Liverpool are finishing the 2020/21 league season like a plane navigating a crash landing; 6th in the league after a promising start, at risk of not making the Champions league next season, out of all cup competitions and just one home win in the league since January. It is hard to pinpoint why exactly Liverpool are this bad this season, sure they have had injuries to key players throughout the season, but some of their performances on the field also needs to be questioned. Jurgen Klopp has been criticized for failing to adapt the Reds’ tactics this season when the team were bad, his in-game management especially is also under intense scrutiny. There is an argument to be made that the Liverpool attack has been misfiring wildly this season with Mohammed Salah carrying the goalscoring burden with Firmino and Sadio Mane having dire seasons in front of goal.
Newcastle are in a precarious position this close to the end of the season. Only recently did the Magpies start picking up points in their relegation scrap. Steve Bruce’s men sit 9 points above the relegation zone with 5 games to go. Bruce’s change in tactics have seen Newcastle lose only one game since the end of February with the team picking up 11 points from a possible 24.
Surprisingly both teams came into the game in pretty good form: Liverpool were unbeaten in their last five games with 3 wins and two draws and Newcastle were unbeaten in their last four games, taking 8 points out of a possible 12. Let’s take a look at how the two teams matched up at Anfield.
Systems and Formations
Liverpool played a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 shape with all their attacking guns on the pitch, a front four of Jota, Salah, Mane and Firmino. Thiago and Wijnaldum provided support in a midfield pivot while Trent, Fabinho, Kabak and Robertson completed the defence.
Klopp seemed like he wanted to make a statement starting all his big name forwards and it showed in the match, Liverpool constantly attacked the space in behind Newcastle’s defence and they could have scored more if Mane and Salah had their shooting boots on. The Reds were also more aggressive on the ball despite the complaints from fans that the team have been moving the ball slowly with the inclusion of Thiago Silva.
Newcastle played 5-4-1 switching from the 4-4-2 diamond they had some success with earlier this year. The team remain unchanged from their previous games; Joelinton and Saint-Maximin upfront, Almiron, Longstaff and Shelvey in midfield with Ritchie and Jacob Murphy as the wingbacks and a back three of Fernandez, Clark and Dummett.
Steve Bruce approached this game like any manager would against Liverpool: sit back, try not to concede early and hold on until there’s a chance to attack. They managed to do that well for large parts of the game. Newcastle struggled a bit in the first half with Liverpool’s intensity but Steve Bruce made a couple of changes to secure a point at the end of the game.
Newcastle were able to match Liverpool for most parts of the game despite the Red’s missing clear chances. Liverpool outshot the Magpies 22 shots to 7 but Newcastle had 6 of their 7 shots inside Liverpool’s box and four of them were on target. Steve Bruce’s side created most of their chances from open play despite having less than 32% possession.
The Reds attacked with a 3-2-5 shape, with the emphasis on overloading the back five of Newcastle. Andrew Robertson held the width on the left, with Salah stretching the defence on the right. Trent played a more inverted role against Newcastle, forming a back three in the build up alongside Kabak and Fabinho. There are many reasons why Trent played almost as a third defender/midfielder depending on the phase of play; Liverpool had enough players overloading the defensive line and occupying the spaces in between the defence. The second reason was to utilize Trent’s passing to switch play over to the left or play diagonals in behind for Mane.
Liverpool’s defence and midfield were a very big part of their game plan against Newcastle, Fabinho and Trent especially were tasked with playing long balls in behind the defence to find runners. According to fbref.com, Trent and Fabinho attempted 14 and 16 long passes in the game; the highest two tallies in the team (tied with Thiago who had 14).
Newcastle defended in a 5-4-1 block with the wide midfielders tucking in to deny access to any of Liverpool’s front line. But anytime Liverpool shifted the ball wide, they were tasked to force turnovers by showing them the touchline.
