Dec 8, 2011

Norwich vs Newcastle: Tactical Preview

10.12.2011 – Saturday 3:00pm

Location: Carrow Road

Early prospects:  Last man standing.

Newcastle United take their injury ridden squad to Premier League returnees Norwich this Saturday, looking for a first win in four games to maintain an unexpected lofty position.

Naturally, there have been many falling over themselves to shout about how Newcastle’s ‘bubble has finally burst’, but the performance against Chelsea, and indeed those of the previous two games only served to provide great encouragement all round, and notify the potential of this current squad should it be built upon intelligently.  Adversely, the critical injuries suffered during this recent period (more on this later) have only highlighted the thin line between prosperity and potential stagnation – the very clear warnings have to be heeded by those in power…

Team Line-ups:
Despite some erratic form, the Canaries come into this game looking to build upon their steady 16 points gained so far.

For the first time this season NUFC are feeling the effects of a very serious injury crisis – the brutal news of Steven Taylor’s injury being likely to keep him out for the rest of this season, combined with the less lengthy spells out faced by fellow centre backs Coloccini and Williamson mean NUFC travel to Carrow Road without a recognised senior central defender.  Both Pardew and Coloccini have down played the seriousness of his injury, and have stated that the Argentine has an ‘outside chance’ of making the game – although a more realistic proposition is for him to return a week later against Swansea.  Cheick Tiote remains side-lined and Danny Guthrie has since picked up a groin problem (popular in the squad these days…) and will be out until Christmas at least – just when he was staking a very serious claim for a regular first team place.  Gosling should come in to replace Guthrie, however big questions remain over who will deputise in central defence – having an array of full-backs to choose from along with untested centre back Tamas Kadar.  Your guess is as good as mine…

Our opponents Norwich, on the other hand, have no fresh injury concerns for this game and in fact have Daniel Ayala and Zak Whitbread available after injury.  Talented young manager Paul Lambert has rotated his squad fairly freely this season and has recently adopted a 451 formation for a number of games, however with NUFC’s defensive looking very frail it’s expected that Lambert will look to attack aggressively and choose a line-up and formation to suit that.

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
Given our obvious defensive frailties, the notable dangers to NUFC pretty much write themselves.

•    Aggressive attackers:  Far from being a team who look to grind out points and ride out their first season in the top tier, Norwich have taken the game to all opponents – showing no respect for reputation, and rightly so in my opinion.  Their 13 shots on goal per game average may not be as gung-ho as Blackpool last season, but is nontheless impressive for a side that was in League One very recently.  Norwich attack using plenty of width (as the diagram right shows) and look to provide plenty service to the front line.

•    Muscle up front:  Combined with the previous, Norwich have adopted a style very familiar to that of NUFC’s early last season by using physical dominance in up front both attack and build pressure.  A 57% win rate in aerial duals at home this season gives a decent indication of their presence – 19% of passes being long balls give a clear indication of their direct nature.  Encompassing both points is the Canaries’ set piece threat, with eight of their 20 goals so far having come from set pieces.

Tactical suggestions:
Again, with NUFC’s defensive weakness in mind, this game will be one in which tactics will have to play a huge part to produce an effective performance.

•    Attack…:  Norwich coming out to attack is a given, and with our first choice defence I would have felt quite confident in repelling them.  However, lacking physical presence, familiarity and (crucially) leadership our prospects of keeping the home side out for the full 90 are unconvincing, even with the superhuman Krul in goal.  This game may be better suited to the archetypical ‘Kevin Keegan style’ of football – outscore your opposition.  And with the attacking talents of Ba, Ben Arfa and Cabaye we have enough in our own locker to trouble a defence that has already conceded 26 goals in 14 games.

•    Battle for midfield:  Key to the previous point is involving our better players – Cabaye arguably the key man.  If our talented Frenchman, alongside the ever improving Dan Gosling, can provide battle energy and style in midfield (which both are more than capable of doing on their day) then we stand a far better chance of returning with a share of the spoils than if we allow our opposition to dictate the midfield.  Norwich’s average possession of 42% and average pass completion of 74% highlights a very palpable weakness which NUFC should look to exploit in a key area of the field.

