Dec 31, 2011

Tactical analysis: Liverpool 3 Newcastle 1 in 5 key points

30.12.11 – Friday 7:45pm
Anfield
Barclays Premier League

Craig Bellamy scores for LiverpoolLiverpool 3
Bellamy 29, 67
Gerrard 78

Newcastle 1
Agger (own goal) 25

Newcastle continued their dismal record at Anfield in a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool; their 7th consecutive loss at the home of the Reds.

1. Team selection and tactics

Liverpool Newcastle tactics

Newcastle made only 1 change to the side that won 2-0 against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium on Boxing Day, with youngster Haris Vuckic replacing Leon Best. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish made a pair of changes to his Liverpool side that had drew 1-1 at home against Blackburn on Boxing Day. Jay Spearing replaced Maxi Rodriguez in midfield, while Craig Bellamy replaced perennial victim Luis Suarez in attack.

Alan Pardew, no doubt wary of Newcastle’s poor record at Anfield, switched from his favoured 4-4-2 formation to a more defensive, deep and narrow 4-4-1-1 and very much set Newcastle up to guard against the opposition’s strengths than play to their own. Liverpool also moved away from their 4-4-2 formation to a more attacking and expansive 4-3-3 formation with an emphasis on exploiting space in wide areas. The contrasting strategies of both sides meant that the game was mainly played in Newcastle’s half as they surrendered attacking impetus to their opponents.

2. Liverpool attack the flanks

Liverpool crosses

Red peppered - Liverpool's 22 unsuccessful crosses

The absence of Luis Suarez up front lead to Liverpool adopting a more direct approach, which played to the strengths of their lone front man Andy Carroll. Borrowed from the Martin O’Neill book of tactics, the game plan was a simple one – get the ball into wide areas and deliver crosses for Carroll to attack. A tactic which saw the Reds attempt 26 crosses in open play; almost quadruple the 7 that Newcastle played.

The majority of those crosses (65%) were played from the right side, with Stewart Downing regularly using his pace to get in behind Ryan Taylor (substituted at half time) before crossing or laying the ball off to Glen Johnson, playing almost as a second right winger, to deliver. On the whole, the crosses were of a substandard quality from Liverpool – often hit along the ground to Carroll’s visible frustration – and were dealt with reasonably well by Newcastle, but their crossing persistence paid off indirectly for the equaliser when a cleared cross fell to the feet of Bellamy to fire home.

3. Liverpool close and chase to win back possession

Liverpool tackles

LFC tackles: most in middle third

When without the ball, again, Liverpool’s game plan was simple. The players – in particular the central midfield trio of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing – were given instructions to pressurise their opponents to win back possession by working hard, chasing the ball, and closing down space for Newcastle to play into, which they generally did very well.

Spearing, of Pinky and the Brain fame, played in the defensive midfield role with the primary purpose of breaking up Newcastle’s play. Spearing carried out his defensive duties effectively and was the game’s top tackler with 4 tackles. Alongside him, Adam and Henderson, both typically more offensive minded midfielders, weighed in with 2 tackles each. The pressing tactic was an uncomplicated one, but helped to restrict Newcastle’s time on the ball and attacking options, often leading to them inadvertently giving the ball back to their opponents.

4. Newcastle lack attacking threat

To counter Liverpool’s attacking play in wide areas, the Newcastle wingers – Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan – generally tended to drop deeper to support their full backs who struggled when 1-on-1 against the pacey Liverpool wide men. However, this meant that when Newcastle won possession that their wingers were positioned deep in their own half where they couldn’t impact on the game in an attacking sense. On the odd time that they did have the ball in the opposition half, the overly-cautious full backs were short on support as Newcastle’s wing play faltered.

Newcastle passes

NUFC completed passes in LFC half - very few in final third

With space and time on the ball also restricted in the centre of midfield, and with Vuckic, playing as the link man between midfield and attack, generally playing with his back to goal (only completing 3 forward passes), Newcastle’s attacking play was limited. This often lead to hopeful balls played through the centre to isolated lone striker Demba Ba. The Premier League’s second top scorer put up an admirable fight and was unlucky not to score with a shot cleared off the line, but it was a tactic that was always sure to be short on returns against one of the strongest centre back pairings in the league – Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel – and so it proved.

