Before Kick-Off

This could probably be its own 300-page book, but I’ll try to keep things tidy here.

For the newer/younger fans, Newcastle were known as the “Entertainers” in this era. All attack, little defense. (Picture a far less annoying version of the ’13-’14 Liverpool squad.)

The manager, Kevin Keegan, wasn’t known for tactics. It wasn’t that he had regressive tactics – I mean that he literally had no tactical gameplans. Keegan was a master motivator, and a fantastic recruiter of talent. This meant when the playing squad was balanced on the pitch, things worked devastatingly well. But if one or more pieces didn’t fit for a particular match’s selection, things went sideways.

Newcastle were outstanding the first half of the season, and as of the 4th of February, they had a 12-point lead on Manchester United.

But two important things happened: Faustino Asprilla and David Batty were purchased in the February transfer window. While very good players in their own right (especially in Tino’s case), their addition to the team caused more confusion than it did clarity for the rest of the Newcastle squad.

This game against Liverpool, a title challenger in their own right, was critical for Man United’s, Liverpool’s, and Newcastle’s seasons. On the 3rd of April, the table looked like this:

Starting XIs

Liverpool played a 3-4-1-2, while Newcastle played a sort of 4-4-1-1.

Liverpool’s Approach

Playing a 3-4-1-2, Liverpool’s wingbacks often went unmarked by the oppositions wide midfielders.

By using their wingers (particularly McAteer) and also giving McManaman a free role behind the strikers, Liverpool’s attack was very capable of pulling a defense apart on their day.

Newcastle’s Approach

Before the month of March 1996, Newcastle were a pure route one side. Ginola and Gillespie raced down the flanks, and bombed in crosses. Peter Beardsley (one of the absolute greats) linked the midfield to Les Ferdinand, in a sort of “9.5” position. They were an attack-minded side, through and through.

When Tino Asprilla & David Batty were added to the side, the balance of the team’s place became unsettled. Tino eventually took Beardsley’s spot as a deep-lying forward, Beardsley took Gillespie’s spot on the right flank, and Batty too Lee Clark’s spot next to Rob Lee. Rather than working in crosses, there was a ball-on-the-ground, build-up approach that Asprilla enabled… and the side never attacked the same way again that season.

Defensively, there was no formal approach beyond marking the nearest person. Most of the defensive options were former attackers (Howey, Albert, and Watson), and the lack of technique in defense showed in missed tackles.

How the Goals Happened

2’ Robbie Fowler (LIV 1-0 NEW)

Stan Collymore evades tackles and delivers a cross to Robbie Fowler at the far post, who then heads it into the ground and into the back of the net.

10’ Les Ferdinand (LIV 1-1 NEW)

Tino dribbles into the right side of the box, initially pulling Redknapp & Ruddock out of position. John Scales senses the collapse and rushes to close down Asprilla, who calmly centers the ball to Les Ferdinand. Ferdinand, receiving the ball with his back to the goal, turns left and drills the ball at David James’ head and into the goal.

14’ David Ginola (LIV 1-2 NEW)

An errant header from Liverpool’s John Barnes shoots into the orbit of the electrifying Tino Asprilla. Tino traps the high ball with his foot and bursts toward the left channel of the pitch, curving a pass into the path of David Ginola with the outside of his right boot. Ginola receives the ball at full steam, dribbles toward Liverpool’s goal while keeping Jason McAteer at arm’s length, and then shoots over the right shoulder of David James.

55’ Robbie Fowler (LIV 2-2 NEW)

Jason McAteer boots the ball up Liverpool’s right channel, over John Beresford and into the feet of Steve McManaman. Seemingly trying to one-up Tino’s set-up for Ferdinand earlier, Steve keeps Albert on his heels and then centers the ball for a charging Robbie Fowler. Fowler one-times the ball into the lower left corner of the goal.

57’ Tino Asprilla (LIV 2-3 NEW)

Rob Lee collects a pass in the center of the pitch, then delivers a through ball to Tino that splits two Liverpool defenders. Tino, darting in from Newcastle’s right flank, slows his pace as he approaches the ball. As David James rushes onto the edge of the penalty box, Tino hits it into the near side of the net off his first touch of the ball.

68’ Stan Collymore (LIV 3-3 NEW)

Steve McManaman passes toward Liverpool’s right channel, where Jason McAteer has acres of space between Ginola and Heresford. McAteer then crosses to the far post, where Stan Collymore directs it into the net.

90’ Stan Collymore (LIV 4-3)

As John Barnes and Ian Wright advanced toward Newcastle’s final third, Philippe Albert channeled his inner Coloccini and left the defensive shape to break up play. Barnes and Wright continued to combine as they broke into the box, and Barnes dribbled into space until he found Stan Collymore unmarked on the left side of the box. Stan one-timed the volley into the net.

Key Tactical Point

From his excellent book The Mixer, Michael Cox sums things up:

“Newcastle’s problem was their overall lack of cohesion, surely due to omitting any collective work on the training ground. Keegan’s [sic] threw together talented individuals and let them run free, which largely worked with a simple, old-fashioned 4–4–2 that everyone knew how to play. But this laissez-faire style proved problematic when Keegan suddenly switched shape, when he signed a different type of centre-forward and a different type of deep midfielder. Newcastle simply didn’t have any tactics; their approach was a consequence of the 11 players Keegan assembled on any particular day.”

Newcastle’s Man of the Match: David Ginola

While lauded for his play in the first half of the season and lambasted for the second half’s displays, Ginola was excellent on this day.

He was rarely dispossessed, his short- and long-ball passing was sublime, and his runs were devastating at times.

Great performance from Ginola. Maybe his non-marking of McAteer is a weak spot in this game, but I think Keegan gets the blame here.

Liverpool’s Man Of The Match: Steve McManaman

Steve eventually went onto to Real Madrid, and this game is proof-positive that McManaman had the world-class talent for that move. Steve played a near-flawless game. (To my eyes, I believe he only misplaced one pass.)

His vision and technical execution created countless opportunities for Liverpool. Brilliant game for him.

In Conclusion

In terms of this performance, this was an anomaly: as much as Keegan avoided defensive drills in training, Newcastle actually had a decent defensive record on the season (they only let in 37 goals in 38 matches).

In the scope of the season, this match has a gloomy harbinger. The wheels were coming undone, and this Liverpool loss all but guaranteed that Newcastle was going to miss out on the title.

Newcastle’s hopes and dreams aside, this is one of the most entertaining games ever played.