•    Keep a fairly high line:  Easier said than done with the lack of a natural leader in the defence (working on the premise Coloccini doesn’t make the start XI this week), keeping a fairly advanced line could go some way to minimising Norwich’s aerial presence – inviting the home side to play more through the middle and on the floor, or attempt more precise and difficult balls over the top.

Final thought and gut feeling:
Even with a first choice XI there would be a feeling of apprehension with this game – Norwich being the very typical kind of place that NUFC tend to slip up / under perform.  With the well documented frailties to pile on top of this that feeling of apprehension gets no better, but with our attacking options relatively unscathed we still hold enough to take a share of the spoils: score draw.

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Dec 4, 2011

Tactical analysis: Newcastle 0 Chelsea 3 in 5 key points

03.12.11 – Saturday 12.45pm
St James’ Park
Barclays Premier League

Daniel Sturridge scores against NewcastleNewcastle 0

Chelsea 3
David Luiz sent off 4
Drogba 38
Kalou 89
Sturridge 90

Newcastle suffered their first home defeat of the season, and indeed their first since March, at the hands of Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea side who left St James’ Park as 3-0 victors.

The first half was certainly entertaining and incident filled with the first talking point coming in only the 4th minute. As Demba Ba ran forward to meet Peter Lovenkrands’ through ball on the edge of the area he was clumsily brought down by last man David Luiz, yet astonishingly referee Mike Dean only showed a yellow card rather than the expected red. And Dean was again centre of attention in the 13th minute when he correctly awarded a penalty to Chelsea after Daniel Sturridge was tripped by Yohan Cabaye in the area. However, ‘Super Goals’ resulting spot-kick was expertly saved by the excellent Tim Krul. There were more good opportunities for both sides before Chelsea took the lead in the 38th minute; Didier Drogba powerfully heading Juan Mata’s cross into Tim Krul’s net to send the away side into the half term interval with a 1-0 lead.

The second half saw good chances for both sides. Newcastle hit the woodwork twice courtesy of a long range effort from Shola Ameobi and Didier Drogba, having already scored at the Leazes End, heading a Newcastle corner against his own crossbar at the same end. Sammy Ameobi also saw his left footed shot cleared off the line by John Terry. Tim Krul continued to prevent Chelsea from scoring a 2nd until 2 minutes from time, but as Newcastle pushed for an equaliser they became further exposed to the counter attack, and this proved to be the source of Chelsea’s 2nd and 3rd goals late on, Salomon Kalou and Sturridge the scorers, to help secure a much needed 3-0 victory for the Blues.

1. Team selection and tactics

Newcastle Chelsea formations

Newcastle made just 1 change to the side that earned a point in the 1-1 draw against Man United at Old Trafford last Saturday, with Peter Lovenkrands replacing the suspended Jonas Gutierrez on the left of midfield. A surprise inclusion perhaps given that Sammy Ameobi had been preferred to the Dane on the wing for Newcastle in recent weeks. Chelsea manager Villas-Boas also made 1 change to the side that beat 3-0 Wolves at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, Raul Meireles dropping to the substitutes’ bench to be replaced by Frank Lampard in central midfield.

For the third game in a row Newcastle used a 4-4-1-1 formation with Hatem Ben Arfa playing just off Demba Ba in attack, and showed more attacking emphasis than seen in recent weeks as they looked to seize upon their opponent’s below-par form of late. Chelsea used a 4-3-3 formation and mainly looked to exploit Newcastle’s attacking tendencies on the counter through the pace and movement of wide men Mata and Sturridge.

2. Newcastle struggle to stem speedy Sturridge

Although a left footed centre forward by default, Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge has found himself being used as the right sided forward in Villas-Boas’ 4-3-3 formation and this was his role again against Newcastle. When Newcastle looked to go forward Sturridge was responsible for holding his position high up the pitch and to use his pace to exploit the space left by Ryan Taylor, who often ventured forward to support Newcastle’s attack, a tactic which caused Newcastle endless problems.

Sturridge shots

Sturridge's 8 shots

The first half in particular saw Chelsea and Sturridge regularly taking advantage of the space in behind Ryan Taylor, who also missed the protective nature of Jonas Gutierrez, on the counter attack. In the first half alone Sturridge had 5 shots and, of course, his pace and trickery lead to him winning a penalty for his side. On another day, and up against a lesser keeper than Tim Krul, Sturridge’s relentless attacking and attempts at goal could have yielded a better return. However, the striker did eventually get the goal that his fine play warranted with a well taken finish in injury time.

