Liverpool finished 2020 in disappointing fashion as a spirited Newcastle performance and uncharacteristically wasteful finishing conspired to produce a 0-0 draw at St James’ Park.
Jurgen Klopp’s side still finished the year top of the Premier League table, but will reflect on what could have been on Tyneside as Steve Bruce’s side kept the league’s top-scorers at bay. Here’s what we learned from the match.
1. Phillips struggles to keep up
Everyone knows Liverpool have injury problems. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have been sidelined for some time now, and with the January transfer window on the horizon, we were shown why Liverpool will be in the market for a new defender in 2021.
Nat Phillips made just his third Premier League appearance for the away side and his lack of experience was evident right from the off.
Up against the lively and constantly on-the-move Callum Wilson he looked nervous and sluggish. Isolated one-on-one against the England forward he consistently came up second-best. Early on Wilson dragged Phillips into the left channel, stood him up and then breezed past him. Only the lack of support and a strong Fabinho block kept Wilson’s attempt out.
There were some further sloppy passes into midfield, a stray attempted cross-field switch and a moment when Wilson and Joelinton teamed up to press the 23-year-old and, despite having just 27% of the ball in the first half, Newcastle always looked dangerous thanks to the mismatch between Wilson and Phillips.
Most glaringly, came a late and clumsy challenge on Joelinton which earned him a yellow card in the 78th minute. No goals were conceded, but Phillips looked short of quality.
Klopp has always backed his players, praising Phillips and Rhys Williams in particular over recent months, but it’s clear back-up is needed to sustain Liverpool’s title defence.
2. Newcastle’s renewed endeavour
Steve Bruce has come out swinging against criticism of his side recently, defending his tactics, which many fans view as overly negative. Against the league leaders they certainly made the most of their limited possession.
With Wilson running the channels and stretching Liverpool’s defence and Matt Ritchie and DeAndre Yedlin trying their best to exploit the space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, the Magpies undeniably offered a threat.
Their only shot on target in the first half may have come from a Isaac Hayden longshot. Their best attempt may have been a misdirected Wilson cross. But Newcastle had a coherent game plan which gave Klopp’s side something to think about.
That plan nearly bore fruit when Ciaran Clark headed Ritchie’s deep free-kick towards the bottom corner, but Alisson pulled off a strong diving stop.
Newcastle have had more shots in the opening 20 minutes of this game (4) than they managed in the whole of their home match with Liverpool last season (3).
A bright start from the magpies. pic.twitter.com/efUIud7ODc
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 30, 2020
3. Wasteful Liverpool
Over the past few years we have grown used to seeing Liverpool’s front three gobble up whole chances, half chances and plenty of chances that didn’t even appear to be one at first glance. In short, we have been spoilt by their world-class finishing.
Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are three of the best, most consistent, goal scorers in the Premier League, so it was a surprise to see them so profligate.
There was a poor first touch from Firmino in the first half, which saw him fail to draw in a lovely cross from Robertson. There was hesitation from Salah and then a brilliant save by Karl Darlow after the Egyptian had been played clean through. Then another save from the Newcastle keeper to keep out Firmino’s header from a pinpoint cross by Mane.
After the break came the most staggering of the lot. Firmino slid Salah through on the break, he took the ball perfectly in his stride, cut inside onto his trust left foot and then, inexplicably, placed his shot well wide of the post.
Later on Firmino planted a header wide after Darlow flapped at a cross to complete a disappointing display in front of goal for Klopp’s side.
The fact Klopp wasn’t able to throw on Diogo Jota from the substitutes’ bench underlined Liverpool’s current injury woes; instead he waited until the 92nd minute to bring on Xherdan Shaqiri, with Thiago Alcantara and Georginio Wijnaldum the other replacements on the night.
Mohamed Salah has had two big chances against Newcastle.
He’s missed them both. pic.twitter.com/F2JRGhP7h5
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 30, 2020
4. Darlow to the rescue
As poor as Liverpool’s finishing was, by their lofty standards, praise must be handed out to Darlow, who was exceptional.
The former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper has been in confident form recently – and he has had to be. Before this game only West Bromwich Albion’s Sam Johnstone (66) had made more saves than Darlow’s 63 in the Premier League and he more than caught the eye against the champions.
As disappointed as Salah will be not to score his one-on-one opportunity in the first half, it was a brilliant intervention by Darlow, who stretched out a right arm to save the ball when it was almost behind him.
His stops to keep out two Firmino headers – one in either half – were just as impressive, with the last, an instinctive stop from a powerful connection in a crowded penalty area, deservedly earning him the man of the match award.
In this sort of form, you have to wonder whether Darlow could be in contention for an England spot, alongside Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope.
5. Reds struggling against bottom sides
While Liverpool can still, of course, reflect on a job well done over 2020 – for the third year in a row, no Premier League team won more points than Klopp’s side – they can also mull over their few failings.
The goalless draw against Newcastle means Liverpool have now failed to beat four of the bottom six. The Magpies’ point takes them above Crystal Palace into 14th, but the results against the struggling sides is a clear area of weakness so far this season.
The Reds can add the 0-0 draw at St James’ Park to 1-1 draws against Fulham, West Brom and Brighton. Breaking down deep-set defences when you have lots of possession is a difficult skill, but one top teams need to master if they are to pull away from the chasing pack.
Liverpool finish the year three points clear of Manchester United in second place, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have a game in hand and it is conceivable that dropped points against those they would expect to beat could prove to be the difference come the end of the campaign.