This weekend Liverpool face a daunting away trip to St James’ Park. Despite doing the double over Newcastle last year, the Reds finished four points behind them as Eddie Howe’s men clinched the final Champions League qualification spot.
It was a richly deserved achievement for a team that was exceptional in 2022/23, and they have started this campaign strongly.
What can we expect from this clash of North East vs. North West?
Ghost of Liverpool Past
Howe’s Newcastle resembles the early Liverpool sides under Jurgen Klopp. They play an aggressive, physical 4-3-3. The wingers stay narrow and lead a high press.
In possession they’re often direct, firing the ball forwards early and then squeezing up the pitch as a unit to win the second ball and suffocate the opponent.
The midfield is comprised of hardworking, physically dominant players like Joelinton, Bruno Guimaraes, and Sandro Tonali, who can be relied upon to win the ball and move it forward. They have a creative fullback in Kieran Trippier, but their remaining defenders are all tall and powerful in 1v1s. Add in the speed of their frontline and Newcastle can press you to death, score on the counter, foul you to stop counters, and defend deep to an exceptional standard.
Klopp has often said he wants Liverpool to be “the team you hate to play against.” With their physicality, their tenacity, and their sheer force of will, Newcastle currently holds that title.
Since the end of last season, Liverpool have deployed a 3-box-3 shape. This sees Trent Alexander-Arnold invert into the center of the pitch from the right-back position, partnering a defensive midfielder, with two #8s pushing up to play as #10s in front of them. Andy Robertson slides across to form a back three, while the wingers hug the touchlines to provide width.
This is part of Liverpool’s evolution towards a technical, possession-based style, which they adopted to break down teams who sit deep. However, signing players for this style has left them vulnerable when engaged in physical battles, which were once a key strength of Klopp’s side.
Besides new signing Wataru Endo, Liverpool has no specialist defensive midfielder, and opponents have found it easy to cut through the middle at will. The back three also leaves gaps out wide for opponents to attack directly, and when the backline shuffles across to defend, they leave lots of space in the middle for runners to invade.
If Liverpool’s pass-and-move attacking play clicks, they’re devastating. But they’re also liable to lose the ball and invite counterattacks through their soft center. It makes for an entertaining approach, but not a reliably successful one.
How will they line up?
With Alexis Mac Allister’s suspension overturned, we’ll likely be unchanged from the first two games. Endo could get his first start in place of Diogo Jota if Klopp decides to use Gakpo further forward. The Dutchman’s habit of dropping into midfield from that position could give Liverpool an overload against Newcastle’s midfield.
Newcastle will likely keep the same lineup from the City game, depending on the fitness of Joelinton who limped off in the second half. One change could be new signing Harvey Barnes in for Anthony Gordon, using the former Leicester man’s knack for playing one-twos around the defense to get 1v1 with the keeper. As Ibrahima Konaté slides across to cover Alexander-Arnold, there may be a gap for Barnes to exploit.
How will this game go?
The theme of this game will be Newcastle’s intense press versus Liverpool’s attempts to beat it.
Newcastle will press high from build-up, using Alisson’s first pass as the trigger. The three forwards will stay narrow, with all three midfielders backing them up in an attempt to force Liverpool to go long.
If Liverpool do so, Newcastle will expect their giant backline to win any aerial duels. They did in the meeting at Anfield last season, where Liverpool were second best but grabbed a dramatic late winner.
As we did on our last visit to St James’ Park, Liverpool will likely try to play through the press with the ball on the ground.
The 3-box-3 shape is well set up to do this: there are two pivot players in the center to progress the ball and a direct pass to both wingers high up the pitch.
However, Liverpool will use several players out of position in this shape, which is a risk. The pivot players, for example, should be comfortable receiving the ball facing their own goal, with pressure coming from behind. Alexander-Arnold’s skillset is about receiving the ball without pressure, facing the opponent’s goal, with time to pick one of his world-class creative passes.
Asking him to play in the pivot is risky, as we saw when his heavy touch led to an early goal conceded against Bournemouth.
Against the intensity of Newcastle’s press, this could be dangerous. The availability of Mac Allister alongside him is a huge boost, as he’s the perfect player for the pivot when it comes to building out from the back. However, as we’ve seen already, neither he nor Alexander-Arnold are exceptional defenders in that position.
Cody Gakpo is also forced to play in one of the two #10 roles, rather than his preferred false #9 position. While he’s an intelligent and industrious presser, he loses too many tackles to play in midfield – against Chelsea he won just 4 of his 10 duels.
Who will come out on top?
On current form, Newcastle should be slight favorites. Liverpool did win on their last visit to Newcastle though, and one moment showed how they can do it again.
With Newcastle unable to win the ball high up, they settle into a compact block. Mo Salah pulls out to receive the ball, dragging out a defender. Meanwhile, Gakpo moves into the space Salah just created.
A great one-touch pass later and Gakpo is free to make it 2-0.
Both of Newcastle’s previous opponents tried this same approach of playing through their press. Manchester City ground out a 1-0 win, while Aston Villa were destroyed 5-1. The question is, will Liverpool be a City or a Villa?
Newcastle vs. Liverpool takes place on Sunday, August 27th. Don’t forget to listen to the American Scouser pre-match chat an hour before kickoff, and the post-match analysis after the game, on YouTube, X, or Facebook.