Liverpool hosted Newcastle United on the Boxing Day afternoon. Both the teams were in relatively safe positions. Liverpool were 4 points clear at the top of the table and Newcastle were 5 points clear of the relegation zone teams. As the afternoon games ended, Liverpool stayed at the top but increased their lead to 6 points, while Newcastle’s position did not change with respect to the relegation zone teams, as both Burnley and Huddersfield lost, while Fulham’s draw with Wolves did not change the equation significantly. But of Jurgen Klopp and Rafa Benitez, Klopp will definitely be the happier manager. Not only did his team trounce their opponents, but Manchester City also managed to lose their second game on the trot, leaving a buffer of 6 points between themselves and the Reds.
Liverpool went in with a fairly strong lineup bringing in Shaqiri on the right wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Salah leading the line. They also welcomed back Trent Alexander Arnold, who made a rapid recovery from his injury to last the game. If there were any nerves about scoring against the tight defence of Newcastle, they were laid to an early rest by Dejan Lovren who scored a brilliant half-volley of a goal just 11 minutes after the start. The game did meander for the rest of the first half, as Liverpool kept up the pressure but could not find the final ball. Mane’s instincts in and around the box let him down a few times. But all that changed as soon as Paul Dummett pulled on Salah’s arm inside the box just after the start of the 2nd half. Salah converted the resulting penalty and after that it was only a question of how many more will Liverpool score. The answer was two more as Shaqiri scored from a brilliant cross from Trent and subbed-in Fabinho scored from a corner taken by Salah.
If Newcastle United harboured any hopes of stifling Liverpool and trying to win a game of attrition, those hopes were spectacularly dashed by Lovren’s first goal. But even after that goal, it seemed like the Magpies wanted to make sure they do not concede more goals than to try and equalize. Joselu did get two headers (one in either half) to shoot at Alisson but he was off-target in both cases. Newcastle did not try a lot of attacking and when they did put in good crosses, primarily through Matt Ritchie, Liverpool’s defenders were up to the task. If at half-time, Rafa had hopes of equalizing or turning the game around, they were quickly dashed by Liverpool’s second goal and after that Newcastle also played like a side that had given up.
Attacking stats in today’s game, as expected, are all about Liverpool. They had 16 shots to Magpies’ 6, 13 of which were from inside the box (4 for NUFC). The Reds had 4 Big Chances, while Newcastle had just one. Newcastle’s deep defending meant that Liverpool’s primary mode of attack was through lofted through-balls to Salah or Mane in the middle or to Trent and Robertson on the wings. To be fair to Newcastle, they did restrict build-up play around the box a bit, as much as they could. Liverpool’s non-shot xG was 2.7, while their shot-based xG was 3.8, which means that while their build-up play around Newcastle’s box was slightly hampered, but through-balls and lofted passes from the Reds’ defence allowed them to take high-quality shots from within the box.
As mentioned, Newcastle did not have too any attacks of any note. Their xG ranged between 0.58 and 0.7 depending on the model you choose. In the rare chance that they attacked, it was usually through early crosses from the wings. But, Virgil van Dijk, Dejan Lovren and Alisson were at ease in dealing with them. This performance, however, does beg the question about why Rafa played without his first-choice striker Salomon Rondon when he was available on the bench. If he opted for Joselu because he had scored a freak goal against Liverpool last season, that would be stupidly superstitious. If he is saving his best players for weaker opponents, then he has to make sure that the opponents do not enjoy so many chances.
That brings us to the defenders. Dejan Lovren had one of his better games. Not only did he score the first goal, but he was also proactive in nipping any developing Newcastle attacks in the bud, with his pressing. His passing was also very impressive – if Mane had been on form, Lovren would have received an assist to go along with his goal. Between them, Lovren and VVD had to do very little in defence. A major reason for this was the Reds’ pressing. In the last few games, Liverpool have been pressing in their inimitable style from last season. It shows in a PPDA of 4.09, while they themselves managed to put in 30 passes per defensive action in Newcastle’s half.
On the other hand, Newcastle’s defenders were culpable for the first two goals if not all. The first goal came from a weak header from Lascelles that fell to Lovren inside the box and the second came as a result of Dummett’s tug on Salah inside the box. Those two mistakes summarize the miserable time Newcastle’s defenders had at Anfield.
Newcastle have a very daunting fixture list coming up and if they keep up performances like today, they might find themselves deep in a relegation fight by the time the season run-in approaches. If Rafa Benitez is supported in the transfer market in January, and he is able to get some talented quick fixes, then it could be a different story.
Liverpool had the perfect home game – they attacked with intent and verve and hence reaped the results. But even more important, perhaps was the result at the King Power Stadium, where Leicester beat Manchester City to stretch the gulf between Liverpool and City to 7 points. Tottenham’s win over Bournemouth however, brought them above City and six points behind the Reds. Nevertheless, 51 points and 53 goals from the first half of a season, a six-point gap at the top, the form of their defenders and also the improving attack, all are reasons for Liverpool fans to start dreaming of glory again.