game was more of a rare showcase of poor decision making and technical quality in the right moments, which can happen in these kinds of games. Liverpool needed just that extra bit of quality around some of their chances, and could also have created more through set-pieces, with their corners and free-kicks lacking any real invention in the game, with these set-piece tactics often winning them points last season. Overall then, it was a frustrating draw for Klopp’s men, but not the worst result ever considering the league table and current schedule, and the performance is unlikely to trouble Klopp too much.