The Premier League title race this season has been a relentless sprint between Manchester City and Liverpool, as both clubs have refused to give up on their ambitions to be champions. Liverpool travelled to St. James’ Park to take on Newcastle United on Saturday, hoping to get the win that would take the race down to the last day of the season and came up against a familiar face in Rafa Benitez. He almost put a spanner in their works, but a late winner allowed the Reds to prevail. This tactical analysis will look at how Benitez so nearly thwarted his former employers’ title hopes.
Benitez stuck to the back five he has used for the majority of this season, with former Liverpool player Javier Manquillo starting at right wing-back, and Matt Ritchie continuing to fill in on the opposite flank. Sean Longstaff’s season-ending injury has allowed Ki Seung-Yeung to come back into midfield, alongside Isaac Hayden, while Salomon Rondon was the lone striker up front.
Jurgen Klopp was without Roberto Firmino, so Daniel Sturridge made a rare starting appearance. Midfield comprised of Jordan Henderson in his more advanced role, Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho, while Dejan Lovren came in at centre-back in place of Joel Matip.
Liverpool’s movement leaves Newcastle ragged…
Roberto Firmino was the unlucky man out of Liverpool’s usual attacking trident; the Brazilian having picked up a muscle injury in training which ruled him out of this game as well as the Reds’ midweek clash with Barcelona. Daniel Sturridge was asked to step up in his stead, and while the England international looked rusty, there was no lack of movement from him or his striking colleagues. Liverpool’s attackers were extremely fluid, exchanging positions frequently and putting Newcastle’s defenders on the back foot almost instantly.
Newcastle were content to sit back and soak up as much pressure as possible, dropping into a deep 5-4-1 without the ball. They would only look to press sporadically; usually when the ball went out into wide areas or when a pass was played inside from a wider player.
The Magpies’ system worked to an extent, but it did not stop Liverpool from creating chances, as both Henderson and Wijnaldum (as shown above) made intelligent forward runs to take advantage of their attackers’ movement.
While the opening goal for Liverpool came from a set-piece, it was no less than they deserved, as they had put constant pressure on the Newcastle defence through their running and positioning off the ball. Even Mohamed Salah’s goal to make it 2-1 was a product of poor Newcastle defending, as the Egyptian was left in acres of space in the penalty area –
…but the Reds were disorganised as well
Immediately after taking the lead, Liverpool’s intensity dropped and Newcastle were able to get a foothold back in the game. The midfield, in particular, was guilty of being too conservative and unambitious, only recycling possession in their own half instead of looking to play through Newcastle. Fabinho was the guiltiest party here, as he had an uncharacteristically sloppy game, misplacing passes and being caught out positionally. The Brazilian was also unable to prompt attacks, as the images below show.
Liverpool’s midfield failed to track runners, while even the defence was poorly organized. Virgil van Dijk was often forced to move out to cover one of Newcastle’s inside forwards, leaving Rondon one-on-one with either Lovren or either of the full-backs.
Nowhere was this combination of errors more evident than in the buildup to Newcastle’s equalizer, where Daniel Sturridge completely disregarded his defensive duties and left Matt Ritchie in acres of space, seen above and below.
Rondon troubles Liverpool
Salomon Rondon has been a very effective one-man battering ram for Newcastle this season, and he continued in the same vein even when up against van Dijk. The Dutchman rarely loses out in a physical contest, but here, Rondon was constantly able to collect clearances from his team, hold him off and play a pass before spinning in behind. His touch map shows how effective he was at dragging van Dijk all over the pitch, especially into wide areas.
Another effect of Newcastle’s system was that the two inside forwards, Atsu and Perez, often took up central positions which put Liverpool’s defence in disarray. This would often lead to van Dijk having to step out, as previously mentioned, and consequently, Rondon would be presented with an easier direct opponent in Lovren or either full-back. While Newcastle were not able to take advantage of this mismatch, it was a brilliant tactic which almost paid off.
This was a compelling game, with defensive issues from both sides leading to the goals. While there was a dramatic end with Divock Origi’s late winner keeping Liverpool in the race till the final day, it was extremely harsh on Newcastle, with Benitez’s tactics almost paying off.
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