5. Scores level, substitutes on

Gerrard heatmap

Freedom to roam: Gerrard's passing heat map

With 59 minutes played and the sides level at 1-1, Kenny Dalglish brought on Captain Steven Gerrard, returning from a long term injury, to replace Charlie Adam in the Liverpool midfield. Alan Pardew, as he had done to positive effect in Newcastle’s previous two fixtures, responded to the calls from the travelling support and brought on Hatem Ben Arfa, also recovering from a long term injury, for Haris Vuckic on 65 minutes. Both managers had used their ‘trick-up-the-sleeve’ substitution, but to varied success.

Brought on to increase Newcastle’s attacking threat, Ben Arfa was unable to find space in a crowded midfield area to take advantage. Although he used the ball well in the little time that he had it, he only managed 11 touches and was unable to complete a pass in the final third. Gerrard’s introduction, meanwhile, appeared to lift the performance levels of his teammates, as well as the Anfield crowd. With Spearing and Henderson providing the midfield axis, Gerrard was given freedom to roam from his central position and, without a man marker, found space well in attacking areas and delivered some excellent crosses from the right. A fine cameo appearance from Liverpool’s captain was capped by a well taken goal, which effectively ended the tie as a contest and wrapped up the 3 points for the home side.

At the end of the day…

Having suffered 6 consecutive defeats at Anfield prior to this and having also lost their final Premier League fixture of the year in their last 7 seasons in the top flight, the outcome was almost inevitable for Newcastle who again underperformed and returned from Anfield on the losing side.

Without wanting to be too harsh on a Newcastle side that have far exceeded expectations this season, the initial feeling post-match was one of frustration in not being able to take advantage of a Liverpool side missing key players and for gifting the second and third goals through defensive errors.

The Newcastle tactics seemed to be to keep possession, frustrate the home crowd and build steady attacks. Unfortunately, the only evidence of this was a 5 minute spell in which Newcastle kept the ball for 30-40 passes in front of the Kop in the second half.

At times, Newcastle almost looked in awe of their opponents and the occasion and, as well as looking uncharacteristically shaky in possession, perhaps showed too much respect to Liverpool who have dropped points to lesser teams already this season.

That said, given the expenditure by both sides in 2011, Liverpool should have been way out in front against Newcastle and, although they were the better team and deserved of the 3 points, there wasn’t that much in it until the introduction of Steven Gerrard on the hour mark. A defeat, but certainly not a disgrace.

Now at the half way stage of their season, Newcastle sit in 7th place on 30 points, although they could drop to 8th should Stoke win their next two fixtures before they next play. Regardless, it is still an excellent first half of the season by Alan Pardew and his men.

Next up for Newcastle is a home fixture against Man United on Wednesday night; 7:45pm kick off. Having held the champions to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in November, the Magpies will be hoping for at least the same in the return fixture. Thankfully Cabaye and Coloccini will both be available for the difficult fixture against the Red Devils, having both successfully avoided a fifth yellow card of the season at Liverpool which would have lead to a suspension.

Happy New Year to you all!


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Dec 29, 2011

Liverpool vs Newcastle: Tactical Preview

30.12.2011 – Friday 7:45pm

Location:  Anfield

Early prospects:  Familiar

After consigning the woes of Boxing Day travels to history, Newcastle take to the road again this Friday to face another traditionally miserable fixture – facing Kenny Dalglish’s shoestring budget Liverpool side at Anfield.

The performance against Bolton may have been less than convincing to some over the full 90 minutes, but a crucial return to our early season form of grinding out a win (particularly away from home) through disciplined organisation and ruthless finishing was very reassuring.  The badly missed physical addition of Mike Williamson did much for this to materialise, and will be needed even more as we face a far more difficult prospect this time around than that of struggling Bolton..

