Liverpool's familiar failings lead to frustrating 1-1 draw at Newcastle
NEWCASTLE, England -- Three points on Liverpool's frustrating draw against former boss Rafa Benitez at St. James' Park:
1. Liverpool's defence causes more dropped points
It's the same old story for Liverpool. Few teams attack like them, and few teams thrill like them. They're dominant in the middle but at the ends of the pitch, they are distinctly ordinary. A draw away at St. James' Park, where Newcastle have only conceded once in the league since the first day of the season, is not a bad result. But there is no escaping the fact that Liverpool took the lead through another wonderful Philippe Coutinho long-range effort, erred at the back for Newcastle's equaliser and were too profligate to redeem themselves.
Liverpool haven't kept a clean sheet in any competition since beating Arsenal 4-0 in August (interestingly, Arsenal also haven't conceded in the league since then), and their hopes of doing so on Sunday were ended 10 minutes before half-time. In a moment that brought back memories of the Reds' heavy defeat at Manchester City, Jonjo Shelvey split their centre-backs with a delicious ball for Joselu, Joel Matip went up through the gears, racing back to prevent his shot with a lunging challenge, but the defender only managed to clip the ball off the Spaniard's shin pad and into the goal.
The goal came at a time when Liverpool appeared to be taking control; they would never regain their grip on the game.
While early chances for either side were restricted to a handful of efforts from distance, Liverpool were the more ambitious of the two teams, pushing their defence up to the halfway line (and occasionally beyond) hoping to burn through the Magpies' back line.
Mohamed Salah should have done far better when he ran through on 19 minutes, only to over-hit the ball and lose out to an alert DeAndre Yedlin. Daniel Sturridge, who played the pass to release Salah, went even closer four minutes later, heading Coutinho's corner off the post. Dejan Lovren's follow-up was blocked on the line by Jamaal Lascelles, and Sadio Mane slammed the loose ball past the outside of the post.
But nothing could stop Coutinho. On 29 minutes, he picked up the ball, turning inside Matt Ritchie and Shelvey before unleashing an unstoppable effort from 25 yards that tore through the air past the outstretched fingers of Rob Elliot and into the back of the net. Once again, the Brazil international vindicates the club's decision to resist Barcelona's overtures.
But no matter how much Liverpool dominate and no matter how many chances they create, they're always vulnerable to the counterattack, and 10 minutes before the break, Shelvey cut them open. Until the Reds eradicate this vulnerability, they will remain outsiders.
2. Benitez arranges Newcastle to perfection
Rafa Benitez is still adored by the Liverpool supporters, and the feeling is very much mutual, but when he emerged from the tunnel at St. James' Park, he was met by a vast banner proclaiming the loyalty of Newcastle's Gallowgate End. As rumours swirl about a possible takeover bid, the supporters seemed keen to remind any potential owner that the changes should be limited to the boardroom. After all, they already have the manager they want.
Newcastle had only conceded five goals this season before kickoff, a feat all the more impressive for the fact that it's been achieved on relatively meagre resources, with both their full-backs having been found wanting at Tottenham (in the case of DeAndre Yedlin) and Liverpool (in the case of Javier Manquillo). But then you suspect that Benitez could grab four men out of the crowd and fashion a half-decent backline. Throughout the game, he was barking orders from the sidelines, ushering the line out when it dropped too deep, compelling his wingers to drop back and provide cover for their full-backs.
The second half was a fiery affair with both Ayoze Perez and Joe Gomez going in the book before the hour mark. Klopp shuffled his pack, swapping his wide men and pushing Salah into the middle, but Newcastle were always able to hold firm. This has never been a club blessed with defensive stability. How Liverpool could do with a bit of that to complement their exceptional attacking.
3. Goal should boost Joselu's confidence
Benitez has been a keen observer of Joselu for many years, watching his metamorphosis from Real Madrid hopeful to peripatetic underachiever. But there is a player in there. The St. James' Park faithful can see it. They stood to applaud Joselu off the park when he was withdrawn 11 minutes from time.
Benitez can see it too. He's strong enough to hold the ball up, clever enough to use it well and he does, in spite of recent evidence to the contrary, have a finish on him. Perhaps this goal will lift his confidence enough for him to prove it on a consistent basis.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.