Football Features

What Liverpool can learn from past Newcastle and Man Utd woes to win their first Premier League

By Ben Green

Published: 11:40, 10 October 2019

Having made a perfect start to the new campaign, Liverpool are well and truly on course to win a first-ever Premier League title.

It has been nearly 30 years since Koppites last tasted top-flight success. But with eight consecutive wins and an eight-point gap over Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City, that long wait may be about to end.

Such has been the early dominance of Jurgen Klopp’s side that the Reds head into the forthcoming international break with the biggest lead after eight matches in Premier League history. And with just one league defeat last season, the European champions look good value to maintain their current run and not catastrophically slip up further down the line.

However, while an eight-point lead looks almost insurmountable at this point, there have been bigger margins overcome in the era of Premier League football.

In the 1997/98 season, Arsenal were 13 points behind leaders Manchester United in December before famously transforming their fortunes and winning the title. The Red Devils themselves were 12 points adrift table-toppers Newcastle in 1995/96 before embarking on a resurgence of their own to disintegrate Geordie hearts.

These are the two biggest title-chase point margins overturned in Premier League history, but what went wrong for Newcastle and Man Utd in ’96 and ’98? And what can Liverpool learn from both club’s mistakes to not follow in a similar capitulatory vein?

Liverpool must make statement in Man City games

This one seems fairly obvious, but a pattern – as far as patterns can be discerned between two things – emerges in 1995/96, 1997/98 and even with last season, when Liverpool conceded a seven-point lead established on Boxing Day.

In Man Utd’s title-winning campaign in 1995/96, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won both the home and away matches against the Magpies: 2-0 at Old Trafford, and 1-0 at St James’ Park.

Similarly in 1997/98, Arsenal clinched victory in both matches against Man Utd, with Arsene Wenger’s side enjoying a 3-2 win at Highbury and a famous 1-0 away win in the North West.

Compare that to last season, in which Liverpool’s sole defeat came against eventual champions Man City, while the reverse fixture yielded just the single point.

We can even delve a little further. In 1992/93 leaders Norwich City had a 12-point lead over Man Utd by December, but Ferguson’s side beat the Canaries in both fixtures to win the inaugural Premier League title, while in 1996/97 Liverpool had a 10-point advantage over Man Utd – also in December – but the Red Devils claimed three points in both games against Roy Evans’ men to lift the trophy.

In these five campaigns, the challengers have failed win any of the games against the resulting champions, a similar story this term would reduce the gap at the summit to just two points and could shatter Merseyside dreams.

Liverpool are yet to face Guardiola’s side this season, of course. Their first encounter is next month. To keep up the pressure, Klopp can make a big statement by bucking the trend outlined above.

Squad harmony

Many pinpointed Newcastle’s decline in 1995/96 as having been influenced by the arrival of Faustino Asprilla in January, notably as the Magpies picked up just 21 points from 14 fixtures following the Colombian’s arrival.

The former Parma attacker showed flashes of brilliance and glimmers of world-class quality towards the latter stages of Newcastle’s slump, but Les Ferdinand – top scorer that year – explained how “Keegan wanted to get me and Tino Asprilla into the side together, which I felt made us a bit lop-sided and lost our threat.”

While the narrative certainly points to Asprilla being the cause for decline, that would not paint the entire picture, as he was one of Newcastle’s more influential players during the second half of that season, performing in key games, notably against West Ham and Middlesbrough.

Peter Beardsley has previously described the notion of Asprilla being the root of the problem as an “absolute disgrace”, while Ferdinand has since come out and pinned the cause down to “not having any tactics”.

So it may have been that Keegan simply struggled to create the perfect blend between his attackers, upsetting the balance of his squad when it wasn’t perhaps necessary – Newcastle had accumulated 57 points from 24 games prior to signing Asprilla.

Klopp himself has spoken about refusing to sign players just for the sake of having more options, previously stating: “If we bring in a player, it’s because I like them. There’s no Plan B, or C – it will be Plan A.”

It’s clear that squad harmony is a key component of Klopp’s philosophy, but there are some factors he will not be able to influence, and neither could Keegan. First-choice ‘keeper Shaka Hislop picked up an injury midway through the 1995/96 season and was replaced for the rest of the campaign by Pavel Srnicek, while Keith Gillespie also visited the treatment table at crucial parts of the campaign.

Liverpool have already had problems on this front with Alisson featuring just once this campaign, while Joel Matip has been out for the last two matches.

Klopp will also know that a problem down the line to any of his front three will have serious implications for their aspirations. Just look at Man City against Wolves over the weekend without the injured Kevin De Bruyne.

But this is where Klopp has been so successful, maintaining a largely consistent frontline. In 1997/98 Arsenal flourished with the partnership of Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright, while Man Utd had Eric Cantona and Andy Cole in 1995/96.

This season Klopp has maintained his formidable trident of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, making for a very coherent and fluid frontline. Meanwhile, Guardiola seems to change his XI on a weekly basis, such is the embarrassment of attacking riches at his disposal; his selection headache will also enhance threefold when Leroy Sane returns.

Klopp must ensure there are no disruptions in his squad and not jeopardise the balance. They would be wise to avoid scenes such as those on show in the away win against Burnley, in which Mane appeared to get angry with Salah for not passing him the ball.

Away form

Anfield has been a fortress for Liverpool in recent times, with the club currently on 44-match unbeaten run in the league, stretching back to April 2017.

This may be an impressive feat, but Klopp must guarantee that his side’s intensity levels do not waver on their travels, as poor away form ultimately cost Newcastle the title in 1995/96 and Man Utd in 1997/98.

Keegan’s side lost eight times in 1995/96, with just one of those defeats coming on home turf, against Man Utd, while the Red Devils were beaten seven times in 1997/98, five of which came on the road compared to just two at Old Trafford.

It’s clear these two sides were able to generate top-level displays when performing under the lights, with tens of thousands enthusiastic Geordies and Mancunians urging them on. But when faced with the ominous prospect of hostile away atmospheres, they crumbled at times.

Creating a sanctuary at home is vital for any title-winning side, but that form must be replicated away from the comforts of home territory if Liverpool want to be in the running come May.

The Reds haven’t necessarily shown that propensity to falter away from home, but last season they dropped points in eight matches (seven draws, one loss) with just two of those incidents taking place at Anfield.

This is still a highly impressive achievement, and any other year the Reds would have a Premier League trophy in their illustrious cabinet to brag about, but City have set the bar at an unprecedented level, and Liverpool must now follow suit or face another season without domestic silverware.