Nov 30, 2012

NUFC back to basics: hit the flanks

David approves.

Stoke 2 – 1 Newcastle.  The fourth league defeat in a row for the Magpies.  Seven goals conceded – two goals scored – zero points; from a run of fixtures which was expected to be Newcastle’s relief to a tricky first season quarter.  None of this is a secret…

Setting aside the safety second transfer policy adopted by the board in the preceding summer, the distinct 442 formation insisted upon by Alan Pardew has bore the brunt of many critics, even ourselves at an earlier stage in the season, here.  Whilst many of the views contained within that piece written in early September remain, there is an overriding thought that the current layout is still underachieving for the resource that has been available.

A 442 lives or dies by its strength on the flanks – the ability for one, or preferably both wings to stretch the opposition’s midfield and get behind their defence to deliver to the forward line.  Without width or an outlet on the flanks the ball is forced through the congested centre, or straight over the top to serve the front two – sound familiar?  The typical left side combination of Santon and Gutierrez fails in an attacking sense primarily through the pair being heavily reliant upon their right foot and unable to cross or cut inside without cutting back or leaving the ball exposed.   There is no quick knock and in-swinging cross available to them – no cut across the defender with the ball on the safer goal side.

The squeezed middle

The right side fairs no better.  The heavily enigmatic Hatem Ben Arfa has the potential to destroy a team on his own, but stationed at right wing has a very predictable tendency to cut inside onto his stronger foot.  Although his sheer brilliance has seen this performed to some effectiveness, teams have understandably looked to block off this avenue through a covering man – limiting Hatem’s ability to deliver from wide (again, forced onto his weaker foot) and in turn tightening / condensing the midfield / attack space by  his movement inside.  To compound problems, Ben Arfa has a compulsive preference to roam the field to find space and or generally follow the ball, occasionally leaving the right flank exposed to a nervy Danny Simpson and, again, the field narrowed.

With these basics in mind, it’s no surprise the strikers are squeezed and feeding off the very scraps of service.  The first step should be to balance to flanks and give it a fighting chance to deliver to the forward line, along with the ability to defend it already has.  At present, I believe NUFC wouldn’t go far wrong with a left side combination of Ferguson and Marveaux, and a right side of Santon and Ben Arfa / Jonas / Obertan – the latter depending upon Ben Arfa’s potential use as a free-role player to provide an alternative link between midfield and striker.  We only need look back to the devilishly simple but effective combination of Gillespie and Ginola (the former particularly simple) providing crosses for the powerhouse that was Les Ferdinand and the success it brought: you can argue the players available may have been slightly better suited, but was the system any more complicated than it needed to be?  Let’s take a few minutes to remind ourselves:

Resources may be finite, youngsters still learning, players still coming to terms with the English game but there is certainly enough ability there to increase our potency going forward and in turn our effectiveness as a team in the short term.

It can’t, and won’t be ignored, that this is only one part of a ball of problems contributing to our current plight – but NUFC cannot continue in their current stride as the football produced is undeniably ineffective against the most routine of opponents, the current dismal run only highlighting problems which have been visible for some time but left disappointingly unchecked.

NUFC can and will play better, more successful football again. But first they need to go back to basics.

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Nov 26, 2012

Thin Pickings: The NUFC striker shortage

The recent return to the senior fold of both Nile Ranger and Xisco has seemed to some like a short term response to a temporary shortage in strikers. A telling comment on the molecule-thin squad at Newcastle, certainly, but no more than that. Can more be read into it?

Both Ranger and Xisco have been out of favour for so long they had ceased to be considered as options even. Ranger’s repeated off-field misdemeanours had led to Alan Pardew removing him from training with the first team, saying that he wouldn’t get another chance until he could be on time for a full six weeks. Pardew expressed doubt that Ranger would ever play for him again. He showed every indication of being someone who was on his way out of football for good.

Xisco has been out on loan pretty much permanently since 2009. Having been surplus to requirements for a number of years it seemed that he was neither rated nor wanted at the club, and his continued presence was purely a result of the club’s inability to move him on elsewhere.