3. The movement of Mata

Matas movement

Mata's completed passes

Starting on the left of Chelsea’s attack, Juan Mata was given the freedom to roam from his starting position and he regularly did so. Much like Samir Nasri and David Silva a fortnight ago, Juan Mata caused Newcastle problems with his movement from the flank proving more difficult to track and defend against than a more orthodox winger who would be more likely to hold his position.

Mata was all over the pitch (as demonstrated by his completed passes chalkboard) and, to highlight this, he played 2 through balls from central areas for Sturridge to run onto in the first half. However, it was from his starting position on the left that he ultimately demonstrated his impressive movement and passing accuracy (97%) with a fine run into space and cross for Chelsea’s opening goal.

4. Half time sees Newcastle revert to plan A

Although Newcastle had fared reasonably well against their opponents in the first half, at half time Alan Pardew opted to revert to his favoured 4-4-2 formation with Shola Ameobi replacing Ben Arfa to line up alongside Demba Ba in attack. This change could have been to give Newcastle more aerial strength and power up front to trouble the defensively shaky David Luiz, however, another plausibility is that Ben Arfa was substituted as he wasn’t having as much of an impact as would have been hoped up to half time.

Ben Arfa unable to find space

Ben Arfa struggles to find space in crowded midfield. Romeu shown playing close to his centre backs

With Chelsea using 3 central midfielders and the base of the midfield – Oriel Romeu – playing so deep that he was almost a 3rd centre back at times, Ben Arfa was unable to find as much space as he would have liked in a 45 minutes that saw him complete only 7 passes. Although Ba played the lone striker role well in the first half, the introduction of Shola Ameobi naturally gave Newcastle 2 options to hit up front as they chased an equaliser, and almost paid off when the much maligned striker’s shot looked to be heading for the top corner of Peter Cech’s goal only to cannon back off the crossbar. One criticism, however, is that with 2 tall strikers on the pitch in the second half that Newcastle didn’t deliver more crosses into the box to be attacked with Gabriel Obertan, in particular, being constantly outthought by Ashley Cole and failing to provide a single cross into the box in 90 minutes.

5. Guthrie stakes his claim

Guthrie's completed passes

Guthrie's completed passes

With Newcastle’s wingers failing to get the better of the Chelsea full backs, and Ben Arfa unable to find the space to create anything of note in his 45 minutes, the attacking impetus fell to central midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Danny Guthrie. And it was the latter that shone with his varied and accurate passing and willingness to get on the ball.

Guthrie regularly dropped deep to receive the ball off the Newcastle defence and showed an ability to hit long and accurate passes, in the ilk of those displayed by Joey Barton in a Newcastle shirt last season, to either wing. Guthrie was also comfortable in the attacking third and demonstrated a sound understanding and awareness of his surroundings and options. Arguably Newcastle’s strongest outfield player against Chelsea, Guthrie impressed with 92% of his passes finding a teammate and is perhaps not the player who will make way for Cheick Tiote on his return from injury…

At the end of the day…

The 3-0 score line gives the impression that it was a walkover for the away side and slightly flatters Chelsea. However, this was far from the case with Newcastle more than matching their opponents for the majority of the game and conceding the 2nd and 3rd goals while effectively down to 10 men after losing both first choice central defenders – Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini – to injury.

In fact, had referee Mike Dean took the right course of action and sent off David Luiz in the 4th minute it could have lead to a different outcome, and Newcastle will likely feel aggrieved that they haven’t taken anything from this game, in particular Tim Krul who was outstanding in goal for the Magpies.

Perhaps this was Newcastle’s retribution for benefitting from a generous penalty decision at Old Trafford last weekend, but the frustrating aspect of the decision not to send off Luiz is that Mike Dean clearly seen the incident but unacceptably failed to punish it as he should have done. Having said that, a visibly fired up Chelsea, in the wake of recent poor form, deployed their counter attacking game plan well on the whole and will feel that they were worthy of the 3 points.

