Dec 22, 2011

Tactical analysis: Newcastle 2 West Brom 3 in 5 key points

21.12.11 – Wednesday 7:45pm
St James’ Park
Barclays Premier League

Paul ScharnerNewcastle 2
Ba 34, 81

West Brom 3
Odemwingie 20
McAuley 44
Scharner 84

Newcastle extended their unwanted winless streak to 6 games with a 3-2 home defeat against West Brom.

1. Team selection and tactics

Newcastle West Brom tactics

Newcastle made only 1 change to the side that had drawn 0-0 with Swansea at St James’ Park only 4 days, previous with Haris Vuckic coming into central midfield in the absence of the suspended Yohan Cabaye. West Brom manager Roy Hodgson also made just the 1 change to the West Brom side that had won 2-1 at Blackburn in their last outing; Jerome Thomas replacing injured pop crooner James Morrison on the right of midfield.

Newcastle, for the third game in succession, lined up in a 4-4-2 formation and generally looked to build attacks on the flanks with the full backs getting forward to provide support. West Brom also set up in a 4-4-2 formation and typically adopted a counter attacking style of play – always looking to exploit Newcastle’s natural, and sometimes over-exuberant, attacking tendencies through quick breakaways. Both teams were fairly evenly matched and, although using different strategies, both played to win which made for an entertaining and lively football match.

2. West Brom’s wandering strikers create width

Odemwingie and Long heatmaps

WBA's wandering strikers. Passing heatmaps - Top: Long. Bottom: Odemwingie.

Although West Brom lined up with two natural wingers – Chris Brunt on the left and Jerome Thomas on the right – they often drifted inside. Brunt, in particular, played 52% of his passes in the central area of the pitch, including the superbly weighted pass to Odemwingie for Albion’s opener. This gave West Brom extra bodies in the centre but short on the wings, areas which were adequately filled by the tireless strike partnership of Odemwingie and Long.

Both players, rather than sticking to their central striking roles, willingly took up positions in wide areas when required. They were clever in their movement, non-stop in their work-rate and, as such, posed as difficult an attacking partnership as any other that Newcastle have faced this season. Their movement into wide areas was key to West Brom’s attacking fluency and ultimately culminated in the winning goal when Long’s right wing cross was prodded home by Paul Scharner, following a smart header back from Odemwingie.

3. Newcastle’s high line exploited by WBA counter

Perhaps to encourage attacking play and to squeeze the game in their opponents’ half, Newcastle pushed far up the pitch and held a high defensive line. However, up against the speed and movement of Odemwingie and Long, both who held their onside position very well, and West Brom’s effective counter attacking football this was destined for disaster and so it proved.

The game’s opening goal resulted from a simple, but accurate, pass straight through the centre of Newcastle’s defence to Odemwingie, who used his pace to exploit the acres of space in behind before slotting past Krul. Shane Long then broke through the high line in the second half and should have put his side 3-1 up, but saw his shot cannon back off the crossbar with Krul stranded. Failing to heed their warning, Newcastle were undone again 5 minutes from time when Long again made full use of Newcastle’s high line frailties before crossing for Albion’s winner. A requirement for playing such a high line, as Chelsea have found out to their detriment lately, is that it requires pace – something which Newcastle’s defence was sorely lacking against West Brom.

NEwcastle high line

Newcastle's high defensive line exposed for West Brom's third goal


4. Poor wing play sees Newcastle go long

Obertan completed passes

Obertan completed passes. 9 of 15 played backwards

Again, it was a day to forget for Gabriel Obertan. The Frenchman was frustrating in his decision making and delivery in the final third. Regularly passing backwards and cutting inside than simply using his pace to get to the by-line and cross the ball into the box, a la Keith Gillespie. A worrying pattern; Obertan failed to find a teammate with any of his 3 crosses and looks desperately in need of a confidence boost or, perhaps, being temporarily withdrawn from the line of fire. The jeering on his substitution from some parts certainly won’t have helped his apparent lack of confidence.

On the other wing, Jonas Gutierrez fared a bit better with 3 of his 8 crosses finding a teammate. However, with such little productivity or success from wide areas, Newcastle resorted to playing hopeful aerial balls through the centre to Leon Best and Demba Ba. Although Best and Ba did reasonably well in their aerial battles, and of course Ba played superbly overall, they were frequently too far apart to take advantage should one win a header, and up against the towering 6″6 Jonas Olssen and 6″3 Gareth McAuley this looked a flawed strategy from the start.

5. Plan B(en Arfa)

Ben Arfa's passes. Assist shown in white.

Just after the hour mark, with the score at 2-1, Alan Pardew responded to the calls of the St James’ crowd and brought on Hatem Ben Arfa for the tiring Leon Best. The introduction of Ben Arfa brought with it a change of formation as Newcastle switched to a 4-4-1-1, with Ben Arfa playing in a central support striker role behind Ba. Up until this point Newcastle were perhaps too one dimensional with their play, but the change of personnel and formation gave them another attacking angle and encouraged keeping the ball on the ground.