Papiss Cisse’s form this season meanwhile has not just deserted him, it’s declared itself a conscientious objector and begun to campaign against the concept of goalscoring. Even so, the disastrous injuries in the midweek Europa League draw against Maritimo to both himself and Hatem Ben Arfa have left Newcastle’s striking roster looking as sparse as Nadine Dorries’ well-wishers list. For although Ben Arfa isn’t known as a front man he could certainly play as a second striker if required. Indeed many feel his best position might be playing through the middle off a central striker. Suffice to say that beyond the thankfully in-form Demba Ba we are now very quickly looking at the untried or at least the unproven. The broken body of Shola Ameobi apart, Sammy Ameobi and Adam Campbell might yet develop into top-class forwards but for now you wouldn’t be comfortable relying on them for long.

So it makes sense to bring back our previously unloved less-than-deadly duo doesn’t it? Both have at various times been good enough to represent their country at age-group level. Xisco never seemed to get a fair chance in my eyes before being shipped out, and it’s hard to deny that at a footballing level Ranger is worthy of selection, despite his lack of first-team goals. He’s genuinely troubled Premier League defences with his power, enthusiasm and physicality. I remember a Liverpool defence in particular being ruffled by him and his appearance from the bench turning the game in our favour in one of Andy Carroll’s last games for us. Cue Ranger’s selection in the first team squad for this weekend’s match with Southampton.

The injury crisis explanation falls down though when you consider that both Xisco and Ranger had been returned to the squad and indeed to playing for the senior squad, albeit in the reserves, some time earlier than the injuries happened. Looking beyond that then, it would seem that they’ve been restored to the squad for one reason only. Newly Nigerian Shola Ameobi is to play in the African Cup of Nations in early 2013, and will possibly be unavailable from early January to mid-February.  We’ll be a chip off Ba’s glass knee away from Ameobi minor and Campbell being possible first choicers. If Cisse’s lack of form and confidence continues until then, that will be a striker crisis which outstrips the current one by an order of magnitude. It is of course only luck rather than judgement which means Ba & Cisse themselves won’t be attending.

The only question which needs answering is whether Ranger and Xisco have been restored to favour merely to bolster the squad in case reinforcements cannot be rapidly recruited in early January, or whether they’re to be our front-line pairing possibly for over a month while the AcoN continues. Past transfer windows suggest to me that Mike Ashley does not usually contemplate paying over the odds for short-term fixes. Some regard his stance as a gamble, which sometimes comes off and sometimes does not. His view is definitely more long term than to buy someone for the sake of a month’s lost points. Whether you approve of it or not, get used to the idea of this pair in Newcastle shirts soon.

Author: Mark Brophy

Website: for a back catalogue of Mark’s writing.

Follow Mark on Twitter @mark_brophy

Oct 1, 2012

The Definition of Insanity?

Mike Williamson goes for a headerI was recently told that the definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome’. The example given was walking repeatedly into a wall and thinking that you’d eventually be able to walk through it. Newcastle United’s indirect free kick routine may have been a suitable alternative.

We all know the drill by now, or at least we should do. When Newcastle get an indirect free kick, the set piece taker – usually Yohan Cabaye – will float the ball towards one corner of the penalty area where the 6 foot 5″ Mike Williamson will be waiting to either a) aim a header back across the face of goal for a team-mate or b) direct a header at goal himself. It’s grass roots football: essentially ‘get it in the air for the big lad’. It may work for Stoke, but it certainly hasn’t been the most productive approach for Newcastle.

The problem with this set piece routine for Newcastle is three-fold:

Firstly, it is far too predictable. At the highest level of the modern game, clubs employ scouts and analysts to scrutinise the opposition potentially weeks in advance of a fixture, with the brief of identifying team tactics and trends, including set pieces. Opposition sides know what to expect from Newcastle and set up accordingly, often by putting one or two of their tallest players on Williamson and holding a deeper defensive line to be able to attack the ‘second ball’ should he win the first header. There is little to nothing in the way of variety or surprise; expect the expected.

Secondly, such is the long distance and looping trajectory of the cross, it has often lost its pace by the time it reaches Williamson, who is then seldom able to self-generate any power should he win the header. The angle and height of the cross also gives Williamson’s marker(s) an equal run at it; there is little benefit to the attacker, unlike a cross which is fizzed in from a wide area.

