I woke up early on Sunday morning, partly because my cat decided that I was going to wake up early and partly because I was really interested in watching Everton-Burnley before Newcastle kicked off against Liverpool later in the day. I knew it wouldn’t be a particularly good game, but I wanted to watch because a.) Sean Dyche manages every Burnley match like he’s going up against Liverpool, and b.) Everton are really just not good so far this season, so there was a good chance I would see a team hunker down and take chances when they came to get points on the road, which is exactly what I saw. I knew that Newcastle’s chances of success would be tied to how closely they mirrored Burnley’s style today, and I hoped that watching Burnley succeed would get some good vibrations going for the marquee matchup.
At around halftime, my phone buzzed to tell me that the Newcastle and Liverpool lineups were available. There were a few things I was hoping to see, but I was particularly interested to see if Rafa Benítez would insert Shelvey into the starting XI against his former club, ending his spell in the wilderness of substitution appearances following his early season suspension. Sure enough, there he was, sitting next to Mikel Merino in the center of the pitch.
After a truly poor first match against Tottenham and a handful of sub appearances that told us little about how things would play out moving forward, it’s exciting to see that Jonjo Shelvey is back in his full Jonjo Shelvey form. Shelvey and Merino sat in the middle of a formation that faced the pressure of Liverpool’s active attacking four and bent but did not break, allowing only two shots on Rob Elliot’s goal. In the attack, Shelvey returned to his old form of delivering from the back like a bald Andrea Pirlo, including this sublime ball leading to Joselu’s goal:
Unfortunately, we regret to inform you that, while Shelvey is back, it means that ALL of Shelvey is back. From the opening whistle, Shelvey seemed hellbent on making up for lost time by hitting wonder goal after wonder goal. All of Shelvey’s run of play touches within 30 yards, every one of them, turned immediately into a shot, two of which were blocked and one of which turned into a transition chance for the one team that can’t be given chances in transition. Additionally, while Shelvey’s defensive positioning and discipline were praiseworthy, his actual efforts at defending weren’t, as he attempted exactly zero tackles through 90 minutes of play, compared to Merino’s eight. While no one should take anything away from Coutinho on his spectacular goal, Shelvey did himself no favors, backing away from the Brazilian and giving him all the space he needed to do what he does best.
That masterful Coutinho goal! pic.twitter.com/upSoFA7Kai— Fields Of Anfield Rd (@FOARsite) October 1, 2017
There has been plenty of clamor for Shelvey to move into the attacking midfield in place of Ayoze Pérez, and while Ayoze has yet to cover himself in glory in that role, I still feel that Shelvey is positionally where he should be on the pitch, at least until a more solid central midfielder is brought in to play alongside Merino. Unless and until such a player is added to the roster, Newcastle will have to do as it has for almost two years; namely, celebrate the play of Dr. Jonjo and accept the difficulties of Mr. Shelvey.
Other things I liked and didn’t like in this match:
- Sunday marked the first time Rafa employed DeAndre Yedlin and Javier Manquillo simultaneously, playing the latter out of position at left back next to Ciaran Clark and behind Christian Atsu. I believed at the beginning of the season that this would be Newcastle’s best fullback pairing, and, Chancel Mbemba’s incredible play at left back notwithstanding, it is likely to continue to be for the foreseeable future. Both players performed well, facing what is likely to be the most difficult wing play to defend and holding Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to a combined three shots (none on target) while Yedlin led all players with five blocks. Manquillo was occasionally caught out of position, which is to be expected given his lack of experience at left back, but with fullback depth such as it is, this will probably be the pairing Rafa goes with more often than not moving forward.
- Newcastle United continued its trend of conceding possession to any and all opponents this season, having the ball for only 32% of Sunday’s match. While this is to be expected against a side like Liverpool and isn’t in itself a fatal trait, Newcastle also did little with the ball when it had possession, completing only 68% of its passes and being dispossessed 15 times, two more than Liverpool. This carelessness on the ball did not cost Newcastle the match on Sunday, but for a club to concede possession and hope to succeed, it needs to take better care of the ball when the opportunity is given.
- As mentioned, the key to succeeding against a side like Liverpool is positional discipline and individual responsibility. Newcastle managed a point in the match largely due to its execution of these two points. Look at the positional map below, with Newcastle on the left and Liverpool on the right. I want to frame it. I want to hold its hand. I want to meet its parents. With the totally nitpicky exceptions of Atsu’s playing more centrally than usual and Joselu sitting deep, this is the platonic ideal of discipline of formation. While this is likely due in large part to midweek strategy from Rafa, personnel changes certainly helped - Merino and Shelvey played their parts beautifully, while the latter replaced a player in Isaac Hayden who has struggled with positional discipline thus far in the campaign. Liverpool is a better team than Newcastle, as are many clubs in the Premier League, but the discipline and accountability exhibited Sunday will be a key factor in success this season.
- Plenty of footballing legends with attachments to both sides were in attendance on Sunday, but the most hay has understandably been made about the appearance of Amanda Stavely, an English financier of primarily Middle Eastern investing parties who has expressed in the past her interest in negotiating the takeover of a Premier League club. Given the news of the past week that multiple parties have signed non-disclosure agreements and are in talks with purchasing Newcastle United, it can be tempting for Newcastle supporters to do their best Hercule Poirot impressions. However, it should be noted that Stavely was tied to a takeover of our Sunday opponent Liverpool this summer, meaning that, as dearly as most supporters want to make the bad man go away, it might be a touch too early to make “It’s Happening gif” the top-searched term in Newcastle just yet.