Ben Arfa was given license to roam from his position and often dropped deep to receive the ball from his defensive colleagues. He was positive in his approach play and, although dispossessed on a couple of occasions, his directness concerned Albion. He achieved the highest passing accuracy of any other player with 93% and laid the ball off for Ba’s second goal following some smart interplay on the edge of the area. Without another dynamic striker to partner Demba Ba, Newcastle’s 4-4-2 formation has looked limited of late and it may well be that, as his fitness increases, Ben Arfa will begin to see more game time from the start in forthcoming fixtures.

At the end of the day…

For the second time in only 4 days there is a feeling of deflation and disappointment, following Newcastle’s inability to take 3 points from a home game in which they created enough chances to win.

Like Swansea before them, West Brom had a game plan – to soak up pressure and hit Newcastle on the counter attack – which they executed to perfection and for that are deserving of the 3 points.

With a bit of luck and better accuracy, however, it is not inconceivable that Newcastle could have scored more than the 2 that they did from their 26 shots. Haris Vuckic twice went close from range, while Cheick Tiote’s shot was stopped from close range at the death. Yet, Newcastle simply weren’t as clinical as their opponents from the Midlands who were far more efficient with their chances; scoring more goals from less shots attempted (15).

With 8th place Stoke losing at Man City, Newcastle remained in 7th place in the table on 27 points from the 51 available.

Newcastle return to action on Boxing day with a trip to the Reebok Stadium to face troubled Bolton, 3pm kick off. Having lost their last 5 Boxing Day games in the Premier League, and only yielding 3 points from the last 8 trips to the Reebok, the omens aren’t exactly good for Newcastle who will be looking to pick up maximum points ahead of two difficult games coming up against Manchester United and Liverpool.

Merry Christmas!

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Dec 20, 2011

Newcastle vs West Brom: Tactical Preview

21.12.2011 – Wednesday 7:45pm

Location:  St James’

Early prospects: Needlessly nervy

Newcastle United take to the field at St James’ for the second time in five days to take on Roy Hodgson’s West Bromwich Albion, looking for a win to achieve the targeted ‘30 points by Christmas’.

Just like the Swansea game four days earlier, the game presents a very reasonable opportunity to prevent a fruitless run of fixtures turning into an actual slide.  A weaker NUFC side were unlucky enough to go five games without a win last season, on two occasions in fact, but never managed to let it slip to a more concerning 6th.  Our points already on the board have made this rough patch far easier to ride, but with the dreaded trio of fixtures long since played and the centre back injury crisis drastically eased by the return of Coloccini it’s time once again to get back to winning ways before we hit the road during the Christmas holidays.  

Team Line-ups:

Despite a couple of worrying moments where players looked to be struggling against Swansea, NUFC are again without a new injury to worry about.  However, a fifth yellow card for the season for Yohan Cabaye means he will serve a one game ban.  With Guthrie still out injured, Gosling suspended and Alan Smith seemingly finished as a starter for NUFC, we can chose from Hatem Ben Arfa, Medi Abeid or Haris Vuckic to play at central midfield alongside Tiote – the latter perhaps being tested out by Pardew in the latter stages of the Swansea game when it was already known Cabaye would be suspended.  James Perch had a far more comfortable game alongside Coloccini and could keep his place, although it’s likely Williamson will come back into the starting XI if deemed fit enough to get matches back under his belt.

Liverpool legend Roy Hodgson has kept a fairly consistent line-up this season with only 14 players having made more than one starting XI appearance – sticking largely with a traditional 442 layout, but occasionally deploying a 4411.  With both star strikers Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long fit and it’s likely The Baggies will field a very similar 442 line-up as the one which beat struggling Blackburn at Ewood Park on Saturday.  Paul Scharner, Youssuf Mulumbu and James Morrison are all rated doubtful for this game, but all played at least 80minutes on Saturday, so the expectation is that they may all make it for this game.  Anything that keeps NUFC menace Somen Tchoyi away from us, the better…

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:

•    Forward line:  With the smart purchase of Shane Long this summer, West Brom have the advantage of a dynamic, balanced and fairly potent forward line.  Combined, the two have been responsible for eight goals so far this season, although that figure is arguably underplayed by Odemwingie having only started eight of WBA’s matches so far this season.  The pair are driven, intelligent, can created their own chances and rarely waste an opportunity when they get it. They’ll be a handful if given space to play.

•    Technique:  A particular danger is WBA’s danger from long range shots, from the likes of James Morrison, Chris Brunt et al.  Although not often highlighted, NUFC have a tendency to back off play when in front of our own penalty area looking to maintain defensive organisation.  The likelihood is we’ll need help from midfield to close down and dissuade shots from distance – and with nearly half of their shots come from outside the 18 yard box that help will have to be at hand consistently.

•    Organisation and balance:  Coming naturally with Roy Hodgson’s managerial side, WBA stick to a pretty disciplined, perhaps rigid, layout but with the advantage of having an even mix of grit and flair in midfield.  Their shape allows them to provide support from the full backs (both Steven Ried and Nickey Shorey registering assists this season) while retaining a pretty solid core with Mulumbu and Scharner.

