Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United primed to exploit Liverpool’s weaknesses come Sunday
Emotions run higher than most at two Premier League football clubs; steeped in history and, in one case, success, Newcastle United and Liverpool have very similar values. Nothing will make that clearer than when the two clubs meet on Sunday and the whole of St James’ Park will join, in unison, to pay tribute to Rafa Benitez.
Both clubs hold special values which centre on understanding the requirements of working there and being relatable. If endeared to either set of fans, or both in the case of Benitez, time and acceptance will never be in short supply. Get it wrong, like so many others have in the past, and there will be a black mark next to your name forever.
During his six years in charge at Anfield, Benitez brought unprecedented success in the modern era by winning the Champions League in 2005. The Spaniard arrived a year earlier after leading Valencia to two La Liga titles and the UEFA Cup; winning the FA Cup in 2006.
The Reds were used to trophies at that time but, despite going very close in 2009 by finishing second, Benitez could never reach the domestic heights he did at Estadio Mestalla in the Premier League. But, as he has found in Newcastle since arriving 18 months ago, it is his effort in getting to know the club, the people behind the scenes, and his general attitude in everything from winning to helping in the community that etched him into Liverpool folklore.
Benitez still lives in the Wirral, on Merseyside, and has done ever since he left the club in 2010. Jobs in Italy and his native Spain have failed to permanently pull him away. At Real Madrid, he was in his city, coaching his club, but he was no longer at home. England is his home; the passion of the place, the energy and the work-rate on a football pitch makes it.
For the second time, since taking the reigns on Tyneside, Benitez will be plotting the downfall of his beloved former employers. A 2-2 draw at Anfield two seasons ago showed glimpses of the impact he would have at St James’ Park, eradicating the sense of surrender when a goal down and promoting teamwork and organisation, but it wasn’t enough to save the club from relegation.
Current Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is as likeable as Benitez, in a different sense, and understands the club just as much; his popularity is on a similar level, but he may find it tough to compete, on and off the pitch, this weekend.
On paper, Klopp’s men will be favourites to win Sunday’s big game, but the tactical outlook, not to mention the history books, will be against them. Liverpool won just once at Anfield in this decade, albeit it was a 6-0 thrashing, losing four times. Georginio Wijnaldum, who is available to be selected by Klopp, inspired a 2-0 win for Newcastle in one of few bright sparks of Benitez’s predecessor Steve McClaren’s reign, in their last visit.
There are few better teams to watch in full flow than Liverpool. The energy Klopp has instilled, their ability to press and their immensely high fitness levels, added to the possession principles of Brendan Rodgers, have taken them to a new level.
In attack, they are so dangerous because they have found a balance that doesn’t in any way stifle Sadio Mane, who returns from suspension, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino or the recently reintegrated Philippe Coutinho. It goes without question should this game open up early on, Newcastle will struggle to keep up; yet there is a catch.
Under Klopp, Liverpool have had a tendency to rise to the big occasion but stutter with the seemingly more straightforward games. Benitez has built a Newcastle team perfectly positioned to frustrate his opposite number, one that will sit deep and play on the counter-attack, using set pieces as a viable outlet.
Liverpool’s defensive issues have been well documented, and the absence of Nathaniel Clyne at right-back, giving Klopp the choice between youngsters Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez as his stand in against a very confident and direct Christian Atsu, shows a clear area to be targeted.
Their record of defending set pieces is also a real issue; Newcastle have made a habit of scoring from Matt Ritchie crosses, either corners or in open play, of late; Atsu, Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark have all profited. Joselu’s confidence may be knocked after missing a few chances in recent weeks, but he is still very useful in the air and with Aleksandar Mitrovic returning from a ban, suddenly Benitez has options.
Some questions remain about Newcastle’s team selection, mainly whether Mitrovic will come straight in, having not started the West Ham game in which he was retrospectively punished. Jonjo Shelvey probably has the best chance in weeks of a return after making an impact in what was a fairly flat defeat to Brighton last week. Whatever happens, though, the tactical approach will stay the same.
Stopping Liverpool from playing high up the pitch is fundamental. To do that, Newcastle must remain disciplined and as tight between defence and midfield as possible. Starting fast is Klopp’s trademark when his side are on song, and with Isaac Hayden struggling to deal with the pace of games right now, it is a real possibility that Shelvey could come in as another player facing his old side.
It’ll be a tough afternoon for Newcastle on Sunday and an emotional one for Rafa Benitez. He still holds Liverpool and the surrounding areas in high regard, but he has built a team perfectly capable of exploiting their weaknesses in what will undoubtedly be another entertaining and pulsating encounter.