Finally, Mike Williamson – for all he sounds like he could be a power forward for the Utah Jazz – isn’t that great in the end zone. Unlike the stocky Shola Ameobi, who has greater upper body strength, Williamson is slight in comparison and doesn’t have the same physicality to be able to hold off or overpower his man as effectively. I want to point out here that I do like Williamson and his height is an asset when defending, but he’s not a goal-scoring defender in the mould of Thomas Vermaelen or even Steven Taylor. In fact, Williamson is yet to score for Newcastle having made 69 appearances for the club.

Taking the above into account, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that Newcastle are one of only three sides yet to score from a set piece this season (the absence of Ryan ‘over-the-wall’ Taylor not helping matters) and scored the third least from set pieces in the whole of last season:

Premier League set piece productivity: 2012/13


Premier League set piece productivity: 2011/12


This is a far cry from the 2010/11 season, when Newcastle ended the season with 20 goals from set piece situations – the highest in the Premier League:

Set piece productivity: 2010/11


Funnily enough, the free kick routine used in the 2010/11 season is extremely similar to the one currently adopted. The difference then was that it was the powerful and angular Andy Carroll in the Williamson role, supported ably by the pinpoint delivery of Joey Barton. Although of similar heights, Carroll was far stronger in the air than Williamson is and that told in the amount of headed goals that he scored (5) and those that he assisted (6) often for Kevin Nolan. For all that was said in the summer about Carroll not being able to fit into Newcastle’s ‘new style of play’, whatever that is on current showing, United were a far greater aerial threat with him in the side than without and goals yielded from set pieces have drastically decreased since his £35 million departure.

As shown with Carroll, the looping set piece to the big man (for want of a better description) can work if you have the right target man. In Williamson, Newcastle don’t currently have that. As such, if there aren’t the right players for the job, why not try something different? Use Williamson as a decoy; use the predictability to your advantage. Work the ball down the flanks and look for a better angle to cross from. Play the ball short to Hatem Ben Arfa and just tell him to run with it. Hell, anything has to be better than the current approach which has at its best seen Williamson hit the post (Liverpool, 2011/12) and win a missed penalty (Norwich, 2012/13).

I’ll just leave this video here..

Alan Pardew alluded to bringing in a ‘set-piece specialist’ in his phone-in with BBC Radio Newcastle in the summer, yet frustratingly it doesn’t look as though any progress has been made on that front. Hopefully it remains a priority. For a side containing Jonas Gutierrez – the second highest fouled player this season, with 3 per game – set pieces are guaranteed and Newcastle being able to better take advantage could be the difference between winning and drawing, finishing in a European place or not.

The definition of insanity? Perhaps not. Time for a rethink? I’d suggest so.

Sep 12, 2012

What Price Appeasement: (a.k.a. 433 > 442)

On the 18th of August, Newcastle began their latest Premier League campaign excellently with a 2-1 win over what is hoped will be a rival for a European place come the end of the campaign.  However, the win was by no means a smooth one, a combination of lack of fitness and strategy meaning the away side controlled uncomfortable portions of the game, particularly in the first half.

On the day, fitness undoubtedly played a part – but the fresher, sharper looking Tottenham side had come to press and control midfield, crucially in a 433 layout, and could do without feeling much retaliation from the home side who had adopted the traditionally English 442.  Newcastle themselves had adopted a less familiar 433 to great effect in the latter stages of the season previous, but in reverted to the older system seemingly for one overriding reason – to accommodate both Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse as central strikers.

Ba began the 2011/12 season in earnest slightly later than most, but once he had rattled in a hat-trick against a powerless Blackburn side his goal scoring continued at superb pace.  Playing as the focal point of the attack, usually in a 442, Ba churned out 15 goals in the four months between his first and leaving to represent Senegal in the African Cup of Nations in January. His exploits were very impressive, but had been largely facilitated by the support given to him when partnered by Leon Best, and on occasion, Shola – whichever partner it happened to be concentrating on disrupting the defence and dropping deep to link midfield and attack.  Best had scored three in the six prior to Ba’s return to full fitness and regardless of expectation his barren spell appeared very coincidental.