After 14 games Newcastle now find themselves in 6th place in the Premier League table, having also played all of the top 5 teams above them and giving each a tough game, although they could drop to 7th position if the ever improving Liverpool beat Fulham at Craven Cottage on Monday night.

Next up for Newcastle is a trip to Carrow Road to face Premier League newboys Norwich City on Saturday 10 December, 3pm kick off. The injuries to Steven Taylor and Coloccini have caused a crisis in central defence, with Mike Williamson also still out injured, which will perhaps see Danny Simpson or David Santon partnering James Perch in a makeshift central defence. No return date has been given to Tiote as yet, but Newcastle will at least be able to call on the returning Gutierrez and Leon Best, from suspension and injury respectively, for the Magpies’ tricky trip to face the 10th placed Canaries.

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Dec 1, 2011

Newcastle vs Chelsea: Tactical Preview

03.12.11 – Saturday 12:45pm

Location: St James’ Park

Early prospects:  Somber, reflective / positive

Newcastle United return to St James’ Park this Saturday to complete the much dreaded trio of Premier League fixtures, hosting Andre Villas-Boas’s Chelsea.

An extremely hard earned point at Old Trafford a week previous has at least ensured we will leave this trio of ‘someone’ oppositions with some share of the spoils when a morale sapping white-wash of losses (regardless of performances) could have easily occurred.  Furthermore, with home advantage and our opposition in shaky form we have every right to fancy our chances against what is still without doubt a stronger side on paper.  Many said leaving this string of games with four points would represent not only a good return but a clear sign of progress in the face of the disingenuous, who believed our position after 11 games was a false one – the hypothetical ‘lose-draw-win scenario’ only 90 favourable minutes away from reality.  The stage is set…

Thoughts of course cannot bypass that of the tragedy of Gary Speed’s passing last Sunday.  I can only echo the words my counter-part here spoke of at the end of the Manchester United report – not only at the utter shock at the news I was desperately hoping was false, but the incredible deflation and sadness it brought – the utter tragedy of it only serving to amplify the emotions felt for a man who I dearly admired both on and off the pitch.  The tributes by both clubs and fans alike have been very fitting to Speedo, as do those planned for the game this Saturday – whether it be standing in silence, rapturous applause or anything else, I’m sure you’ll be joining me in showing the utmost respect to Gary Speed the man, the role model, the legend.  You’ll never be forgotten Speedo.

Team Line-ups:
After a solid, if not entirely irresistible start to the season our opposition have fell out of sorts of late – having lost five out of their last nine and drawing one in all competitions.

After the draw at Old Trafford last week, NUFC have had a week to take stock and recharge weary limbs.  No fresh injuries have surfaced at the time of writing, but Jonas Gutierrez has a one game ban to serve after his two needless yellows last week and will leave a pretty troublesome void to fill.  With would-be usual replacement Sylvain Marveaux injured for the foreseeable future, realistic candidates for the LM spot are Shane Ferguson and Sammy Ameobi (save for an unlikely stationing of Ben Arfa or Lovenkrands there) – Sammy being the most likely to fill in given Alan Pardew’s recent unwavering involvement of the youngster.  Cheick Tiote remains side lined and barring late injury should be once again admirably covered by the solid Danny Guthrie – otherwise it’s as you were.

Remaining involved in three separate competitions (until the start of this week at least), Chelsea have rotated their squad to suit.  A team of mixed experience took to the field in Tuesday’s defeat to Liverpool, however it was devoid of the majority of what could be considered Chelsea’s first XI – mainstays such as Terry, Cech and Sturridge not even called to the substitutes’ bench.  Frank Lampard featured for the full 90minutes so could likely miss out on the starting XI for this fixture.  Otherwise a starting XI very similar to that which faced West Brom at Stamford Bridge is expected.

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
Although looking more fragile than the Chelsea steamrolling machine of recent memory, the Villas-Boas project is only in its early stages and the Blues still possess enough attacking talent to have registered 28 goals in their 13 PL fixtures so far.

1.    Sturridge and Mata: Operating freely from the flanks, these two talented youngsters pose considerable threat to NUFC’s tender full-back positions – a combined 9 goals and 7 assists between them in their appearances this season only reinforcing thoughts towards their threat to goal.