Team Line-ups:
Our hosts today are yet to lose a home fixture this season, equal only to Man City.  However their six draws at Anfield is more than any other PL side at home this season and their three wins is as many as Wolves have managed at home.  Glass half-full / half-empty…

Davide Santon is expected to be available for selection again after knee trouble saw him miss the trip to Bolton, largely as a precaution.  Whether he returns to the starting XI after Ryan Taylor’s tidy performance and assist in our previous fixture is another thing – thoughts tending towards Taylor staying put to continue his good partnership with Jonas Gutierrez.  Elsewhere, goal machine Demba Ba limped through the final minutes of the same fixture but looks okay to start in this fixture.  Hatem Ben Arfa staked a claim for a starting return and is likely to do so with Pardew favouring the 4411 formation in our more stern away fixtures.

The home side have eternal victim Luis Suarez banned for this fixture and will likely replace him with former NUFC striker Craig Bellamy.  Captain Steven Gerrard made a substitute return from injury on Boxing day, completing roughly 20minutes – despite the long term absence of Lucas Leiva it’s unlikely Gerrard will return to their starting XI just yet.

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
•    Shot heavy:  Liverpool have amassed the third highest shots per game out of all PL sides this season at an aggressive 18.3 per game, largely done so through their creative and passing ability in central midfield, combined with a typical 442 formation which looks to use width to provide service to the front two, as well as attacking from the side areas themselves.  Liverpool’s inability to turn these chances into goals has been a burden on their season – especially when considering their impressive defensive strength – but the sheer fact that they can regularly carve their opponents open is a very obvious strength, and danger to us.

•    Full back support:  As mentioned previously, The Reds regularly look to use width in attacking, with the majority of their play coming equally down either flank (as shown, right).  Much of their ability to do this is from the support afforded to their wide midfielders by full-backs Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique.  NUFC fans need not be reminded about Enrique’s insistence of getting forward, regularly pushing Jonas Gutierrez up the field with him in his time here.  The enthusiasm and work rate of both mean their defensive duties are not sacrificed as a result and both with will be a stubborn opposition through the entire 90minutes.

•    Tight defence:  After settling with a more dynamic and balanced (and younger) centre back pairing of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, as well as buying a much needed strong left-back (yes, we know who…) Liverpool’s defence looks as tight as ever, and the stats seem to support that.  They concede just over an average of 13 shots per game (fifth tightest in the PL) and have conceded the join least number of goals so far of 14 in 18 fixtures.  They do say to build from the back…

A final point of note is the ex-factor…  Hardly a scientific point of course, but prospectively with three former Newcastle players in their ranks, two forming the strike partnership the likelihood to be bitten in the backside is as notably dangerous as it is annoying…

Tactical suggestions:
•    Stay organised and disciplined:  Arguably the most important part of our strategy for this fixture.  A quick review Liverpool’s form strongly suggests we will be on the back foot for most of the game – if NUFC can react to this probable eventuality then the right attitude can be adopted do limit opposition chances, increase control of the ball and carve out more of our own counter attacking opportunities.  Going fluid and trying to match Liverpool toe to toe would be taking a huge risk (although granted, it would be a cracking game to watch…) and one far less likely to reap point rewards.

•    Smother Adam:  Charlie Adam has taken to life at Liverpool without much trouble, and although not as crucially integral to the entire team as he was at Blackpool he plays a very important part in driving the team forward from midfield and creating chances.  Averaging 51 passes per game (second only to gthe now injured Lucas), keeping Adam under close scrutiny will help limit his influence and Liverpool’s fluency greatly.

•    Limit the crosses:  Liverpool’s average of 29 crosses per game is unsurprisingly the highest of all PL teams – with one nearly every three minutes.  Given the very real and obvious aerial threat of Andy Carroll waiting in the centre we should look to limit this service wherever possible.

Final thought and gut feeling:
The win at Bolton was very timely in preventing a downturn in form becoming something of real concern.  But we should equally not overestimate it – the win was a functional three points but only three points and means little when competing for your next three points.  Offer me a draw now and I will take that without question – however we will have to approach this fixture with supreme discipline to take that.


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Dec 28, 2011

Hatem Ben Arfa: what we can learn from Chelsea

As he stepped towards the white line the crowd gave a roar, they had waited a year for this moment. Hatem Ben Arfa was now returning to the stage after a difficult first season in English football.

