Premier League football returned today to Anfield, with Liverpool hosting Newcastle United for a lunch-time kickoff. But, instead of discussing the upcoming game, TV pundits Paul Scholes and Michael Owen were discussing whether Salah is obsessed with his goals or not. Ignoring stats that prove otherwise, they went on discussing how Salah’s apparent selfishness can cost Liverpool in a tight title race. Well if there is any residual friction from the incident at Turf Moor, it was not evident at Anfield today, as Sadio Mane’s brilliant first half brace and Mohammed Salah’s sublime goal in the second half were enough to surpass Newcastle United’s only goal scored by Jetro Willems in the 7th minute.
Despite a bunch of his players coming back from far flung international fixtures, Jurgen Klopp named a pretty strong XI – by letting only Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino of his regular starters sit on the substitute bench. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Divock Origi replaced them in the starting XI. Given Newcastle’s injury problems, Steve Bruce also started with an expected XI. In the opening exchanges, it seemed like the Magpies were trying to replicate their strategy at Spurs sitting back and letting the opponents enjoy almost all the possession. In the first 6 minutes, Liverpool had completed 52 passes, while Newcastle had completed 4. But in the seventh minute, the visitors put together a quick sequence of 3 passes on their right flank inside their own half before passing to Atsu who were the furthest forward. Atsu passed to the left-back Jetro Willems who had run up to the corner of Liverpool’s box. Willems took a couple of touches but Trent-Alexander Arnold looked like he was going to stop the left-footed attacker from shooting. Willems, however switched the ball to his right foot and unleashed a pile-driver into the top far corner of Liverpool’s goal.
Comeback from Liverpool
Between the Newcastle goal and 28th minute, Liverpool again dominated possession but were ineffective in shooting. They had 5 shots to Newcastle’s 1 in this period, all of them off-target. That changed when in the 28th minute, Andy Robertson overcame multiple Newcastle challenges to get the ball to the left edge of the Newcastle box before squaring it to Sadio Mane, whose right footed shot mirrored that of Willems at the other end. Dubravka had no way of stopping that.
After that, again the game seemed to settle in to the pattern of Liverpool passing and Newcastle defending. But, in the 37th minute Divock Origi went down due to a knock on the shin suffered earlier. This led Jurgen Klopp to replace the Belgian with Firmino. And what a replacement he proved to be. The Brazilian pressed Atsu into an error and won possession close to the half-line before providing a through-ball to Mane who had already made an attacking run in the center. The pass was overhit and Mane seemed to give up as Dubravka came forward to gather it. However, the goalkeeper failed to gather the ball, which rebounded off Mane in front of an unprotected goal for Mane to score an easy tap-in.
The Second Half
Steve Bruce seemed to fire up the Magpies during half-time as Newcastle came out with vigor and played with more intent. The TV commentators were gushing about how the visitors were matching Liverpool’s possession. However, among small spells of Magpie possession, Firmino kept on creating chances, none of which were converted, thanks to better goalkeeping from Dubravka. However, in the 72nd minute, Salah, who had been unusually quiet throughout the game gathered a pass from Wijnaldum about 12 yards outside of Newcastle’s box. He passed it forward to Roberto Firmino, whose sublime backheel saw the ball come to Salah who had not stopped his run. Salah ran into the box past a falling Fabian Schar and unleashed a left footed low drive into the far corner grabbing the third for Liverpool.
Even after this goal, Liverpool kept searching for a fourth but Firmino was offside in the buildup to a chance that he created for Sadio Mane to complete his hattrick.
Although Liverpool took their time to get going, the game panned out as expected from an attacking point of view for the Reds. They had 21 chances, 5 of them Big Chances, 18 from inside the box and 5 from set-plays. 8 of the shots were on target, which eventually resulted in 3 goals. 5 of their chances were blocked. Their xG range of 2.93 – 3.06 indicates that Newcastle limited the quality chances for the Reds. Interestingly, a bulk of their xG was contributed by Mane (0.83), Trent (0.77), and Salah (0.55). Trent also had 7 key passes. But the star of providing was undoubtedly Roberto Firmino, who although provided fewer key passes (4), provided much better chances with an xA of 1.11.
The Magpies on the other hand were expectedly subdued in attack, despite the early goal. The best chance of the game fell to Emil Krafth who shot high and wide. xG range of 0.29 – 0.33 is inline with general Newcastle performances. The goal itself was an unexpected event coming from a 0.04 xG shot. In terms of providing, Christian Atsu’s xA of 0.16 was the highest. It was one of his three key passes that Willems turned into an assist.
Newcastle’s narrow shape meant that the Reds had field day crossing from both flanks – 21 from left and 15 from the right. But where Steve Bruce side failed was in stopping Liverpool from taking quality shots from within the box. The two errors they made in the buildup to Liverpool’s second goal were also a bit uncharacteristic. If Andre Marriner had awarded a penalty for Lascalles pull on Joel Matip just before Liverpool’s equalizer, it would have added to the errors column. Surprisingly, Newcastle were not too good in the air defensively, winning only 7 defensive aerial duels of the 16 they contested. On the positive side, the three central defenders had 21 clearances amongst themselves.
Liverpool for their part were found slightly wanting in Willems’ goal. They failed to play Atsu offside and then Trent Alexander Arnold assumed that Willems will not be shooting from his right foot, and committed himself to his own right foot. However, Matip and Virgil van Djik were imperious in the air winning 14 of 17 defensive aerial duels, nullifying the long-ball approach Steve Bruce’s side were looking to take. Robertson, Matip and Fabinho also put in 5 interceptions, swiftly converting defense into attack. No wonder then that Liverpool’s defenders had an xGBuildup (Total xG for every possession other than key passes and shots) of 0.65 on an average.
Liverpool’s Record Streak
Liverpool are the fifth side to rake up 14 straight wins in the Premier League. However, they are the first to score at least two goals in each of those games. They are also 43 games unbeaten at Anfield. They now look forward to the first of their Champions League fixtures – a trip to Napoli beckons. That game will not be as easy as today’s win but today will give them the confidence of being able to turn games after going down.
Steve Bruce set up the Magpies very defensively today in the hope that his side would prevail today as they did against Spurs. But they could not cope with Liverpool’s eventual attacking quality and that was their undoing. They will have a better chance of a point or three against Brighton at home next Saturday though.