Ba returned from the ACoN with international team-mate Papiss Cisse in tow, and no sooner had he arrived than Leon Best was injured and Cisse was thrust into the team to replace him – making a scoring debut alongside Ba against Aston Villa. The 442 which had seen Newcastle maintain a high league position past Christmas was maintained; however in the following five fixtures had sequence of unconvincing performances as the front two struggles for service and to understand their new roles. The benefit of hindsight allows us to say that this was not simply just a case of Cisse struggling with life in a new, foreign land.  The eventual teasing of Hatem Ben Arfa into the fold then lead Pardew to resurrect the 433 which had been briefly tested when the Senegalese pair were absent, resulting in instant success in a dynamic, attacking 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion, followed by a comprehensive outplaying of Liverpool the week after.

However, Ba’s role was to sacrifice his own opportunities in front of goal for the sake of the 433, and soon after attempts were made to ‘make good’ the 442 for the appeasement of some players.  Round pegs, slotted loosely into square holes and although all looked good on paper, the attacking fluidity, and crucially the midfield dominance of the 443 was lost. The effects were very apparent in the final game away to Everton, being comfortably beaten by a dominant toffees side.

Returning to this season, expectations were that a compromise would be found, or the 433 returned to – yet starting line-ups have yet to suggest anything other than persistence with the 442. All three Premier League games NUFC have started this way to great frustration – lacking service from the wings (critical to a 442) and struggling to compete in midfield, only to revert to the 433 in reaction. Perhaps it is only coincidence, but of the three games so far, NUFC have lost the first half of two, drawing one, whilst winning two and drawing one of the second periods…

Furthermore, when taking into account the larger stock of player availability in midfield (not to mention the cover an extra man gives to our wounded defence) and the options for the wide areas of the front three (Marveaux, Obertan, Sammy) the 433 arguably gives the squad a greater balance of selection. Certainly those factors make the decision to plough on with the 442 difficult to justify – if it is indeed largely for the appeasement of one man.

Perhaps a happier scenario, at least in terms of striker selection, would see a rotation of Ba and Cisse as central striker in the 433 – with a torrent of games on the horizon – with the benefit of maintaining fitness throughout and lowering to risk of injury through sustained overplaying?  Or maybe the scenario is far more drastic – sacrificing a player from selection for the greater good of the team. Although the latter is and should be avoided, we need only look at the will of more successful teams in doing so to benefit the greater goal.

For now, I personally can only hope a return to the 433 is imminent. Very soon NUFC will be embarking on a stern run of fixtures which will test the squad and staff almost too braking point – and in navigating this; they need only look at their professional attitude and sensible strategy of last season.

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Aug 16, 2012

NUFC 2012-13 Season Preview

On 18th of August 2012, Newcastle United kick-off their 19th Premier League campaign, the recent but brief visit to the Championship now seeming a very distant memory.

Far from the highly selective ‘second season syndrome’,  NUFC’s campaign last time out was our most successful , and arguably exciting, in years – the club visibly growing in strength and confidence as each month passed, each game was won and each goal went in.  Newcastle United undeniably exceeded expectations – even if stereotypes would have you incorrectly believe the finish merely satisfied the unquenchable thirst of the locals – but once success, in its many forms, has been tasted that taste is hard to ignore.

On the eve of last season, we described the months leading up to it as “some of the most radical and revolutionary in recent history” – the preceding months this time around have been nowhere near as volatile, but they have not needed to be.  Scroll down the squad list at this very day and you’ll see talent in abundance – established internationals and model professionals standing shoulder to shoulder with ambitious youth gazing on. And Nile Ranger. But for every ‘realist’ (and he will be correctly ignored) there has been a multitude of fresh faced upstarts beating on the proverbial door of the first team.