Over the past twelve months Newcastle fans have consoled themselves with Youtube clips and regaling the stories of ‘that day at Goodison park’. Time gives good memories a nostalgic gloss that is often hard to wipe away. Many still see the mercurial Frenchman glide across the turf leaving  Everton players in his wake. The ultimate highlight of that day was without question his goal, and it was hard not to get lost in the potential player the club had just acquired.

Little were fans to know that less than a month later Ben Arfa would be clutching an oxygen mask after a somewhat reckless challenge by Nigel De Jong. Over 12 months on Ben Arfa has returned, but so much has changed since he first appeared in black and white. The team, the tactics, even the manager has changed. Admittedly the new surroundings all seem better suited to his talents.

As a fan it is difficult to stay objective with a player like Ben Arfa. He excites with his play and evokes memories of former gallic wingers like Laurent Robert and David Ginola, if for his passport more than playing style. Given the number 10 by Alan Pardew, the assignment gave connotations that Ben Arfa was to operate between the midfield and attack. He is seen as the link man who would be given the space to drive at defenders.

His first few outings have been mixed, the skill is still there but the fluency is lacking as you may  expect with such a long term injury. It’s at this point I’m inclined to regress to that day at Goodison Park. Chris Hughton was somewhat rigid in his tactics, meaning Ben Arfa was played out wide, a role that actually seemed to benefit him.

We look back to our recent fixture at home to Chelsea and observe our then opponents to see that a modern wide man does not necessarily stay wide…

The drifter
Juan Manuel Mata was a large part of Chelsea’s attack that day, embarrassing Danny Simpson at one point, his touches and awareness as well as his ability to play the pitch horizontally was a constant problem for Newcastle. On the traditional chalk board he operates on the left wing, but in truth he rarely stays there.

In years gone by Mata may have been lambasted for drifting inside, his forrays into the middle of the pitch may have been construed as a players lacking in discpline. However as fans witnessed first hand, for a team such as Newcastle that does not (at this moment in time) operate with a defensive midfielder, the drifting wide man can cause havoc in the pockets of space between midfield and defence (akin to David Silva at Manchester City).

Ben Arfa out wide
This is where I introduce Ben Arfa to the frame. Adopting him in a wide position he is essentially the antithesis of the opposing wing and Jonas Gutierrez. Not as hard working as the Argentine, he is more skillful and far more likely to create chances for Demba Ba or Leon Best.

Analyzing Mata’s chalkboard from the fixture in early December* (something we touched on in the match analysis at the time) we see that much of his passing is done down the left flank. He does however drift inside to the centre of the pitch and to the edge of Newcastle’s box.

We can draw similar conclusions from the chalkboard of the Newcastle-Everton game last season**. Whilst not a carbon copy of Mata’s game Ben Arfa was more prominent on the flank and on the edge of the box.

Pushing the concept further with particular reference to the Manchester United game this season***. Ben Arfa’s passing suggests a natural leaning to the right side of the pitch. Ergo in theory deploying him on the left should make him far more inclined to drift.

   

Fighting for space
It’s difficult to decide whether Chelsea came prepared for Ben Arfa, or if their natural formation is of detriment to an attacking midfielder. Either way their summer signing from Barcelona Oriel Romeu proved once again why he’s earning such rave reviews. Inhabiting the area between midfield and the back four he left little space for Ben Arfa to operate. On the rare occasion he did pick up the ball he was greeted by at least two or three blue shirts.

Formation change
In the wider context of the starting eleven this move could also see a change of formation. If the game against Chelsea denoted one thing, it’s that Alan Pardew is not afraid of modify or tinker tactically. While I struggle to agree with his deployment of 4-3-3 against Chelsea given the players available, with a fully fit squad it may actually be the best tactical formation for Newcastle.

A midfield trio of Guthrie, Cabaye and Tiote should be able to dominate the middle of the park and offer the right blend of power and control. Supplement this with the strong work ethic of Jonas out right and Ben Arfa on the left the formation essentially mirrors that of Chelsea’s both in layout and the type of players used.

Cabaye remembers
It should also be considered that the formation holds further benefit for another Frenchman, Yohan Cabaye. His title winning side at Lille operated in an almost identical fashion to the one proposed. In that side Gervinho and Eden Hazard were the compliments to Moussa Sow up front with Rio Mavuba operating in the role assigned to Tiote.

