Saturday was a missed opportunity for Liverpool.
Liverpool had to come from behind twice away to Newcastle United to get the 2-2 draw and a point, which was the most Liverpool deserved. St James Park is always a hard place to go to pick up points, and Newcastle would have been up for it after they lost this fixture 6-0 last season in April, but it does feel like two points dropped, given Liverpool played with a man advantage for 50 minutes after Newcastle defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was sent off for denying Luis Suarez a goalscoring opportunity, with the score at 1-0 after 40 minutes. That led to the penalty from which Steven Gerrard scored his 100th league goal. That was a fantastic achievement for the Liverpool and England captain. There isn’t really much more you can say about Gerrard: a legend, and I’m sure he will get many more goals between now and the end of his career.
Liverpool weren’t really in the game at that point, and were 1-0 down to a fantastic strike from Yohan Cabaye, even if the closing down up to the moment the French midfielder released the shot left a lot to be desired, particularly as he has a fantastic shot on him from long range. Until the red card, Liverpool struggled to create chances, except from a chance from Suarez which was very close to Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul. Praise must go to Newcastle United for their performance over the 90 minutes – they were on top before the red card and got their tactics spot on and showed great spirit after going down to 10 men and their performance warranted at least point.
Nevertheless, Liverpool were expected to take a stranglehold on the game with a man advantage for the second half, but were undone by a set piece for Newcastle’s second. A ball was floated in by Cabaye and it evaded everyone except young Newcastle defender Paul Dummett, who was unmarked to slam home. It was another poor goal to concede from a Liverpool perspective, and it’s not the first time Liverpool have been undone by set pieces this season. Liverpool lost 1-0 at home to Southampton through a goal conceded from a set piece, and lost 1-0 in the League Cup 3rd Round against Manchester United as a result of a goal conceded from a set piece.
Chasing the game, Liverpool abandoned the 3-5-2 they’ve been using that deploys wing backs and looked a lot better for it. The “SaS” combined again for Liverpool’s equaliser – Suarez played a perfect ball onto the head of Daniel Sturridge, who headed into an empty net. Liverpool looked more likely to snatch a winning goal after they altered their formation. Suarez thundered against the bar and forced Krul into a save from a last-gasp free kick. In the last 20 minutes, a number of chances were wasted as well – something that needs to stop if Liverpool are to win the games to get into next season’s Champions League.
The formation is one of the lessons Brendan Rodgers can take into the coming vital period: in the next two weeks, Liverpool go to standard setting table toppers Arsenal, with the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park three weeks after that. In between that, there are home games against West Brom (next week) and Fulham (the week after the trip to Arsenal). These are big games that will give Liverpool’s top four credentials a thorough examination.
If I was Rodgers, I’d play the 4-2-3-1 formation that Liverpool played quite a bit in Rodgers’ first season in the coming games. One advantage of that formation allows Liverpool to have some width in their play; Victor Moses didn’t have a great game in the No.10 that Philippe Coutinho would normally play, but Moses was not signed on loan from Chelsea to play at No.10.
Coutinho’s imminent return from a shoulder injury sustained in the draw at Swansea will be a welcome relief. He is one of the focal points of Liverpool’s attack, and if he works well with the ‘SaS’ partnership, Liverpool supporters might start licking their lips. Liverpool will improve immensely with the Brazilian in the team as it will provide creativity that has looked lacking in Liverpool’s recent games.
It will certainly be a boost to have Coutinho back in that No.10, not only because of the creativity he will provide, but it will give Liverpool a proper No.10. Moses has been played there, but it is obvious that he’s best used on the wings, providing width, something Liverpool needed desperately on Saturday against Newcastle. In the 3-5-2, the width will be provided by the wing-backs, which against Newcastle were Aly Cissokho & Glen Johnson, both of whom were playing for the first time since August and September respectively after injury. I thought Cissokho did well except for the second Newcastle goal but overall he is very good back up for regular left back Jose Enrique. Cissokho’s challenge on Loic Remy with the scores at 2-2 was brilliantly timed and he deserves praise for that.
I was also impressed by Martin Skrtel’s performance today, and performances overall since he returned to the fold. He was frozen out towards the closing stages of last season, as Jamie Carragher’s leadership was preferred towards the end of his fine career. I fully expected Skrtel to leave in the summer, but was brought in for the 1-0 league win over Manchester United on 1 September and has cemented his place in the starting line up since. Skrtel was the pick of Liverpool’s defenders on a day where some of the defending was comical, epitomised by his superb last-ditch challenge on Remy to deny a certain goal: it was a challenge he had to time to perfection, and he did, denying Newcastle’s in-form French striker a certain goal.
I’ll also offer a bit of perspective here. No Liverpool supporter is happy when Liverpool don’t win, but many Liverpool supporters would have settled for 17 points out of 24 from the first eight games of the season; it keeps Liverpool in third position, which is a strong position to build on. At this stage last season, Liverpool had picked up just nine points and were languishing in 12th, so there are definite signs of progress.
However, the picture at Liverpool is now different from what it was this time last year. Liverpool will be expected to mount a challenge for the top four & a place in next season’s Champions League, and this season represents a fantastic chance for Liverpool to return to a competition they last played in during 2009/10. It was always going to be a tough game, but with the fixtures Liverpool have coming up, this was a game they really couldn’t afford to drop points in.