Rodgers springs a surprise
The Liverpool manager’s decision to field his side in an usual 3-4-2-1 shape surprised all, not least Newcastle boss Alan Pardew. In his pre-match interview, Pardew alleged that the key to beating Liverpool was “putting pressure on them in key areas”, a statement that could be interpreted as intent to attempt to control the game. Pardew presumably expected Liverpool to persist with the 4-3-3 that they fielded against Hull, allowing his side’s 4-2-3-1 to man-mark in midfield, putting pressure on Gerrard and choking Liverpool’s attempts to pass out from the back – a strategy that has already worked wonders for a number of sides this season.
Instead Rodgers sprung a surprise, fielding Glen Johnson as part of a back three, six in midfield, and Mario Balotelli leading the line alone. Pardew could be seen early in the first half informing his players of the opposition’s shape with hand gestures. As detailed in his post-match interview, he also instructed his side to change emphasis – rather than press high up the field, they were now going to allow Liverpool to have the ball in front of them, sit back and look to counter-attack.
Luckily for the Newcastle manager, his team selection fitted this unlikely scenario perfectly. Pardew had selected an out-and-out winger on both flanks – Obertan on the right and Ameobi on the left – and this left them well set to exploit Liverpool down the flanks, the classic area of weakness for a side fielding a back three.
Before his unfortunate thigh injury, Obertan was looking particularly dangerous on the right. It was his dribble and pullback that led to Sissoko’s penalty shout in the tenth minute. Sammy Ameobi was also threatening on the left up against Glen Johnson, who looked uncomfortable at right centre-back, particularly given that Raheem Sterling, the nominal right wing-back, was being instructed to stay high in the defensive phase. It was rather baffling then that Newcastle funneled a massive 50% of their attacking play down the right, where Liverpool were less undermanned. Swapping Ameobi to the right upon the forced introduction of Rolando Aarons (for Obertan) exacerbated this error, as Ameobi looked to always come inside on his stronger left foot.
Possession without penetration
As experienced by Manchester United earlier in the season, back-three based formations are fantastic at ensuring possession of the football – not so good at penetrating sides who seek to frustrate. The key to this is the deficit on the flanks. A counter-attacking side looks to defend on the edge of their penalty box, in two narrow lines, before breaking with pace. The space for their opposition is out wide. A back-three based shape is unable to adequately exploit this. Neither Alberto Moreno, nor Raheem Sterling, had any joy in an attacking sense today, as they both ploughed a lone wide furrow. The latter in particular suffered another in a growing line of poor performances, losing possession on five occasions, more than any other player on the pitch.
Underlining Liverpool’s lack of penetration was the fact that, despite completing almost four times the number of passes that their opposition managed, the numbers of passes attempted in the attacking third were roughly equivalent – 129 for Liverpool, 103 for Newcastle. Despite having 65% of the possession, Liverpool only managed three shots on target, the same as their opposition – two long range potshots from Mario Balotelli and one late, mishit, Moreno volley from the edge of the area.
Perhaps most illustrative of Liverpool’s attacking impotence were the three most common passing combinations in the game – Skrtel to Lovren (28), Johnson to Skrtel (23) and Lovren to Skrtel (21) – exclusively featuring Liverpool’s three centre backs.
Perhaps most frustratingly of all for Liverpool fans, both of Newcastle’s big chances came from individual errors, one of many banes of Liverpool’s season thus far. Both errors were committed by Alberto Moreno and both arrived within five minutes of each other. First, we had his failed clearance that led to Perez’s winner, eerily reminiscent of his failed clearance against Manchester City that also led to a goal concession. Then, five minutes later, he allowed Cabella to pounce, one-two with Perez, and waste a glorious chance to put his side two up.
It has to be said, Newcastle’s counter-attacking down the flanks wasn’t all that effective after Obertan went off. They really created little of note prior to this point. But lately, Liverpool’s defence can always be relied upon to create an opportunity for you. Let’s not forget – Mignolet nearly handed the opposition a goal in the first half too, going MIA from a corner, and relying on Glen Johnson to clear Cissé’s effort off the line.
Rodgers’ reluctance to adjust
It was abundantly clear from very early on in this clash that Rodger’s starting shape wasn’t working. They were struggling to move the ball forward into the attacking third, and with Gerrard/Allen and Coutinho/Henderson forming a ‘2-2’ in the centre of midfield, it was easy to see why – everything was too narrow. Liverpool were flooding the centre of the field, much to Newcastle’s delight.
Most shockingly, it took Rodgers until ten minutes after Perez’s strike to change the shape of his side, moving to a 4-2-4 with only ten minutes left on the clock. Baffling.
Liverpool paid the price. They now stand seventh, only one point ahead of the previously “in-crisis” Magpies.