Why Newcastle United will be no pushovers against Liverpool
Rafa Benitez and his pragmatic approach could stop Jurgen Klopp's attacking approach.
St James’ Park will be a noisy place on Sunday afternoon when Newcastle United take on Liverpool in the Premier League. After years of a recurring sombre feeling, Newcastle are back in the Premier League and unlike the last decade or so, there is genuine hope among the fans that they have a plan this time.
Although Mike Ashley’s lingering presence always a casts a shadow on any sort of positivity, Rafa Benitez’s charm has taken over and galvanised the club. A year and a half ago, watching the team perform on the pitch was painful; Steve McLaren couldn’t imbue his style (does he even have one?!?) despite spending quite a lot of money and Rafa’s appointment came late.
Though relegation was bitter, it did the club a favour. Had Newcastle survived last summer, Rafa might not have had the chance to provide an ultimatum, a much-needed change behind the scene which had shackled the club in every sense.
A year and a few months later, Newcastle have a young core and the players have quashed any relegation fear, even though it’s still early days. Newcastle’s biggest test yet awaits them as they’ll take on Benitez’s former club, Liverpool.
The Reds have looked more like a boxer in a sparring session this season. While they have looked good in patches, neither have they managed to outscore teams – something they resorted to last season – nor have they addressed their defensive issues. A subpar start in the Champions League and the Premier League means Sunday’s clash is a must-win game, but in Rafa, they could once again meet their match.
Pragmatism vs Heavy metal football
Rafa has stuck to his tried and tested setup and with the players he has and it has worked well for him. Benitez is usually at his best in the big games and we saw that last season, even though the Magpies had a better squad than most teams in the Championship.
For Klopp, an end to end game is perhaps normal, for Rafa, not so much. While the new breed of German managers tends to focus on the pressing model, Rafa is more old school and employs the reactive approach.
Newcastle’s two-man midfield pivot will be under pressure as it’s very likely Liverpool’s quartet of Mane, Firmino, Coutinho and Salah will start the game. Mikel Merino and Isaac Hayden have formed a good partnership together. While Merino’s defensive stats are impressive this season, Hayden is key in getting the ball forward. Benitez likes having that combination of a destroyer and a creator in the deeper midfield and against Liverpool, that partnership could be key.
Newcastle possess good pace on the break and with Liverpool lacking the transition from attack to defence, it could be an interesting game when the hosts get the ball in their own half.
While Jordan Henderson and Emre Can have scored a few goals in between this season, they simply haven’t protected their fragile defence.
Joselu needs to step up
You’d think that against a team who lack cohesiveness at the back, there will be quite a few chances. But that’s not an entirely accurate presumption.
Granted, Liverpool will give you chances, but they won’t come in heaps as their attack is well-coordinated and rarely do the likes of Coutinho and Salah give the ball away.
When they do lose possession, because of how the system works, they try to win it back in the opposition half, so Merino and Hayden will have to extremely efficient with their passing or they risk putting the pressure back on themselves. Now, that is where the Perez and Joselu will be key.
Joselu’s pass completion rate is 64%, meaning he misplaces the ball nearly 4 times out of 10 when his teammates find him. That statistic could shoot up higher considering he’ll be playing in his own half most of the time against Liverpool and will have the likes of Henderson and Can chasing him down.
Luckily though, Joselu does have agile players in Atsu, Perez and Ritchie who can stretch play, so he won’t have the lack of options around him if the first time ball is played out to him. His finishing though needs improving.
The Lascelles threat
So the norm these days is there can’t be an analysis piece on Liverpool without mentioning their abysmal defending in set-piece situations. And when you’ve got a player in form – Jamaal Lascelles – eager as he is to head the ball into the back of the net, Liverpool will need to be extra careful.
Matt Ritchie’s tussle with his compatriot Andy Robertson (possibly) will be a key battle. Ritchie has a wicked left foot and sure knows how to put in a good cross, so that’s a big outlet for the Magpies.
In their last Premier League game against Leicester, Liverpool had to defend as many as 26 crosses. Newcastle’s best hope is arguably deliveries from the wide areas as they have the height in Joselu and in Perez, someone who can feed on the second ball.
It’s going to be a pretty end to end game with Liverpool creating more chances, but Newcastle have a good chance of picking up the win if they can execute their game plan as Liverpool have way too many holes in their defence.