Of course the same could be achieved in a traditional 4-4-2. The concern there however, is the lack of cover for Danny Simpson. Tracking back is not a word readily associated with Ben Arfa meaning Simpson could be left exposed. This problem is rectified by having a defined three man midfield with Tiote moving across to cover.

With lesser defensive responsibilities Ben Arfa is allowed the freedom to create and occupy the opposition fullback. As many witnessed first hand on Saturday with Mata, this can have devastating consequences.

Conclusion
To slightly digress from statistics and cite a personal opinion, I believe that Ben Arfa out wide would be far more beneficial, especially when the opposition deploys a defensive midfielder.

To conclude, I believe patience will be key with Ben Arfa. Four games into his career when injury struck, he was still adapting to English football which much like a leg break has no definitive time frame of completion. Without question he is a talent, but I believe his true worth will not be seen until Alan Pardew is able to utilize him correctly.

Dec 27, 2011

Tactical analysis: Bolton 0 Newcastle 2 in 5 key points

26.12.11 – Monday 3pm
The Reebok Stadium
Barclays Premier League

Ben Arfa celebrates goalBolton 0

Newcastle 2
Ben Arfa 69
Ba 71

Newcastle returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over struggling Bolton at The Reebok Stadium; ending a 6 game spell without a win and picking up their first on Boxing Day since 1988.

1. Team selection and tactics

Newcastle Bolton tactics

Newcastle made 3 changes to the side that lost 3-2 at home to West Brom on Wednesday night. Mike Williamson returned from injury to replace James Perch in central defence, Yohan Cabaye was available after suspension and took the place of Haris Vuckic in central midfield, while Ryan Taylor started at left back with Davide Santon ruled out through injury. Bolton manager Owen ‘Barclays Premier League’ Coyle made 2 changes to the side that had won 2-1 at Blackburn in their last outing; full backs Dedryk Boyata and Paul Robinson replacing Gretar Steinsson and Marcos Alonso.

Alan Pardew kept faith with his preferred 4-4-2 formation, which he used for the fourth game in a row, and looked for his side to create opportunities on the wings and through the sheer endeavour of his strike partnership; Demba Ba and Leon Best. Bolton also lined up in a 4-4-2 formation and, with Mark Davies typically cutting inside from his right midfield berth, they often looked to the pace of left winger Martin Petrov as their main outlet and creator.

2. Williamson returns to shore up the defence

Williamson clearances

Williamson's 12 clearances

Having conceded 7 goals in 3 games since losing Steven Taylor to injury, the return of Mike Williamson alongside Fabricio Coloccini was a welcome one for Newcastle. Although James Perch, to his credit, has performed admirably when filling in at centre back, at 5″11 and of a slight frame he has struggled aerially when facing taller and stronger defenders, none more notably than Norwich’s Grant Holt/Steve Morison, and the return of 6″4 Williamson helped to boost Newcastle’s aerial strength in defence.

Williamson made 12 clearances, more than any other player for either side. He also won each of the 3 tackles that he challenged for on the ground and was composed in possession with 81% of his passes finding a teammate; showing that he is capable with his feet as he is in the air. It was an assured return to first team action for Williamson, albeit against a poor Bolton side, who helped his side record their 6th clean sheet of the season. Providing that he can stay fit for a prolonged period, Williamson’s presence in Newcastle’s defence will help to fill the void left by the injured Steven Taylor.

3. Raylor attacks from left back

Ryan Taylor passes

Taylor's successful passes. Most took place in Bolton's half

With the attack-minded Davide Santon ruled out through injury, the ever reliant Ryan Taylor was brought in at left back. The change brought with it questions as to whether it would negate Newcastle’s left sided attacking threat, as it has done earlier in the season when Gutierrez has dropped deeper to support his slightly more vulnerable and out of position colleague, however Taylor put paid to this with an encouraging attacking display from left back.

Taylor had more touches of the ball (64) than any other outfield player for Newcastle and regularly looked to get forward to provide an option for Newcastle in the final third. He linked up well with Gutierrez, often making himself an option, overlapping, and creating space in attacking areas. Unlucky not to score with a free kick earlier in the game, Taylor capped off a fine offensive performance from full back with an accurately measured pass from the by-line for Newcastle’s opener.