2.    Ball greedy:  Although Chelsea over recent years have been a particularly strong side on the ball, their efficiency in possession has been perhaps undervalued, especially when compared to more celebrated carpet footballers such as Arsenal and Swansea.  So far this season Chelsea hold both the best successful pass percentage (a silky 86%) and the highest average possession per game (at 58%).  It’s imperative that NUFC recognise this – both in efficiency in their own possession and in maintaining discipline when without the ball.

3.    Physical presence:  Again, sometimes overlooked given the more silky intelligence attributes possessed, Chelsea’s team is one of the more physically impressive out of the top teams – particularly the strength and work-rate areas leaving them very rarely outmuscled or overran.

Tactical suggestions:
As was the case at Old Trafford last week, this game represents a very good opportunity for NUFC to exercise savvy tactics to gain a share of the spoils when the opposition possess more ability on the whole.

1.    Use the flanks: Both Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole regularly venture up field to create width and deliver, while the inside forwards concentrate on attacking directly – in turn leaving the wide areas open to attack and Chelsea’s central defenders exposed.  A positive looking NUFC should seek to favour the flanks, particularly when breaking – the explosive pace of Gabriel Obertan against Cole and the eccentric dribbling of Sammy Ameobi against the heavy footed Ivanovic both having the potential to cause their relative rivals problems.  Obertan in particular should be looking to play a more athletic (perhaps cruder) game against the smaller but more intelligent Cole to avoid being nullified by the experienced full-back.

2.    Press high, use pace: Much in the way that NUFC did to much effect in the first half against Manchester United.  Chelsea’s vulnerable high defensive line, coupled with an insistence to open up and play away from deep has exposed them on numerous (very notable) occasions.  Demba Ba has always proved willing to press from the front, and if assisted at times by the supporting Ben Arfa and either winger, it could catch the opposition napping.

3.    Be careful in possession:  With note to CFC’s excellent efficiency in possession, NUFC should look to match their opposition with their care with the ball – much as was done against Tottenham earlier in the season.  Midfield will be the area which this is most important – knowing Chelsea will have bodies winning and able to close down our players in possession from where they can quickly build attacks.

Final thought and gut feeling:
Trying to keep thoughts entirely on the football, this game represents a very big opportunity for NUFC – astonishing that a win would see NUFC four points clear in fourth position (third at least briefly given the early KO time) at the start of December, well beyond the most ambitious supporter’s wildest expectations.  But that said, we cannot underestimate our opposition in any way shape or form – they may be out of sorts but could easily strike back at an unsuspecting foe if taken for granted.  I’d expect NUFC to be up for this one, and backed by an emotionally charged sell-out crowd we can look positively, if not conservatively at this one: score draw.

Nov 28, 2011

Tactical analysis: Man United 1 Newcastle 1 in 5 key points

26.11.11 – Saturday 3pm
Old Trafford
Barclays Premier League

The RESPECT campaign is alive and well...

Man United 1
Hernandez 49

Newcastle 1
Ba (pen 64)
Gutierrez sent off 79

4th placed Newcastle travelled to Manchester for the second time in a week to face 2nd placed Man United at Old Trafford and left with a hard earned point after an entertaining 1-1 draw.

The home side took the lead 4 minutes after half time when a Wayne Rooney free kick, on the edge of the penalty area, pinballed into the Newcastle net off the mid section of Javier Hernandez – very much a case of right place, right time for The Red Devils’ Mexican marksman.

The lead only lasted quarter of an hour, however, before Newcastle were presented the opportunity to level from the spot. Referee Mike Jones initially, and correctly, awarded Newcastle a corner for Rio Ferdinand’s outstretched tackle on Ben Arfa, but after conversing with linesman John Flynn he changed his decision and pointed to the spot. Replays clearly showed that Ferdinand had won the ball, but nonetheless Demba Ba stepped up to side foot the fortuitous penalty into David De Gea’s net. Newcastle were made to endure a nervy final 10 minutes a man short, after Jonas Gutierrez’ sending off for a second yellow card, but they defended resolutely to earn a share of the spoils.