There was a lot of rotation in Liverpool’s shape: sometimes Salah would drift inside with Trent overlapping to his more natural area on the touchline. In central areas, there was some interesting movement too: Firimino would sometimes drop into midfield and Thiago would position himself higher. The shape would morph into a sort of 3-1-6, with a makeshift midfield of Firmino and Thiago in advanced areas, with the trio of Mane, Salah and Jota between the lines.
A common pattern would see Firmino drop into the lines alongside Thiago to receive the ball from midfield. Salah, Mane and Jota would then offer themselves to combine in the halfspaces or provide runs in behind.
In the build up, Liverpool had a 4-2 structure: the midfield pivot would drop deep to show for the ball with the fullbacks high and wide. Alisson would split the difference between the center backs to cause an overload of the Newcastle press.
Liverpool pressed Newcastle with their front four, with Mane and Salah picking up the wing backs and Jota and Firmino pressing central areas. Anytime Newcastle would attempt to drop a player to receive the ball in the build up, Thiago would push up and join the press to balance the numbers.
The screen grab from fbref.com shows how involved the frontline of Liverpool were when engaging Newcastle up high the pitch.
The Magpies did not press Liverpool high up the pitch but rather, engaged them anytime they progressed past the halfway line. Their trigger to drop deep into their own half was when Liverpool would drive into the space in front of the first line of the press, then they would fall back into their 5-4-1 deep block with compactness to try and prevent Liverpool from penetrating their defence.
Newcastle’s game plan was quite simple, hitting Liverpool on the counter. Their first outlet anytime they won the ball in their own half was Saint-Maximin (who we will come to later). Whenever it seemed like the counter attack was not on the cards, the ball holder would try and retain the ball while waiting for his teammates to get higher up the pitch.
Their attacking shape put emphasis on getting their wingbacks high and wide to try and use their crossing ability to find good targets inside the box. With Newcastle they almost didn’t bother with trying to penetrate central areas as they were more likely to lose the ball to Liverpool’s best pressers. Liverpool defended in a 4-4-2 shape, with Firmino and Jota as the first line, Salah and Mane would tuck in alongside the midfield.
The role of Allan Saint-Maximin
Allan Saint-Maximin was tasked with being the lone outlet for the Newcastle team, which meant he had to chase down every ball in behind, hold off defenders and also try and create chances and score when the opportunity presented itself. The French attacker had a very good performance, especially as the sole creator up top: he had the most progressive passes (4), tied 1st for final 3rd passes (4) and attempted the most through balls (4) in the team. He also created one big chance in the game*. *-[stats from fbref.com, whoscored.com and Sofascore app]
Another weapon Newcastle often deployed was Sean Longstaff runs, anytime Shelvey or Saint-Maximin got on the ball, Longstaff would break from midfield and charge in behind Liverpool’s defence anticipating a pass. And he was a constant threat as time and time again he was not picked up by his markers, this led to a big chance earlier in the game he failed to convert.
Late on in the game, in a bid to control the tie, Klopp changed the team shape bringing on Milner for Jota and going back to the 4-3-3. Steve Bruce responded by instructing Shelvey to drop in to center back areas to try and get the ball high up the pitch with his passing ability. Liverpool could not counter this threat, and they allowed him to find his players deep in the Liverpool half multiple times.
This match was basically a highlight of Liverpool’s 2020/21 season; they failed to convert many chances in the game, Jurgen Klopp allowed Newcastle to grow into the game nearing the end without countering any of their substitutes and a loss in concentration was enough for Joe Willock to ghost into the box and score a late equalizer.
For Steve Bruce, it was a display of his tactical ability, which most Newcastle fans have called him out on this season. His setup did enough to keep Liverpool at bay despite the missed chances. The tactics to use Saint-Maximin on transitions and the runs of Longstaff caused Liverpool’s backline many issues. As a manager under pressure, it is sometimes bold to take risks: Bruce moved Shelvey into defence and brought on Callum Wilson and Joe Willock, a clear sign that he was willing to salvage a point. In a relegation dogfight, every point matters, and Newcastle showed why they deserve to stay in England’s top flight for at least another year.