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Film Focus: Previewing Liverpool vs. Newcastle United Ahead of Anfield Clash

Liverpool host Newcastle United at Anfield on the final day of the 2013/14 Premier League season, with the Reds needing a win to have any chance of clinching a first league title in 24 years.

This fixture has been one of the most entertaining and exciting in Premier League history, with goals almost always guaranteed and both teams fond of playing attacking football. The reverse fixture at St James’ Park back in October ended in a 2-2 stalemate, while Liverpool fans will remember clearly their 6-0 drubbing of Newcastle towards the end of last season.

Since then, both teams have experienced contrasting fortunes: Brendan Rodgers has led his team from a seventh-place finish to being within reach of the title, while Alan Pardew has seen his future publicly questioned by the Geordie faithful.

And while the Liverpool fans at Anfield will be looking to give their heroes a much-deserved ovation during the post-match lap of honor, they will also be keeping a keen eye on developments at the Etihad Stadium, where a West Ham United win over Manchester City could mean that Liverpool wrest the title back if they do the business at Anfield.

As we continue our preview series in the buildup to this pivotal final-day clash—click here for our Liverpool lineup for the match—let’s take a closer look at a few scenarios that may decide how Sunday’s game will pan out.

 

A Tale of Set Pieces

Since the departure of Yohan Cabaye over the January transfer window, Newcastle United have desperately lacked a talisman and game-changer from set pieces.

And this has been a big enough issue to catch the attention of The Chronicle’s Neil Cameron, who highlighted that only Hull City, Norwich City and Cardiff City have scored fewer times from a set piece than Newcastle have this season.

By contrast, Liverpool have been the most prolific from dead-ball situations. Steven Gerrard, due to his unerring corners and free-kicks, has racked up a joint league-high assist count (12, alongside fellow teammate Luis Suarez), while Martin Skrtel has scored seven goals this season.

In their ultimately calamitous collapse against Crystal Palace last Monday (more on that later), the Reds took the lead from an 18th-minute corner from an unlikely source: Joe Allen.

 

Sky SportsGranted, this goal was as much down to Liverpool’s movement on set pieces as it was to Crystal Palace’s lackluster marking—not a Tony Pulis hallmark—but Allen’s shuffle from the front post to the back post (white circle and white arrow) could have taken his marker Joe Ledley (blue circle and blue arrow) by surprise.

It was that simple front-to-back-post run that caused trouble in the Eagles’ penalty area, especially because Palace captain Mile Jedinak’s tussle with Luis Suarez in front of Julian Speroni (yellow circle) actually became an obstacle to Ledley’s belated defensive adjustment, leaving an entire area unmarked for Allen to place his header (red box).

Gerrard’s deliveries have caused Liverpool’s opponents endless trouble this season. Newcastle have been warned.

 

The Suarez-Sturridge Connection

For our second film analysis, let’s revisit October’s 2-2 draw at St James’ Park and look at the last goal of the contest, a Daniel Sturridge equalizer that showcased the best of the electrifying SAS partnership (Raheem Sterling hadn’t returned to the Liverpool first team yet, which shows just how impressive his turnaround has been this season).

This graphic looks a bit more complicated, given that it comes two moves before the actual goal, but bear with us here.

 

BBC Match of the DayVictor Moses was on the ball on the Liverpool left flank, with Suarez bursting through the center of the pitch (white circle and white arrow) to get into an entire 20-yard area vacated for him (red box). The dotted red line indicates the first pass that set off this move, as Moses found an inch-perfect ball into Suarez’s stride.

Occupying the Newcastle defence’s attention, however, was more than Suarez’s run. Sturridge embarked on an almost parallel run to Suarez’s, charging into the box at the same time as his partner in crime (blue circle and blue arrow).

As Suarez found space and controlled the ball after evading the home defenders, he put in a lofted ball into Sturridge‘s path for an easy header into the back of Tim Krul’s net. It was a move that displayed not only the creative and attacking force that SAS have represented this season but also how devastating their individual movement can be to the opposing defence.

 

Newcastle’s High Defensive Line

Chelsea and Jose Mourinho received plenty of criticism for the way the Blues sat back and defended during their 2-0 away win at Anfield a couple of weeks ago, but in hindsight, sitting deep and absorbing pressure from Liverpool was perhaps one of the only ways to deal with the Reds’ electrifying attack.

As we show in our third scenario, perhaps Newcastle and AlanPardew could’ve done with some useful tips from Mourinho when they hosted Liverpool in October.

We now look back to Liverpool’s first equalizer at St James’ Park, after Yohan Cabaye‘s blistering strike from range had opened the account for Newcastle. To be exact, we look at the passage of play that led to the penalty that Luis Suarez won, which was subsequently scored by Steven Gerrard for his 100th league goal for Liverpool.

 

BBC Match of the DayOne of the defining characteristics of the SAS partnership is that both are not conventional center-forwards, but rather dovetail creatively and unpredictably, with one dropping deep and one bursting forward.

On this occasion, Daniel Sturridge was the one who dropped back to receive the ball in the midfield. He turned to look for Suarez making a run into the Newcastle area (white circle and white arrow).

