Liverpool were playing against a promoted side. They had all their attacking stars lined up. The opponents were set up to defend. There must have been a time when these things put together would have meant an easy victory for Liverpool. If such times existed, they are becoming extremely difficult for the Reds’ fans to recall. What the recent history tells them is that a draw is the best outcome when those things are put together.
Yes, Liverpool were playing a promoted side – but it is a side coached by Rafa Benitez, who happens to be one of the masters of defensive solidity in the Premier League. Yes, they had all their attackers lined up, but Rafa set up his Newcastle United to defend against exactly those attackers. As a result, and as Liverpool fans are getting accustomed to (and fed up of), the Reds dropped two points at St. James’ Park and the Magpies stole a point.
Many football matches get played out based on a template. Most things happen exactly as expected. But generally, they are one-sided affairs where a clearly stronger team goes and thrashes a minnow, exactly as expected. It happens routinely in La Liga and Ligue 1. But, when an apparently hard-fought draw plays out to a template, it leaves questions in the fans’ minds about how predictable their side is.
Before today’s game, one might have expected Philippe Coutinho to score, Rafa to set up his side to defend extremely well, Liverpool to get nervous in defense and concede a dumb goal, and their star-studded attack to squander chance after chance. In today’s game, each of these things happened. Exactly as expected.
Rafa set up the Magpies to concede nothing but possession – no space for Mane or Salah to run into, no space for Sturridge to unleash his left-footed shots, no space for Coutinho to play smart one-twos with anyone. So, the Brazilian made a goal out of nothing. xG stats suggest that one out of hundred such shots should be a goal. But, when Coutinho takes those shots, one out of three or four finds the back of the net. After going ahead, this Liverpool side likes to concede a goal or two. They did not disappoint today as well, as the central defence was split open – yet again – and then Joel Matip’s hasty attempt at blocking ensured that Joselu scored an inadvertent goal. After that Newcastle thwarted attack after attack from the Reds and Liverpool ensured that whenever a high ball came towards their defence, they became nervous.
What should irritate Jurgen Klopp and Reds’ fans the most is that just by changing the order of the above sentences and a few particulars, we could be describing games against Burnley and Spartak Moscow. That is how predictable Liverpool have become.
Equally Shared Blame for the Reds
Many times, during last season and even earlier this season, when Liverpool have dropped points, it has been easy to point fingers at their defence while letting the attack off the hook. Not so in today’s game. Liverpool were not up to the mark in all the areas.
In defence, for the umpteenth time this season, a hopeful throughball was enough to set up a goal against Liverpool. The nervousness in Gomez, Matip, Lovren, and Moreno was palpable. Each of them gave ample examples of that, whether it was Matip dilly-dallying in releasing the ball to midfield, or Gomez fouling Atsu, or Moreno unnecessarily kicking Matt Ritchie in the legs.
The midfield did not cover itself in glory either. Yes, they managed to keep the ball and Coutinho scored that wonderful goal. But Henderson and Wijnaldum were not effective at all. They had one key pass, one interception and five tackles between them. Coutinho was the only midfielder who was contributing anything effectively.
If defence and midfield were poor, the attack was shoddy. Mane could not find his pre-City form, while Salah could not find his first touch. Sturridge, who had scored in four previous starts at St. James’ Park, was more eager to find a foul than on finding space or a shot. In Firmino’s absence, the attack was not capable of finding the space to shoot or run effectively and it showed. Crosses from the full-backs were as imprecise as were the attempted key passes and shots, resulting in easy turnovers.
Newcastle’s Brilliant Organisation
In a BBC piece prior to the game, Jermain Jenas was talking about how Rafa’s teams do not allow an attacker any space. He was talking about playing Rafa’s Liverpool for Newcastle. Today, the Spanish gaffer organised his Newcastle side just as effectively, as he used to do with his Liverpool side. They defended as a unit, with attacking players such as Joselu and Matt Ritchie tackling the Reds deep inside their own half. If one player committed a mistake, another was always on hand to rectify it.
In midfield, the Magpies were combative with Merino and Shelvey both snuffing out Reds’ attacks with smart tackles. On the other hand, Newcastle’s attackers were troublesome, whenever they got a chance to be. Both Atsu and Ritchie made nuisances of themselves. Rafa Benitez will be proud of his team for today’s performance.
To be fair to Liverpool, this result is better than their last two visits to Newcastle, but it is still one that rankles. With the quality in their side and with the charismatic Klopp in the manager’s seat, they should have won such a game. That they did not is getting uncomfortably familiar and equally harder to digest.
One win in seven matches, that is what Liverpool have earned for their toils through September and the first day of October. In those seven games, they have conceded 14 goals and scored and scored only eight. This run of form is indeed very worrisome for Klopp and he will be hoping that his players can return in a different frame of mind when they come back from the international break. He desperately needs his side’s form to turn, otherwise their troubles will mount further, as much larger challenges (Man United, Tottenham) await the Reds in October.