1. Team selection and tactics

Man United Newcastle formations

Newcastle were able to welcome former Man United man Gabriel Obertan back following his toe injury, with the Frenchman lining up on the right of midfield at the expense of Sammy Ameobi who dropped to the bench. This was to be Newcastle’s only change from the side that were defeated 3-1 against Man City at the Etihad Stadium the weekend previous. Sir Alex Ferguson made 5 changes to the side which had drew 2-2 at home to Benfica in the Champions League on Tuesday night as Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs, Nani and Wayne Rooney replaced Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Darren Fletcher and Dimitar Berbatov in the starting line up.

Newcastle continued to use a 4-4-1-1 formation to accommodate Hatem Ben Arfa in his favoured role in between midfield and attack and, as they did against Man City last week, pressed high up the pitch and defended in numbers in an attempt to nullify their superior opponents’ naturally tendencies. Man United employed a rough 4-4-1-1 formation, with Wayne Rooney dropping deep from attack to link play, and typically played on the front foot with pace, movement and gusto and were relentless in their attacking, placing Newcastle under almost constant pressure as they chased the 3 points on offer.

2. Young unable to capitalise on Man United’s left side preference

United left side preference

Top: Young's 9 unsuccessful crosses. Bottom: United's left side preference

Man United played with two quick wingers – Ashley Young on the left and Nani on the right – as they looked to exploit Newcastle in wide areas. However, with Nani in frustratingly inconsistent form of late in the league, his Man United colleagues instead showed a preference for playing the ball to Young on the left wing, supported by the willing Patrice Evra at left back, but United’s £17 million summer signing was unable to deliver the service that Rooney and, in particular, Hernandez thrive on.

Young, as he often does when playing on the left, showed a tendency to cut inside onto his stronger right foot rather than attacking down the line. However, this only served to stifle his attacking options as he headed into a crowded midfield area and made an angle for his crosses which were easier to deal with for the Newcastle defenders. In fact, Young failed to find a teammate with any of his 9 crosses in to the box in what was a forgetful afternoon for the winger.

3. Off form Gutierrez

Gutierrez dispossessed (red) 3 times in Man United's half

Having said that about Ashley Young, his Newcastle counterpart – Jonas Gutierrez – had arguably one of his most disappointing afternoons on the left of midfield in a Newcastle shirt. When making his debut at Old Trafford in 2008, ‘Spiderman’ was up and down the wing and fulfilled his attacking and defensive duties in a way which we have come to expect, such is his reliability and consistency, but on the same ground in 2011 he cast a frustrated figure.

It’s very rare that you will hear a bad word said about Jonas from these parts, which is why I write this with a tinge of guilt, but it’s perhaps testament to his usual dependability that when he was off form it was so noticeable. He had the lowest passing accuracy of any Newcastle outfield player with only 12 of 21 passes finding a teammate and lost the ball in the opposition half on 3 occasions. Not an afternoon to remember for Jonas, whose misery was compounded in the 79th minute when he was sent off for a second yellow card.

4. Newcastle press high up the pitch

Newcastle tackles

Newcastle tackles: half took place in and around Man United's half

Although a temptation when visiting Old Trafford would be to sit deep and park the bus against the league Champions, Newcastle adopted a high pressing approach which relied heavily on discipline and commitment, and which helped to prevent the Man United players time and space on the ball, particularly in the midfield area.

Newcastle pressed from the front, with Demba Ba, in the thankless lone striker role, showing an eagerness to chase down loose balls and pressure Ferdinand and Vidic in possession. However, it was behind him that the central midfield pairing of Danny Guthrie and Yohan Cabaye impressed with their stamina, work-rate and determination to pressurise their opponents and win the ball back, which they combined to do on no less than 9 occasions. A notable effort in the absence of chief midfield spoiler Cheick Tiote.

5. ‘Krul’s goal seemed to be protected by a forcefield’

Newcastle blocks

Newcastle's 11 blocks in the penalty area, 5 of which were courtesy of Steven Taylor

That was the verdict of the BBC Sport match report and so it seemed at times. However, in truth, apart from Young’s shot which rebounded back off the post, that Newcastle’s goal wasn’t breached on more than 1 occasion owes a lot to the collective wasteful finishing of Man United, but more so the defensive performance of Newcastle’s back 4 and goalkeeper Tim Krul.

