Rafa Benitez prepares for return to Anfield with Newcastle United

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Rafael Benitez Manager / head coach of Newcastle United during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Newcastle United at Vitality Stadium on February 24, 2018 in Bournemouth, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Rafael Benitez Manager / head coach of Newcastle United during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Newcastle United at Vitality Stadium on February 24, 2018 in Bournemouth, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images) /
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Rafa Benitez is set to return to Anfield with Newcastle United for a difficult match against Liverpool.

The past and the present will collide on Saturday as Liverpool host their former manager Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United. Having won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, Benitez will receive an ovation of gratitude and appreciation from the Liverpool faithful. However, the Toon Army will also be in attendance to urge Benitez’s Magpies to fight for a positive result.

Liverpool are in a close battle with Manchester United for second place, whereas Newcastle United aim to avoid relegation. With Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in top form, the Magpies will not have any room for errors.

The Reds will have more quality in their squad and are playing at home, but Liverpool must be cautious. Newcastle have been solid in their last ten matches with three victories, five draws and two losses to Manchester City.

Emotions will be running high for Benitez at Anfield, but the Spaniard will be determined to steal at least a point against his former club. Here are three tactics Benitez should consider implementing against a dangerous Liverpool side on Saturday.

Player Roles: Set Pieces

For a club such as Newcastle United that struggle with possession, set pieces are rare to come by and that is why they are so important. The first set piece worth discussing is who should take the corner kicks. Of course, this depends on the starting eleven, but Kenedy should not be delivering those balls from the corner flag.

Kenedy is a quality winger and has made great crosses in his performances, but he struggles on set pieces by delivering the ball too low. There are only two Magpies who can deliver dangerous crosses, and they are Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie. In a close match, corner kicks can make a significant difference if delivered properly, especially against a side like Liverpool.

Newcastle have scored game-winners from these set pieces against Swansea City, Stoke City and Crystal Palace, so they must emulate those deliveries. In addition to corners, Shelvey must be prepared to either deliver or shoot free-kicks on Saturday. Shelvey’s striking power, precision and vision is unmatched for the club. Therefore, the defensive midfielder is the only player worthy of this role.

Two Formations

Benitez essentially has two tactical options on Saturday – to play defensive football for a point or fight for three and accept whatever outcome arises.  A point would guarantee Newcastle’s exclusion from the bottom three for at least one more week due to goal differential. A point against Liverpool would be a positive result, but the objective should be three.

Manchester United came to St. James’ Park as clear favorites, but the Magpies were determined to win and they did, 1-0. Like Manchester United, Liverpool are also Premier League giants and tactical innovation will be the key to a positive result.

Instead of keeping one formation for 90 minutes, Rafa Benitez should present Liverpool with two formations. In the first half, the Magpies should play the way they know best with a balanced 4-2-3-1 formation. This would enable Newcastle to play more in the middle third of the pitch, giving their midfielders equal chances to attack and help on defense.

In the second half, assuming the score is level or Newcastle are trailing, Benitez should go with a 4-3-3 formation. This formation places more emphasis on attack and the Magpies should not be intimidated by Liverpool’s quality. Sitting back and settling will not do Newcastle any favors, but chasing three points in a difficult match would alter the table in their favor.

Defensive Awareness

Newcastle United have been inconsistent defensively this season. At times, Newcastle’s defense has been solid and admirable. Recently, however, the defense has been all over the place. A goal differential of minus-11 is nothing to be proud of, but this season staying in that range increases survival odds. That goal differential is in jeopardy this weekend as Newcastle will face a trio that have scored 43 goals this season.

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Newcastle’s back line must be aware of their surroundings on Saturday and play tight defense. It is also important for the Magpies to avoid the marking mistakes they made in the disappointing 2-2 draw with Bournemouth on Saturday.