Recent away thrashings of Manchester City and Southampton had fueled talk of a surprise Liverpool title challenge. New manager Jurgen Klopp’s rapid implementation of his patented counter-pressing, counter-attacking style resulted in his new charges punishing both sides for their expansiveness.
However, results of games in which Liverpool are expected to dominate the ball have been more mixed to say the least. Hark at the 2-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace and last week’s super-workmanlike 1-0 victory over Swansea at Anfield, in which the hosts managed only two shots on target and had to rely on a James Milner penalty to secure all three points.
Sunday evening’s trip to Newcastle very much fit that pattern. Once again, Liverpool were faced with an opposition looking to counter Klopp’s devastating counter-attack by not committing bodies forward. Liverpool’s aggressive midfield pressing, which Klopp relies upon to create counter-attacking opportunities, was also nullified by the high number of long balls Newcastle played up to Papiss Cissé to bypass that area.
In other words, the onus was on Klopp to devise a ‘Plan B’ to break Newcastle down. Again, as in previous games of this nature, he comprehensively failed to do so.
Klopp continued the formation rotation that has marked the beginning of his tenure here, by opting for a 4-2-3-1 shape instead of the diamond that eviscerated the Saints in midweek. Newcastle’s Steve McClaren went with roughly the same shape, with wide players Sissoko and Wijnaldum playing quite narrowly in a 4-4-1-1.
With Liverpool fielding James Milner on the left, this meant that the centre of midfield was incredibly congested – a problem greatly exacerbated by Newcastle’s aggressive pressing in that zone. McClaren had flagged the importance of winning the running before the game, and boy did his side do the necessary in that regard.
Newcastle’s players had run 117km to Liverpool’s 116km by the time the final whistle arrived. Liverpool’s rather staid-looking midfield pairing of Lucas and Joe Allen were given no time on the ball whatsoever. As such, Roberto Firmino at number ten, was a non-factor in general play.
Liverpool’s only option in possession therefore was the out-ball that the game’s only true winger, Jordon Ibe, represented. Unfortunately for Klopp, Ibe comprehensively lost his individual battle with Newcastle’s Paul Dummett and ended up swapping to the opposite flank for the last fifteen minutes of the first half. Dummett won three of his four attempted tackles, with Ibe ending the half as the game’s most dispossessed player.
All of the above meant that the first half was a supremely scrappy affair, with both sides’ solitary chance apiece stemming from corners. This half of football provided us with zero shots on target and, owing to the midfield congestion, neither side managed to break the 80% pass completion barrier.
The second half continued in the same vein, prompting Klopp to (finally) enact a tactical switch. In the 62nd minute, the dual arrivals of Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge coincided with a switch to a 4-1-4-1 shape. It was difficult to see what change Klopp was trying to effect with this move. The centre of midfield was now more packed than ever, Sturridge was isolated up top and the disappointing Ibe was allowed to continue to toil on the right. Whatever it was, it didn’t work and Newcastle soon took the lead courtesy of a fortunate deflection.
This blow spurred Klopp into a second tactical shift in the space of only 13 minutes. Ibe was finally removed, in favour of Divock Origi, with the 4-1-2-1-2 shape from midweek now in force. Although McClaren introduced an extra body to the midfield fray to counteract this just two minutes later, it was too late to prevent Liverpool’s first real chance from open play. Sturridge shot wide off his weaker foot, when played through down the inside-right channel by new number ten, Adam Lallana.
Anita dropped onto Lallana, with substitute Yoan Gouffran and goalscorer Wijnaldum just ahead in a 4-1-4-1. Newcastle looked completely comfortable again until a rare Dummett error played Alberto Moreno onside at the back post from a deep James Milner cross. Liverpool were incredibly unfortunate to see the goal incorrectly ruled out for offside.
In desperation, Klopp played the last card in his hand late on, throwing Martin Skrtel up top as a third striker for the last few minutes. This was a gambit that famously paid off for him in the dying seconds of a Champions League semi-final against Manuel Pellegrini’s Malaga three seasons ago. Not this time. Instead, Newcastle prevailed on the space vacated by Skrtel on the counter, with a lofted Wijnaldum finish securing the points after Sissoko beat Moreno far too easily on the right flank.
A fantastic scalp for McClaren, who successfully beat Klopp at his own game – pressing hard in midfield and striking on the break. For Klopp, this is the latest lesson in the folly of a one-size-fits-all approach. Post-game, he seemed to blame fatigue and his side’s related shoddy counter-pressing for the defeat. The problem with that line of thinking is that his side had the ball for the vast majority of the game. Liverpool’s downfall here was not what they didn’t do off the ball, but what they didn’t do with it. The German must find a way to mould Liverpool into a potent attacking force when the opposition is not leaving oceans of space in front of and behind their defence.