Of Man United’s 28 shots only 3% resulted in a goal, in comparison to Newcastle who were 4 times more effective; scoring with 12% of their 8 shots. Yet, of the 5 Man United shots that did hit the target, the Newcastle defence proved equal to them. Krul pulled off 2 superb saves, first from Ryan Giggs and later on from Vidic, Danny Simpson showed excellent anticipation and positioning to clear off the line late on from Javier Hernandez, and Steven Taylor was as resilient as ever with 5 last ditch blocks in the penalty area.  Still the league’s joint meanest defence and deservedly so.

At the end of the day…

Newcastle had to rely on a fortunate penalty decision to take a point from Old Trafford, but who’s to say they didn’t deserve it for their defensive performance, organisation and determination not to get beat.

On another day, if the Man United strikers had their shooting boots on, Newcastle could have came away on the back of a heavy defeat, but for now we’ll savour the point and toast to Newcastle’s 4th placed status in the Premier League, having only been beaten once by the side currently residing at the top of the table. Still haven’t played anyone though…

Following 5th placed Chelsea’s victory over Wolves on Saturday, the margin was cut to 1 point between Newcastle and Andre Villas-Boas’ side and nicely sets up an encounter between the two at St James’ Park on Saturday, 12.45pm kick off.

Finally, our thoughts and heartfelt condolences go to the family of Gary Speed.

As one of my all time favourite Newcastle players, not only for his ability on the pitch, but for his consummate professionalism off it, Sunday morning’s devastating, upsetting and incomprehensible news is still difficult to process, particularly given the circumstances.

I haven’t felt as affected about the death of someone who I haven’t known since Sir Bobby Robson passed away.

I guess you tend to identify more with those who you feel have the same adoration about the game you love, the city you love and the team you love and Gary, even a day before his untimely passing, still spoke highly of Newcastle on BBC’s Football Focus. I just hope he knew how much we adored him in return.

The tributes – from ex-teammates, friends, football fans and anyone else who Gary had an impact on – have been endless and are a testament to how well thought of he was. A true gentleman of the game. And I’m sure the tributes will continue long into the week before we will get to pay our own respects at St James’ Park on Saturday.

Gary SpeedA truly sad and shocking loss for football, but more so for Gary’s family and friends. I can’t imagine how they must be feeling having to come to terms with this awful news.

Gary, it was an absolute priviledge to have watched you play in a Black and White shirt.

Gone but never forgotten. RIP Gary Speed.

Nov 24, 2011

Man Utd vs Newcastle: Tactical Preview

26.11.11 – Saturday 3:00pm

Location: Old Trafford

Early prospects:  No fear.

For the second weekend in a row Newcastle United take to the road for a routine trip to Manchester – from title challengers last week to reigning Champions this – once again looking to retain respect from a fantastic season’s start.

Despite the undefeated run coming to an end NUFC could walk away from The Etihad stadium last week without disgrace – with unfortunate, heavily punished errors being the significant part of our downfall rather than a lack of effort or ability.  Heads can, and have, still been held high and rightly so, but feet must remain on the ground as this weekend’s trip will be no easier.  Treating this fixture as anything other than one against title challengers on their own soil would be suicide – putting into perspective that this game may on current form be slightly less daunting than the previous, but is still a trip to Old ‘bleeding’ Trafford .  Complacency beware…

Team Line-ups:
The reigning champions come into this game on the back of six games unbeaten since their mauling at the hands of Manchester City – a sequence which saw them keep five consecutive clean sheets and score an unspectacular but significant 10 goals.

Having failed to recover in time for the previous fixture, NUFC can welcome back Gabriel Obertan to the right flank against his former club – as for Cheick Tiote, it’s a case of smoke and mirrors with the Ivorian being strongly suggested to be ruled out by Pardew, but also in full training ahead of the fixture…watch this space.  Mercifully, no new injury worries have emerged, save for Steven Taylor’s nose which, although aesthetic only, now resembles a cast-off pastie from Greggs the bakers.  The consequences of two heavily punished ricks had lead to many calling for the instant dropping of Ryan Taylor, but with Pardew himself quick to defend Taylor it’s unlikely this game will see Davide Santon handed his first PL start.  Equally, comments from Pardew upon the performance of Hatem Ben Arfa, along with the fixture in prospect (and the fact that he has now managed to break the first XI) suggest our no.10 will once again line-up behind Demba Ba in a rough 4411.

