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.

Lineups

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
The two teams

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 United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Salah, Mane and Sturridge switching positions early on
Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Mane moves out wide as Robertson receives the ball, and Wijnaldum immediately makes a run into the space vacated by him

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.

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Newcastle pressing when the ball goes out towards the touchline…
Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
…and when it came back into the centre of the pitch

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 –

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
As the ball is played to Alexander-Arnold, Lascelles has surprisingly let Salah drift into the box unmarked, while Manquillo is too far across to cover for him and he has to look out for Robertson as well

…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.

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Fabinho could have played an early ball to Wijnaldum who had gotten behind the Newcastle midfield. Instead, he played a square pass to Robertson, causing the attack to run out of steam
Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Fabinho’s fairly obvious pass to Mane is blocked by Hayden

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.

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Liverpool were completely disorganized here – Fabinho is in a fairly useless position when he should be tracking Perez, and particularly Atsu, Wijnaldum is attempting to close down a player who is too far away, while Sturridge and Henderson are passive instead of trying to cover for Fabinho
Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Sturridge and Henderson are both signalling to Lovren that he should move up to mark Atsu. This leaves Rondon alone with Alexander-Arnold, while van Dijk has had to move across to cover Perez. Note how much space Ritchie has on the opposite flank

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.

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Sturridge belatedly realizes his mistake, with Atsu now left in space as well

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.

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Notice how many touches Rondon had near either touchline, forcing van Dijk to follow him out

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.

Newcastle United Liverpool Premier League Tactical Analysis
Perez is making a run into the box completely unmarked, as Rondon has managed to isolate himself against Robertson

Conclusion

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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