Dec 31, 2011

Tactical analysis: Liverpool 3 Newcastle 1 in 5 key points

30.12.11 – Friday 7:45pm
Anfield
Barclays Premier League

Craig Bellamy scores for LiverpoolLiverpool 3
Bellamy 29, 67
Gerrard 78

Newcastle 1
Agger (own goal) 25

Newcastle continued their dismal record at Anfield in a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool; their 7th consecutive loss at the home of the Reds.

1. Team selection and tactics

Liverpool Newcastle tactics

Newcastle made only 1 change to the side that won 2-0 against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium on Boxing Day, with youngster Haris Vuckic replacing Leon Best. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish made a pair of changes to his Liverpool side that had drew 1-1 at home against Blackburn on Boxing Day. Jay Spearing replaced Maxi Rodriguez in midfield, while Craig Bellamy replaced perennial victim Luis Suarez in attack.

Alan Pardew, no doubt wary of Newcastle’s poor record at Anfield, switched from his favoured 4-4-2 formation to a more defensive, deep and narrow 4-4-1-1 and very much set Newcastle up to guard against the opposition’s strengths than play to their own. Liverpool also moved away from their 4-4-2 formation to a more attacking and expansive 4-3-3 formation with an emphasis on exploiting space in wide areas. The contrasting strategies of both sides meant that the game was mainly played in Newcastle’s half as they surrendered attacking impetus to their opponents.

2. Liverpool attack the flanks

Liverpool crosses

Red peppered - Liverpool's 22 unsuccessful crosses

The absence of Luis Suarez up front lead to Liverpool adopting a more direct approach, which played to the strengths of their lone front man Andy Carroll. Borrowed from the Martin O’Neill book of tactics, the game plan was a simple one – get the ball into wide areas and deliver crosses for Carroll to attack. A tactic which saw the Reds attempt 26 crosses in open play; almost quadruple the 7 that Newcastle played.

The majority of those crosses (65%) were played from the right side, with Stewart Downing regularly using his pace to get in behind Ryan Taylor (substituted at half time) before crossing or laying the ball off to Glen Johnson, playing almost as a second right winger, to deliver. On the whole, the crosses were of a substandard quality from Liverpool – often hit along the ground to Carroll’s visible frustration – and were dealt with reasonably well by Newcastle, but their crossing persistence paid off indirectly for the equaliser when a cleared cross fell to the feet of Bellamy to fire home.

3. Liverpool close and chase to win back possession

Liverpool tackles

LFC tackles: most in middle third

When without the ball, again, Liverpool’s game plan was simple. The players – in particular the central midfield trio of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing – were given instructions to pressurise their opponents to win back possession by working hard, chasing the ball, and closing down space for Newcastle to play into, which they generally did very well.

Spearing, of Pinky and the Brain fame, played in the defensive midfield role with the primary purpose of breaking up Newcastle’s play. Spearing carried out his defensive duties effectively and was the game’s top tackler with 4 tackles. Alongside him, Adam and Henderson, both typically more offensive minded midfielders, weighed in with 2 tackles each. The pressing tactic was an uncomplicated one, but helped to restrict Newcastle’s time on the ball and attacking options, often leading to them inadvertently giving the ball back to their opponents.

4. Newcastle lack attacking threat

To counter Liverpool’s attacking play in wide areas, the Newcastle wingers – Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan – generally tended to drop deeper to support their full backs who struggled when 1-on-1 against the pacey Liverpool wide men. However, this meant that when Newcastle won possession that their wingers were positioned deep in their own half where they couldn’t impact on the game in an attacking sense. On the odd time that they did have the ball in the opposition half, the overly-cautious full backs were short on support as Newcastle’s wing play faltered.

Newcastle passes

NUFC completed passes in LFC half - very few in final third

With space and time on the ball also restricted in the centre of midfield, and with Vuckic, playing as the link man between midfield and attack, generally playing with his back to goal (only completing 3 forward passes), Newcastle’s attacking play was limited. This often lead to hopeful balls played through the centre to isolated lone striker Demba Ba. The Premier League’s second top scorer put up an admirable fight and was unlucky not to score with a shot cleared off the line, but it was a tactic that was always sure to be short on returns against one of the strongest centre back pairings in the league – Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel – and so it proved.

5. Scores level, substitutes on

Gerrard heatmap

Freedom to roam: Gerrard's passing heat map

With 59 minutes played and the sides level at 1-1, Kenny Dalglish brought on Captain Steven Gerrard, returning from a long term injury, to replace Charlie Adam in the Liverpool midfield. Alan Pardew, as he had done to positive effect in Newcastle’s previous two fixtures, responded to the calls from the travelling support and brought on Hatem Ben Arfa, also recovering from a long term injury, for Haris Vuckic on 65 minutes. Both managers had used their ‘trick-up-the-sleeve’ substitution, but to varied success.

Brought on to increase Newcastle’s attacking threat, Ben Arfa was unable to find space in a crowded midfield area to take advantage. Although he used the ball well in the little time that he had it, he only managed 11 touches and was unable to complete a pass in the final third. Gerrard’s introduction, meanwhile, appeared to lift the performance levels of his teammates, as well as the Anfield crowd. With Spearing and Henderson providing the midfield axis, Gerrard was given freedom to roam from his central position and, without a man marker, found space well in attacking areas and delivered some excellent crosses from the right. A fine cameo appearance from Liverpool’s captain was capped by a well taken goal, which effectively ended the tie as a contest and wrapped up the 3 points for the home side.

At the end of the day…

Having suffered 6 consecutive defeats at Anfield prior to this and having also lost their final Premier League fixture of the year in their last 7 seasons in the top flight, the outcome was almost inevitable for Newcastle who again underperformed and returned from Anfield on the losing side.

Without wanting to be too harsh on a Newcastle side that have far exceeded expectations this season, the initial feeling post-match was one of frustration in not being able to take advantage of a Liverpool side missing key players and for gifting the second and third goals through defensive errors.

The Newcastle tactics seemed to be to keep possession, frustrate the home crowd and build steady attacks. Unfortunately, the only evidence of this was a 5 minute spell in which Newcastle kept the ball for 30-40 passes in front of the Kop in the second half.

At times, Newcastle almost looked in awe of their opponents and the occasion and, as well as looking uncharacteristically shaky in possession, perhaps showed too much respect to Liverpool who have dropped points to lesser teams already this season.

That said, given the expenditure by both sides in 2011, Liverpool should have been way out in front against Newcastle and, although they were the better team and deserved of the 3 points, there wasn’t that much in it until the introduction of Steven Gerrard on the hour mark. A defeat, but certainly not a disgrace.

Now at the half way stage of their season, Newcastle sit in 7th place on 30 points, although they could drop to 8th should Stoke win their next two fixtures before they next play. Regardless, it is still an excellent first half of the season by Alan Pardew and his men.

Next up for Newcastle is a home fixture against Man United on Wednesday night; 7:45pm kick off. Having held the champions to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in November, the Magpies will be hoping for at least the same in the return fixture. Thankfully Cabaye and Coloccini will both be available for the difficult fixture against the Red Devils, having both successfully avoided a fifth yellow card of the season at Liverpool which would have lead to a suspension.

Happy New Year to you all!


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1 Comment

  • What was most frustrating about this contest was that NUFC have players doing “on the job training” but don’t seem to have a blueprint about just what that training is. Not a soul knew what to do with Gerrard, and HBA was blanketed from the moment he stepped on the pitch with no apparent concept on how to get free. I know AP is doing a fine job, but he needs a few veterans around the club that can actually come into a game and plug a leak or open a door.

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