Manchester United are sweating over the fitness of traditional NUFC menace Wayne Rooney, who missed their mid-week draw with Benfica (*NB – since writing Rooney has been declared fit – line-ups updated to reflect).  Elsewhere both Chris Smalling and Danny Wellback are struggling to make fitness for this fixture and may not feature.  Michael Owen is a confirmed absence, but he wouldn’t have been involved anyway… Although having returned to a more traditional 442 over the last year, Sir Alex Ferguson has adopted a rough 4411 in the Red Devils’ previous two fixtures, deploying Ahsley Young and Wayne Rooney respectively behind a lone striker – with striking options looking limited through injury it’s not entirely unlikely that this layout will be seen again on Saturday.

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
Naturally, being title challengers, Man United have strength across all areas of the field and can pose a threat to any team, but with this game in mind we look at some that could be particularly troublesome.

1.    Full-back overlap:  Of Patrice Evra, but in particular that of Phil Jones if stationed at right-back.  It’s unlikely MUFC will have not taken note of the performance and effect of Micah Richards a week previous – taking advantage of Gutierrez drifting inside to open the flank up.  Phil Jones has quickly carved a reputation for fearless and aggressive attacking from deep positions and will have to be kept under close watch.

2.    Wide play:  Particularly on a large Old Trafford pitch, Man United like to play a very expansive game using the full width of the playing surface to stretch the opposition.  Even despite the explosive Nani not performing at his best in recent games, Man United possess more than enough attacking talent in wide areas to cause problems, either via cutting inside to build attacks or shoot, or through old fashioned hitting the by-line and crossing – they can do either, and do either very well.

3.    Drifting forwards:  Regardless if Man Utd line-up in a 442 or 4411, their forwards are far from static – the 4411 in particular seeing a very strong link being formed between midfield and attack on the ground.  The persistent Javier Hernandez in particular moving freely between defenders along the back line to create space – racking up five goals in seven starts so far this season.  The support striker patrolling the space between opposition defence and midfield could be a particular issue to NUFC if they do not set their midfield up to take this into account.

In a wider context, much like neighbours City, United are very impressive on the ball and maintain possession superbly.  Although they came under wide criticism for conceding a startlingly large amount of shots per game (almost as many as Bolton), they have moved to rectify this in recent games, averaging around 10 per game recently compared to the season average 17.

Tactical suggestions:
1.    Battle for the midfield :  Easier said than done of course… Manchester City’s dominance of the midfield in our previous fixture put NUFC on the back foot from the off, and although City struggled to create many opportunities from it the situation left NUFC sat deep for much of the game.  With the level of midfield quality faced last week it was an understandable situation, but this week offers a more reasonable playing field in which NUFC should be looking to have their fair share of play in the middle of the park.  The key factor will arguably be to keep the pressure on while the opposition central players are in possession.

2.    Cover the left flank…properly:  It goes without saying that defending on the whole through our left flank last week was not of the standard that it has been of recent times – Micah Richards performance or not.  Both Taylor and Gutierrez afforded the opposition too much space on the flank and showed a vulnerable side in comparison to the remainder of the defence who put in a stern display.  As mentioned earlier, Phil Jones’ buccaneering runs forward (shown on the chalkboard, right) in support of the winger will need to be watched carefully and defended against.

3.    Attack through the centre – distract with the RM:  The 4411 used against City last week, and expected to be used this, worked in an attacking sense to a degree, although arguably did not get the most out of Ben Arfa as a spearhead.  With the enigmatic but hard working Obertan back in the picture, NUFC can use his pace as a foil on the counter (notwithstanding using him as an outlet as standard) to stretch the home defensive line and create openings for our no.10 and Ba.

Final thought and gut feeling:
Newcastle showed last week that they can turn in a positive and confident performance against the best in the land – far be it from the ‘roll over and die’ produce NUFC have traditionally delivered on the big stages.  Going into this fixture should be no different – but the belief of being able to gain a result will be the key, not being overawed by the occasion and believing thoroughly in the level of performance NUFC can deliver – why not be positive?  Score draw.

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  • NUFC blog varying from inane rantings to precision statistical analysis. Alternative match previews & reports plus a broader based (and heavily biased) footballing opinion on anything worthy of annoyance.

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