4. Newcastle’s right side focus

With Marcos Alonso missing out through injury, veteran left back Paul Robinson was drafted in to mark Gabriel Obertan. This individual battle favoured the younger, quicker and taller Obertan and, as highlighted in our preview, gave the young Frenchman a real opportunity to take advantage and use his pace to get in behind Robinson to provide crosses for Ba and Best. This opportunity was identified by Newcastle who played 41% of their football down Obertan’s right, compared to only 26% on the left.

Newcastle right side focus

Newcastle's right side focus

Obertan was unable to get in behind Robinson, who backed off and showed him inside, as much as he would like, but crucially on one of the few occasions that he did, he provided an assist with a low cross to Demba Ba for Newcastle’s second goal. There’s still plenty of work to be done in relation to Obertan’s development, but it was pleasing to see his contribution against Bolton recognised by the travelling support who applauded him off the pitch when substituted – certainly far more productive for his confidence than the jeers which have greeted him by some sections of the crowd in recent home games.

5. Ben Arfa beats Bolton

Ben Arfa heatmap

Nomadic: Ben Arfa passing heat map

On the hour mark, and with neither side looking like scoring the game’s opening goal, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew made the first of his substitutions and brought on Hatem Ben Arfa for Leon Best. And in the same way that the introduction of Ben Arfa changed Newcastle’s attacking play in their last game against West Brom, it did so again against Bolton. Newcastle changed to a more fluent 4-4-1-1 with Ben Arfa playing off lone striker Demba Ba, although the formation could have also been interpreted as a 4-2-3-1 such were the high positions that wingers Gutierrez and Obertan took up as Newcastle increased their attacking emphasis.

Ben Arfa rarely stuck to his position, cleverly dropping deep and drifting to the right wing to find space and link the play. With Ben Arfa playing in between the midfield and attacking lines, Bolton seemed unsure whether to hand man marking duties to a midfielder (natural choice Fabrice Muamba subbed off shortly after Ben Arfa came on) or for one of the central defenders to pick him up when he moved into the final third, and instead did neither. This tactical uncertainty was evident in Newcastle’s opening goal when Ben Arfa arrived into the box unmarked to coolly convert Ryan Taylor’s left win cross; his introduction ultimately proving to be the catalyst for Newcastle’s victory.

At the end of the day…

It perhaps wasn’t the most elegant of attacking performances that we will see from Newcastle this season, but they were patient and clinical with the opportunities that they created and were deserved of the win.

Bolton manager Owen Coyle spoke of his disappointment post-match at his team’s inability to win the game, but, in truth, they rarely threatened and were second best in most areas and certainly in terms of chances created with only 1 shot on target to Newcastle’s 5.

The victory was crucial for Newcastle, to end a barren run of 6 games without a win and to inject some confidence and self-belief ahead of consecutive difficult fixtures against Liverpool and Man Utd.

The first of those games, and the last game of 2011, comes on Friday night against Liverpool at Anfield, 7:45pm kick off.

Following the Boxing Day results, 7th placed Newcastle now sit just a point behind 6th placed Liverpool which makes Friday night’s fixture an intriguing one. With Liverpool failing to beat Sunderland, Norwich, Swansea and Blackburn at Anfield this season, it’s not inconceivable that a rejuvenated Newcastle side could take something from the game, providing that they set up correctly and nullify the opposition.

Here’s hoping they can end an excellent 2011 on a high.


As always, if you want our instant news and (kneejerk) reaction to anything Newcastle United or football related then follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/leazesterrace or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/leazesterrace

Dec 23, 2011

Bolton vs Newcastle: Tactical Preview

26.12.2011 – Boxing Day 3:00pm

Location:  The Reebok Stadium

Early prospects:  It’s boxing day, and it’s away…

Newcastle take to the road again this Boxing day looking to halt a retched run of results, against Bolton Wanderers, in what is traditionally the least point wielding fixture of an NUFC season.

