Liverpool closed out 2020 with a second straight draw on a frustrating night at Newcastle, with a 0-0 stalemate at least keeping us three clear at the top.
Newcastle 0-0 Liverpool
Premier League (16), St James’ Park
December 30, 2020
Nat gets the nod
With no Matip (or Gomez, or Virgil), the boss had one call to make even before the game: go with the inexperienced youngster, the even more inexperienced but somewhat older ‘youngster’, or an out-of-position senior.
It was Nat Phillips who got the call, a third start of the season and a fourth appearance for the Reds overall.
The 23-year-old is dependable, reliable and certainly committed – his strengths and limitations are evident, and it’s a matter of making the calls as to which matches he’s best-suited for.
He dominated even the likes of Joelinton in the air, but struggled on the ground with Callum Wilson’s runs in behind.
But we also saw him fail on the ball on occasion, being closed down or giving it away with long-rangers, while he also took a yellow for the team being extremely slow off the mark covering across the left touchline.
Brexit on the way – so perhaps this was Jurgen Klopp‘s nod of disapproval to a departure he has often ridiculed.
James Milner returned to action to play with Jordan Henderson and Curtis Jones in an all-English midfield; and without wanting to delve too far into analogies, metaphors and political discussions, it sounded alright with the best light shone on it, but didn’t work in practice.
The Reds’ best play in the first half came when the full-backs linked up or the front three were found early, even long from the back, not when the ball went through the central three.
Newcastle also had far more of the early play than would have been expected, with little pace in the middle to close them down after switches of play.
None of them were particularly poor or made a specific error or were hideously below the average of the team.
But as a three, it didn’t bring the dynamism to either attacking intent or defensive relentlessness which has been a requirement of the team for years.
It wasn’t a huge surprise when the first two subs came in the centre of the park to change things around.
Thiago’s early return
He wasn’t due to come back in this game, certainly not according to Klopp, but it was a welcome sight to get our summer signing involved.
The No. 6 came on for the final 17 minutes plus stoppage time and quickly showed his usual top technique and willingness to get the ball forward.
There was to be no fairytale moment of creative genius, but it was still evident that the Reds had missed his intent to look ahead, rather than sideways, first and foremost – and his tenacity to tackle high upfield.
A couple of draws to end the year isn’t ideal, but with one or two of these attack-minded men back in the middle, the weeks ahead should be rather more high-tempo than this game was.
Clinical edge required
Four huge chances, four big misses – that was the story of Liverpool’s slow-paced attack in the first 75 minutes.
Two were good saves in fairness, Karl Darlow denying Mo Salah one-on-one and Bobby Firmino’s header, but then the same forward pair missed great second-half opportunities within five minutes of each other.
In recent form terms, in season-long quality, in all normal circumstances…at least one would be buried, if not two, but at a moment when the Reds needed it most the finishing touch appeared to have deserted the front line.
Another late save and two cleared basically off the line summed up the night of ‘nearly, but not enough’.
Top again, different Liverpool
Last year at this time, although we all had little notion of what lay ahead, we had basically sewn up the league title already.
Now we’re top once more, but the circumstances are very different: more points dropped, more teams grouped closely below us, more injuries, more chance of surprise results in a year with so many caveats.
But, for all that, top.
It’s easy to look at the table and realise the Reds can be caught on points – not goal difference though – and be somewhat distraught, but there is no team in the league which could have come through the challenges we’ve had so far on the injury front and still be above everybody else.
Missed opportunities, but not the last ones. Onto 2021 we go.