NEWCASTLE, England – Liverpool finished 2020 at the top of the Premier League and in pole position to finish the season as champions, but Wednesday 0-0 tie with Newcastle United at St. James’ Park proved that not everything is the same as 12 months ago.
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The first goalless draw between the two clubs since 1974 highlighted a crucial difference between today’s Liverpool and the team that relegated to the pursuit squad in the first half of last season. A year ago, Liverpool got the points by finding the fatal touch in tight games and winning when places were tight. But in St James’s, Liverpool failed to open the scoring and turn a point into three, despite clear odds from Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
This will be a permanent problem and explains why Liverpool will be stuck in the title race in 2021 and will no longer be at the top like it was a year ago.
We had a tie tonight and we’re still at the top of the list. It shows how difficult the season is for everyone, says Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Klopp and Liverpool may be making lemonade with their lemons, but at the moment it lacks sweetness. Last season Liverpool’s ability to find a decisive winner in difficult races like this was crucial to their success. They have won 14 championship games with a one-point lead over their opponents, but this time they have only been able to do so four times.
When Firmino scored two weeks ago in the 90th minute of the 2-1 victory over Anfield against Tottenham, it was the first time he was involved. When the winner arrived on the 42nd minute, it seemed that normal play had resumed. The 7-0 victory at Crystal Palace three days later was a brutal warning that Liverpool had found their feet and would inevitably leave us alone.
But Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to relegation-threatened West Brom was the result that Liverpool had always managed to turn into a victory last season. The same goes for this game in Newcastle. Concerned for Klopp, Liverpool managed only a single two-and-a-half penalty against West Bromwich Albion, and his side repeated that statistic at St James’s Stadium.
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Lack of creativity in midfield is a factor. Liverpool’s central midfielders only picked up three assists during the season. The full-backs continue to score goals, seven of them from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, but opponents have learned to stifle Liverpool in midfield. The return of Thiago Alcantara as second replacement for Newcastle, more than two months after his last performance against Everton, is positive for Klopp and the Spaniard will make the difference, but Liverpool cannot afford the luxury of the huge lead he had in his head a year ago at the moment and has to fight for his crown.
Although they finished 2019 with 13 points for second place Leicester City, which played one game less than the Foxes, the delayed start to the season due to the coronavirus pandemic means that year-on-year comparisons do not fairly represent the poor profitability of Liverpool. But after 16 games last season, Liverpool took eight points with 15 wins and a tie. They are now three points away from second-placed Manchester United, which could sign with Liverpool if they win their game against Aston Villa on Friday.
Klopp’s eleven are only three points behind in 40th place after 16 matches. Last season Palace finished second in terms of goals, but Palace’s seven goals somewhat distorted the picture. After losing points to West Brom, Fulham and Brighton & Hove Albion, the inability to earn points when it comes down to it becomes a problem for Klopp.
We didn’t score enough points in the other games, he answered forcefully when he was asked to explain the inability to turn a tie into a victory. Not writing down is only a problem if you don’t create. When you create something, it’s just a moose. If you keep creating, you win. I know we’re gonna score again, that’s the way it is. That’s not a problem now.
Liverpool should have scored more than one goal at St James’. Salah sent in two close attempts, Firmino did well to save a header from Newcastle goalkeeper Carl Darlow, and Mane was unable to shoot on goal until the second half when Fabian Ball was away on the goal line.
But the goal didn’t come, and Klopp even replaced the wandering Salah at the end of the game to find a way out. With defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez ruled out earlier in the season due to prolonged knee injuries, Liverpool feared their defensive problems would become an obstacle on the way to the title. But the reality is that it is the lack of ruthlessness on the other side of the field that is holding Liverpool back.
A year ago they wiped out the rest because they were so good at closing teams, but now their inability to do so keeps the title game going.