The utter deflation felt after the loss to West Bromwich Albion was plain to see across players and fans alike, with the inevitable frustrations in the rank and file becoming more vocal throughout the evening and into the night.  In fairness, those frustrations have some ground as NUFC sought to become their own worst enemy on the pitch again.  However, dismay from those who turn up with a primary role to support the team regardless of performance can only further aggravate the problems that have befouled us on the most deflating of runs.  As a collective, we have to hold our nerve and fervently encourage those representing us on the pitch no matter how disappointed we are with them: you reap what you sow…

Team Line-ups:
Our opponents today come into this game looking for their first back-to-back wins of this season – having lost a devastating five in a row before winning at Blackburn in their last fixture.

NUFC are assessing the fitness of Davide Santon, and are likely to reintroduce Ryan Taylor to left back as a precaution.  Other than that there are no new injuries of note, however the visible lack of match sharpness of Cheick Tiote was something of alarming concern against West Brom and could lead to him being replaced by Yohan Cabaye, returning from suspension.  Although having mixed involvement in his PL debut, Haris Vuckic could likely keep his place after a few memorable surges from midfield.  The only question is whether Alan Pardew will revert to his would be usual first choice centre partnership for the experience (in particular the positional discipline Vuckic failed to show) away from home.

Bolton have confirmed they have already opened talks regarding the sale of sought after defender Gary Cahill – despite the proximity to the transfer window opening it’s still expected that he will take on this fixture.  Full back Marcos Alonso suffered a foot injury in the crucial win over Blackburn and will miss this fixture, likely to be replaced by Paul Robinson.  Otherwise, a very similar line-up is expected.

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
Having lost a stunning 13 out of their 17 games (more than bottom club Blackburn), Bolton are looking every bit as weak as their lowly position suggests.  However, NUFC have presented their own weakness for all to see in recent fixtures, and it’s likely it’s not went un-noticed in Greater Manchester.

•    Set piece danger:  Bolton have scored 1/3 of their goals (7) so far this season by way of set-pieces.  NUFC with Steven Taylor would have been well equipped to deal with this threat, but with James Perch (through no fault of his own) lacking the raw physical attributes to comfortably control aerial situations we look vulnerable to any well placed ball into our own penalty area.  The re-introduction of Mike Williamson would go a significant way to nullifying this threat, but with his fitness still under scrutiny we may have to keep waiting.

•    Threat from wide:  By way of the direct enthusiasm and pace Mark Davies and Martin Petrov.  Bolton direct an average 38% of their play down their left side – prospectively facing Ryan Taylor.  Although the cover of Gutierrez will be again available, the likely result would see out left flank limited as an attacking threat and allow Bolton to gain a regular attacking foothold themselves.

Tactical suggestions:
Perhaps the best strategy for this fixture is a return to the early season success story – a disciplined, organised performance looking to grind out a result rather than try waltz to one…

•    Lower the line:  Without doubt, NUFC’s funadmental undoing against West Brom was the high line which allowed their faster, more enthusiastic strikers get in behind our line with relative ease.  Bolton may not have the same creative and striking talent as The Baggies, but enough pace and enthusiasm in their front two to take advantage again if we push up recklessly.

•    Target Robinson:  With Marcos Alonso out injured, veteran Paul Robinson will likely be his replacement at full-back.  With pace to burn, Gabriel Obertan should look to make the most of his advantage to get behind the Bolton back line and provide service to the centre.  As noted in the ‘Key Points’ analysis of the West Brom game, NUFC gained little to no service from either flank and instead looked to aimlessly chip the ball to Demba Ba (who to his credit battled to create his own chances from this).  NUFC would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore this opportunity.

Final thought and gut feeling:
Had we played this game five weeks ago, a win would have been thoroughly expected.  However, the entailing results (regardless of opposition) have gone some distance to knock confidence and discipline out of an NUFC side (and support) who showed every unwanted attribute a wobbling team could do against West Brom.  Add to this the factor of it being Boxing Day – a day on which we haven’t won any away game (or played particularly well) within living memory and the signs aren’t great.  However, we are playing a struggling side and we do still have the advantage of an in-form Demba Ba to call upon so there are signs that all could not be as doom and gloom as at first glance: score draw.

On a final note:  A sincere and fully appreciated thank-you to everyone who has read our posts, commented (constructively!) and been involved with our twitter this year – you are the reason we do this and enjoy doing this!  Merry Christmas one and all!


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