Krul’s rapid ascent from obscurity to key first teamer was as logical as it was encouraging, and with the likes of Abied, Tavernier and Vuckic, as well as the recruited Anita, Amalfitano, Bigirimana and Good replacing a mixture of spent and cumbersome players the squad is full of energy and ambition on the fringes to compliment the experience in the starting eleven.  The quality is definitely there.  However, pre-season preparations for the squad itself have again been lacking finesse.  Hastily arranged, then re-arranged fixtures altered destinations drastically – a long-haul to South Africa became neutral friendlies on European soil with a strange frequency.  Add into the mix the extended holiday for those on European Championship or international duty and all of a sudden games were falling at inconvenient times to reintroduce players into the cycle.  Some players, particularly Marveaux and Steven Taylor gathered valuable playing time – adversely key figures Cabaye and Ben Arfa received mere minutes and once again look unlikely to start the season fully fit.

A hectic start of five games in 15 days, part of which takes in Athens and London in 48 hours, will undoubtedly be demanding – particularly given the level of Premier League opposition faced.  But home comfort can be called upon in these tricky times as well as the aforementioned fringes of the squad who should be capable of assisting in traversing our Europa League qualifier successfully.  If only to provide more reassurance, we need only look to the shambolic pre-season experienced last time around and the unbeaten 11 league games that followed it.  A particular caution and resilience was required then – a time when we understood and worked to cover our weaknesses, regularly at the sake of open attacking football.  I can only suggest we adopt the same mentality once again to sail through potentially choppy waters.

European football, naturally, is a welcome return.  Beyond waving passports at makems, NUFC can once again further their reputation across the continent and the players themselves can enjoy the lower tier of what seems to be a minimum requirement of club involvement.  The extra strain of games in the Thursday / Sunday cycle (or Saturday when Sky’s shilling dictates) has the well recited word ‘fatigue’ echoing in your ears, but perhaps the most frustrating aspect to overcome is in the training routine itself.  As Alan Pardew himself said whilst being interviewed on Radio Newcastle, preparation for the games themselves (defensive set-ups etc) and traveling severely limit the opportunity to work on the finer points of a player’s, or the team’s overall game.  Whether this has any serious effect on the progress of a given player, such as Santon, or Ben Arfa’s improvements on the field last season, is unclear.

Talk has been of using the Europa league games as a vessel for getting mainly young players some invaluable experience – almost a ‘throw away’ competition where progress is preferred, but not required. Undoubtedly there will be younger players involved, and the experience invaluable – however, given the many issues the mere participation in the competition creates perhaps it would be far more sensible to prioritise success in this, over the League cup first, then the FA cup after?  League position will unfortunately take unchallenged priority again – the circumstances of modern football binding our hands along with every other top flight club.  After all, with every single move up the final Premier League table being worth £750k (a figure which is rising season by season), not to mention the reputation than goes with it, league position has a strong say over a club’s ability to retain their talent or not.

So, back to this season ahead, trying to calculate a realistic expectation poses great difficulty.  Would it be unfair to expect the same lofty heights from a group of players who undeniably hold the talent to compete with all but the very, very best?  Or will the strains of a difficult start coupled with the unfamiliarity of weekly jet setting deliver a sizeable enough early dent to our season-long perch?  Certainly one major worry is the potential return to form of those teams we overtook last season – Liverpool may continue to flounder, Chelsea perhaps not so.  Above, Tottenham look vulnerable in flux and Arsenal unpredictable without the goals of Robin ‘he leaves when he wants’ Van Persie – but will either of these yield?

The crux of success will once again lie in the bread and butter games – dropping the absolute minimum of points at home whilst grinding out sensible results away.  Yes, we expect to be entertained but form follows function – the function of points and league position. It means hanging on to 1-0 at home to QPR, packing the midfield at Sunderland, and allowing Swansea to having 99.99% of possession, because it is all about getting the best end result. But this season, if we are to be ambitious, it also means results at Anfield, Goodison, White Hart Lane and The Emirates.  If you want to sit securely at the top table, your place has to be earned…

Whatever happens, once again I personally will be satisfied to simply see our players match the effort mixed with occasional flamboyance shown last season.  It can’t be repeated enough the ability possessed with in pockets of the first team is as good as we’ve witnessed in black and white for years – all it needs is the right organisation and a strong backing.  And as fans we know what part we have to play in that…

Ho’way the mags.

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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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