Sturridge‘s ball (dotted red line) found Suarez impeccably, and the No. 7’s run into the Newcastle area (red box) was essentially unchallenged until Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa caught up with him (blue circle and blue arrow)—albeit too late, as the Frenchman pulled Suarez down, leading to a penalty and a red card.

But the defining aspect of this shot was the curved yellow arc, which indicates the defensive line that Newcastle held in the buildup to this goal. With a turn and run, Suarez left the entire Newcastle defence for dead. Essentially, Alan Pardew was taking a major risk operating so far forward when his opponents had two of the best forwards in the Premier League against him.

 

Liverpool’s Own Defensive Woes

We said we would touch on Liverpool’s collapse against Crystal Palace, so Liverpool fans may want to look away now at this last point.

Hard as it might be, Brendan Rodgers and his team must look back on the match and rue how easily they gave up their three-goal advantage. Of course, Tony Pulis must be afforded a lot of the credit with his attacking substitutions while 0-3 down, but the ease with which the Eagles brushed the Reds aside will have been concerning for Liverpool.

 

Sky Sports
The picture above is a freeze frame of the immediate buildup to Dwight Gayle’s equalizer in the 88th minute. Joel Ward delivered a simple long ball over the top (dotted red line) to Glenn Murray, who chested the ball into Gayle’s path before a cool finish past Simon Mignolet.

The problem came in the marking and defensive positioning displayed by Liverpool’s defenders, as Martin Skrtel (yellow circle) is at fault.

Skrtel, who was supposed to occupy himself with an out-and-out striker (in this case Gayle), found himself with two immediate opponents for him to consider marking. Would he stick with Gayle, who was darting into the box, or would he move to Murray and try to clear the ball by winning a header?

Meanwhile, Glen Johnson (yellow circle), who had turned in an impressive attacking performance in the first half of the contest but found his defensive game severely questioned in the second, found himself in no man’s land as he tried to belatedly match Gayle’s run into the box.

Skrtel’s attempt at winning the header clearly failed, as he didn’t even come close to Murray. The result of this shambolic positioning and decision-making was an equalizer that led to Suarez’s tears at the final whistle.

Fix this kind of defensive shakiness, and Suarez and Co. may be weeping tears of joy in seasons to come.

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Film Focus: Breaking Down Liverpool’s Impressive 3-0 Win over Manchester United

Two Steven Gerrard penalties and a Luis Suarez finish handed Liverpool an impressive 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. And it could’ve been much more.

Besides Steven Gerrard’s performance, which, despite missing his third penalty of the night, was more than enough to see him awarded the Man of the Match, there were a number of interesting talking points from the match.

First was, of course, the sheer number of penalty kicks that referee Mark Clatternburg could have called over the 90 minutes. Marouane Fellaini’s first-half trip on Luis Suarez was let go, while Michael Carrick’s second-half swipe of Daniel Sturridge’s feet after Gerrard’s missed penalty was also not called.

Then there were the decisions that Liverpool perhaps got away with, namely the lack of contact over the visitors’ third penalty, which saw Nemanja Vidic sent off for a fourth time in this fixture for a tackle that didn’t actually connect—and a Glen Johnson handball inside the Liverpool box.

And then, there was David Moyes’ curious decision-making. It wasn’t limited to just deploying record signing and specialist No. 10 Juan Mata on the wings again. It was the lack of instant reaction from the United manager that saw his first substitutions take place on 76 minutes, a full half-hour after the hosts went 2-0 down.

Away from these three general observations, we felt there were four instances that symbolized the match and its eventual outcome. Let’s take a more detailed look at four scenarios that occurred throughout the match.

 

Robin van Persie, deep-lying playmaker?

That Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have spectacularly failed to strike up a useful and threatening strike partnership this season has not gone unnoticed—but their lack of interplay on Sunday will have been very disappointing for Manchester United fans.

More alarming, however, was the manner in which van Persie and Rooney tried to link up with each other (or at least make it seem like they were).

So isolated was van Persie up front that he often drifted out to the left wing in pursuit of the ball, depriving United of any forward presence up front and in theory allowing the supporting midfielders—and Rooney—to charge forward.

But after so many jokes at the Red Devils’ expense in recent months about their crossing-only attacking play, Sunday was yet another exhibition of why their incessant crossing is so unfruitful.

 

BBC Match of the DayAs we see in this first-half shot, van Persie has come so deep that he’s literally on the halfway line (yellow circle on the left). Rooney’s charge forward (yellow circle on the right) brings him level with the last man in the Liverpool defence—Daniel Agger—and there are a full three United players between van Persie and Rooney that the former can look to go through.

Instead, his next move is to play a cross-field ball that ends up cleared away all too easily by the Liverpool rearguard. Not a very inspiring attacking approach.

The sad thing was, this was only one of the many times this sequence occurred.

 

Manchester United’s undisciplined defending

By our count, Liverpool could’ve easily had five penalties called on Sunday—a remarkable stat given that their first, after Rafael da Silva’s handball against Luis Suarez, was the first penalty conceded at Old Trafford in the Premier League since December 2011.

