Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle (1996)

March 28, 2017

This is to celebrate the upcoming release of my book, The Mixer.

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Start a debate about the Premier League’s greatest-ever player, greatest-ever side or greatest-ever season and you’d receive several different answers, but the subject of the Premier League’s greatest-ever game is very different, and has almost developed an ‘official’ answer. Liverpool’s 4-3 victory over Newcastle towards the end of 1995/96 is widely considered superior to anything the Premier League has seen before or since, and two decades on it remains an enthralling, relentless, fast-paced contest between two crazily attacking sides.

Matches like this are often described as ‘having everything’, but this game didn’t have everything. There were no red cards, no penalties, no controversies, no flashpoints, and essentially nothing other than both sides continually attacking for 90 minutes. It was just about goals: the scoring started in the 2nd minute and didn’t end until the 92nd minute, and each of the seven goals changed the ‘game state’ to put one side into the lead, or equalise.

In a sense, the game was so entertaining precisely because of the lack of tactics, and yet analysing the game reveals some interesting patterns.

Opening stages

At this point, Newcastle were the favourites for the Premier League, three points behind Manchester United with two games in hand – Liverpool were in third, a further five points back with only one game in hand over United. Both managers named their expected line-ups, with one exception.

Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan selected Steve Watson at right-back rather than Warren Barton, a move probably linked to the fact Watson had already scored the winner twice against Liverpool that season, once in the reverse league fixture and once in the League Cup. Newcastle were in their usual 4-4-2 system, while Liverpool manager Roy Evans was using a 3-5-2 formation, at this point experiencing a wave of popularity across the Premier League. With right-footed Rob Jones playing on the left, however, Liverpool lacked natural width down that flank.

The first 10 minutes here were played at an exceptional pace, with both sides scoring during this period. The goals were very different, but both owed much to the centre-forward pairings combining: first Stan Collymore drifted left, as he did throughout the game, and crossed for Robbie Fowler’s far-post header. At the other end, Faustino Asprilla produced some quick trickery before squaring for Les Ferdinand to fire home.

Honours even – and then, as the tempo slowed just slightly, the tactical pattern became clear.

Ginola v McAteer

The key battle here was obvious. David Ginola, Newcastle’s left-winger, had started his debut campaign in tremendous form, winning Player of the Month immediately and bamboozling opposition full-backs with his ability to receive the ball with his back to goal and spin either way, crossing or shooting with equal menace. Ginola showed absolutely no interest in the defensive side of the game, however, which meant left-back John Beresford was frequently overrun behind him. Here, the question was whether Ginola would bother to track Liverpool’s Jason McAteer, an unusually attack-minded right-back considering he was a natural midfielder, in an era when most wing-backs were converted full-backs. The answer was simple: Ginola didn’t, and there were a couple of comedy moments that demonstrated Ginola’s old-school winger mindset perfectly – at one point he was dispossessed by John Barnes and simply stood on the spot complaining that he was fouled, later he was tackled by McAteer and simply stayed sat on the floor.

That was evident throughout the game, and had both positive and negative consequences. The positive was obvious for Newcastle’s second goal, in the 14th minute. Liverpool were attacking down the left flank, but lost possession and after some good link play from Ferdinand, Newcastle transfer the ball out quickly to Ginola. McAteer has been pushing forward, isn’t able to recover his defensive position and Liverpool’s three centre-backs are very narrow, concerned only with Ferdinand and Asprilla. Ginola receives the ball with the whole left flank to himself, runs in behind and scores. That was the benefit of Ginola remaining high.

At 2-1 up, Newcastle continued to attack. There were no signs of them slowing the tempo and calming the game – they repeatedly looked for direct passes into their attacking quartet, with Liverpool goalkeeper David James playing an aggressive sweeper-keeper role behind his back three. The game, amazingly, stayed 2-1 for 40 minutes, until Liverpool equalised early in the second half.

Second half

At half-time, Evans replaced the injured Mark Wright with Steve Harkness, but the crucial change is subtler – Steve McManaman becomes more involved, and starts drifting to the right. He’s a natural winger, of course, and therefore instinctively finds space out wide, but the first half he’d generally drifted left (he should have scored with a far-post header but decided to look for Fowler instead) and sometimes found space between the lines when David Batty and Rob Lee pushed forward to shut down Barnes and Jamie Redknapp. Batty, incidentally, collected an hugely unnecessary booking after 25 minutes for a clumsy late foul on McManaman, which meant he struggled to track him closely for the rest of the game.┬áBut now McManaman moves right continually, and this adds to the problem Newcastle have down that flank.