While Rafael’s handball was all down to individual carelessness (and he could arguably have been issued a second yellow card), the second penalty was very much down to a collective lack of discipline in the United defence.

In the immediate buildup to the penalty, Jordan Henderson deserves much of the credit for spotting an excellent Joe Allen run into the box and then producing an exquisite flick over the top to find his fellow midfielder. Allen’s use of the body allows him to take control of the ball, which puts the United defence under pressure.

But let’s take a look at the positional errors that the hosts have committed in this single piece of defensive play.

 

BBC Match of the DayThis freeze frame, taken right as Henderson is about to release the ball to Allen, comes on the back of a long ball over the top towards Raheem Sterling on the right side of the penalty box, where he is only tracked by Nemanja Vidic.

United left-back Patrice Evra (blue circle on the left) arrives late on the scene and is dragged back by the ball, while Marouane Fellaini (blue circle on the right) also follows the ball into a zone very much out of his own. Evra and Fellaini have almost switched positions here—bear in mind that Evra should have been tracking Sterling and Fellaini, as the defensive midfielder, should have picked up Henderson or Allen.

These positional errors leave centre-backs Phil Jones and Vidic exposed and under pressure from Allen’s run, as Vidic (yellow circle on the right) is also dragged toward the ball and thus behind Allen’s run (white arrow).

Jones’ disadvantageous starting point (yellow circle on the left) means that he could’ve left Vidic come into Allen’s path (red box) and tackled on his right foot, but the former’s rash movement bundles Allen over and concedes the penalty.

2-0 to the visitors.

 

The movement and magic of Suarez and Sturridge

It’s a testament to how badly United fared that Liverpool didn’t even really get out of their first gear over the 90 minutes and still came away with a comprehensive win.

Arguably the most impressive (and productive) piece of forward play from the Reds’ league-leading strike force came when Luis Suarez took advantage of a Daniel Sturridge mishit and finished with aplomb past David de Gea to take the score to 3-0.

 

BBC Match of the DayAs we see in this freeze frame, the dotted red line represents the path Sturridge would undoubtedly have wanted his shot to have taken. If that shot would’ve gone through, David de Gea, who had just forced the corner from which this play started after a brilliant stop from Luis Suarez at point-blank range, could’ve been equal to it, or perhaps parried it out for another corner.

Instead it hits Phil Jones and lands at Suarez’s feet, who controls and finishes it with his left foot past de Gea.

That this play started from a corner was instrumental in the buildup to the goal. Martin Skrtel had stayed forward after the corner and made his presence felt in the penalty area: Jones (yellow circle) has his attentions occupied by Skrtel.

Patrice Evra (blue circle) is once again in no-man’s land as he is woefully out of position once more, while none of United’s players tracked the brilliant run that Suarez timed to perfection. As a result, Jones is caught in two minds, and by the time the ball arrives at Suarez’s feet, Jones and all of his defensive colleagues are nowhere near Liverpool’s No. 7, who couldn’t miss from there.

While the goal ultimately came about in a fortuitous manner, with the ball ricocheting off Jones’ legs to find Suarez, the manner of the runs and the positioning in the buildup suggest that this goal could very easily have been conjured deliberately.

If Sturridge had spotted Suarez’s run and decided to play him in with a deft pass, Suarez would still have been in with an easy finish. More importantly, while Sturridge inadvertently turned creator here, it’s not difficult at all to envision a role reversal here, with Suarez pulling the strings and feeding Sturridge through with an exquisite pass.

The fact that both of Liverpool’s strikers could have played either part in this goal shows exactly why the Reds are increasingly far and away the most prolific scorers in the Premier League.

 

Liverpool still have a midfield problem

With all this said, however, we will also pick one scenario that focuses on the deficiencies that Liverpool still have, even if it wasn’t at all exploited during the game. It’s just as food for thought and a note of caution for Reds fans.

 

BBC Match of the DayThe scene shown here is a Manchester United attack—their only shot on target during the entire 90 minutes—toward the end of the first half, from which Wayne Rooney forced a good reactive save from Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.

Toward the bottom of the screen, Rafael is on the charge with the ball on the right flank. Right before this scene, Rafael’s good combination play with Adnan Januzaj leaves Jon Flanagan for dead, and the Liverpool defender is now forced to chase back after missing his initial tackle (blue circle and arrow).

As Daniel Agger is drawn out of position to mark the supporting Januzaj and Martin Skrtel is trying to maintain a presence in the penalty box, it’s now left to Steven Gerrard to track back and cover for Flanagan’s positional mishap (yellow circle and arrow).

However, Gerrard’s run toward United’s right means that his customary central defensive midfield zone has been left vacant, leaving a huge gap in the middle (red box) for Wayne Rooney (white circle) to storm into.

Rafael does subsequently find Rooney on the edge of the area, and the United forward unleashes a shot that Mignolet parries.

Fortunately for Liverpool, they held out to end the half 1-0 up and scored immediately after the second half.

From there on out, it was just a matter of wrapping up the three points. But as convincing as Liverpool looked on Sunday, they still have some work to do on the training ground.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.