It results in the game’s fourth goal, and again it involves the Ginola v McAteer battle. Although Ginola is hardly ‘not tracking back’ in this situation, Beresford has become so accustomed to having to shut down McAteer that he moves forward into a curious position, not able to put pressure on McAteer, but also not in a position to cover space on the outside of the centre-backs. McAteer, therefore, curls a lovely pass around Beresford and into McManaman. Newcastle’s other three defenders are dragged across, McManaman mazily dribbles into the box, then squares the ball to Fowler for his second goal. This was typical of the second half, and McManaman became a constant threat in these zones – he nearly created another goal for Fowler with an almost identical move, and then played a wicked right-wing cross which was sliced behind dangerously by Newcastle centre-back Steve Howey.

But Newcastle went 3-2 up again. In basic terms this goal had nothing to do with Ginola and Asprilla – Peter Beardsley played a lovely pass to Lee between the lines, he slipped the ball through to Asprilla, and the Colombian curled the ball around the advancing James, who was sweeping high yet again. But – and the above footage doesn’t offer a proper camera angle here – Liverpool centre-back John Scales (now playing on the right after the half-time reshuffle in defence) had dropped back significantly deeper than the rest of his backline in order to cope with Ginola’s advanced positioning. That meant Liverpool’s defensive line was poor, Asprilla was played onside, and Newcastle were ahead.

Ahead, however, for only 10 minutes. The goal again comes from Liverpool’s right. McManaman receives the ball in a central position and shifts the ball out to McAteer, who is again breaking forward with Ginola only walking back. McAteer uses his space and curls a lovely cross in behind the defence for Collymore to prod home. 3-3. Two goals at either end, in some form or another, have come from this Ginola v McAteer battle.

Closing stages

At this point, with 22 minutes remaining, both sides continue attacking. Newcastle have the better chances, with both Lee and Ferdinand going close in counter-attacking situations. The winner, though, arises from the only significant managerial intervention.

With five minutes remaining, Liverpool centre-back Neil Ruddock goes down injured – seemingly a serious knee injury, having landed awkwardly after jumping for a header. Evans prepares legendary centre-forward Ian Rush in his place – hardly a straight swap, but this is the only option. Liverpool had already introduced Harkness at half-time, and in the days of a three-man bench, the only other options are Rush and reserve goalkeeper Tony Warner. Ruddock surprisingly recovers and plays on. But Evans decides to throw on Rush anyway – this is a game where a draw does little for Liverpool, and they need to gamble. So, with five minutes remaining left-wing-back Jones is removed with Rush introduced on as a third striker. Liverpool now have no left-wing-back, so Collymore is instructed to guard the left flank for the remaining five minutes.

This proves crucial – because, in stoppage time, Barnes attacks through the centre of the pitch, he and Rush get in each other’s way for a second, and then Liverpool switch the ball out to Collymore – wide-left, precisely because of Liverpool’s late change. Collymore closes in, and he crashes the ball home to leave Keegan slumped over the advertising hoardings, and Newcastle mere second-favourites for the title.

Aftermath

“We’ll still go and play the way we play, despite what people think,” Keegan defiantly said afterwards. “And if we don’t win anything, so be it.” He later admitted that he’d told assistant Terry McDermott, “I know I should be disappointed, but I’m elated,” such was his delight at contributing to an entertaining, attack-minded spectacle.

Evans was more pragmatic. “No team can win the title playing like that,” he said. That, of course, is the feeling that sticks in the mind when considering Keegan’s Newcastle, ‘The Entertainers’ – thrilling going forward but woeful defensively, and the latter meant they could never win the title. But that’s not entirely true. Newcastle’s goals-against record in 1995/96 was 37 from 38 matches, a perfectly respectable tally – only two more than eventual title winners Manchester United. The next four title winners conceded 44, 33, 37 and 45 goals, so there’s little to suggest Newcastle’s leaky defence cost them the title.

In fact, Newcastle’s real crime was scoring only 66 goals – less than every title winner in Premier League history. Their goal statistics disprove the consensus about Keegan’s Newcastle – a consensus that has developed, more than anything else, because of this legendary game.

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