Tactical suggestions:
Up against a likely 442 / 4411, NUFC should find this game far more to their taste than the previous.  However, some of the problems that lead to us finding it difficult to break down Swansea could should be looked to be remedied in this game.

•    Get the left flank working again:  A second start for Davide Santon at left back was perhaps not surprising after an assured enough performance against Norwich, but his 2nd appearance highlighted a particular issue – the attacking contribution of Jonas Gutierrez.  Santon’s assurance in defence, and positivity going forward meant he didn’t require the same level of protection that Ryan Taylor has been afforded, effectively leaving Jonas fairly under-used during the game.  Although still getting to grips with playing as a partnership, it would be beneficial to see Gutierrez take a more positive approach to attacking in this game with support from the eager Santon, to provide what is a very capable threat from the left side.

•    More deliveries from Obertan:  Without getting into an unnecessary debate over the long term playing benefits of our 22 year old Frenchman, one thing that could do his game a great short term boost as well as benefiting the team as a whole is him simply attempting more crosses.  Against Swansea he attempted only five crosses (completing two, shown right) in his time on the field, despite being heavily involved in the first half.  He may have shown inconsistency with his crosses, but he undoubtedly has the pace to create himself an opening to cross – and with the aerial threat of Ba in particular it could reap rewards.  A little positivity could go a long way.

Final thought and gut feeling:
Far from this being a ‘must-win’ game in the sense that Blackburn vs Bolton will be tomorrow, we have to get back to winning ways sooner rather than later – lest we watch our brilliant start go to waste.  We’ve struggled against a more flamboyant West Brom outfit in recent times (failing to beat them in the last five meetings), but their vulnerability at the back remains and their new found rigidity has seen them create and score less than recent times.  With home advantage I fancy us again, but again, only just: narrow home win.

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Dec 18, 2011

Tactical analysis: Newcastle 0 Swansea 0 in 5 key points

17.12.11 – Saturday 3pm
St James’ Park
Barclays Premier League

Ba against SwanseaNewcastle 0

Swansea 0

Having suffered defeat against Premier League new boys Norwich last weekend Newcastle fared better against league debutants Swansea, but were unable to convert one of the many chances that their play merited and had to settle for a 0-0 draw against the hardened Welsh side.

1. Team selection and tactics

Newcastle Swansea tactics

Newcastle, boosted by the return of captain Fabricio Coloccini and Cheick Tiote, made 3 changes to the side that had lost 4-2 away to Norwich last weekend. The aforementioned Coloccini and Tiote replaced Ryan Taylor and the suspended Dan Gosling in the starting line up. Coloccini lined up alongside James Perch in central defence, which allowed Danny Simpson to return to his usual right back position. The only other change saw Leon Best preferred over Shola Ameobi up front, who dropped to the bench. Swansea made 2 changes to the side that had defeated Fulham 2-0 at the Liberty Stadium, with Joe Allen and Danny Graham replacing Luke Moore and Leroy Lita.

Newcastle, as they had done against Norwich, used a 4-4-2 formation with two willing and powerful strikers – Demba Ba and Leon Best – and an emphasis on attack. Swansea lined up in a rough 4-2-3-1 formation, although it could have been interpreted as a 4-5-1 formation at times such was the gap between the midfield and lone front man Danny Graham. Brendan Rogers’ side set up to defend, and break on the counter, but rarely threatened when in possession of the ball which made for a very one sided game of football in Newcastle’s favour.

2. Newcastle press to prevent Swansea’s possession play

Vorm pass comparison

Top; Vorm passes vs Newcastle. Bottom; Vorm passes vs Fulham.

Much has been made already this season about Swansea’s style of play and their penchant for patient possession football – keeping the ball on the ground and retaining play in the defensive and midfield thirds of the pitch through quick, often backwards or sidewards, passes – encouraging the opposition to step out of position and to exploit the spaces that appear. This had not gone unnoticed by Alan Pardew, who set his side up to press high up the pitch and guard against the opposition’s preferred style of play.

Newcastle were work-man-like in their game plan when without the ball with each player putting their Swansea counterpart under pressure to restrict their time on the ball, space and options, whilst also keeping their positional discipline. This tactic was executed very well by the well-briefed Newcastle players and effectively nullified Swansea’s attacking game plan. Perhaps the most notable example of Newcastle’s high pressing was when Swansea had a goal kick. Rather than allowing goalkeeper Michel Vorm to play a short ball to a teammate, as is his preference, the Newcastle players marked their opponents tightly and regularly forced the Swans’ keeper to instead play a long ball and thus often surrendering possession.

3. Tiote and Cabaye control crowded midfield

Tiote passing

Tiote spreads the play - 61 of 70 completed passes shown

Despite being outnumbered against Swansea’s central midfield trio of Joe Allen, Leon Britton and Mark Gower (replaced by Kemy Agustien in a like-for-like swap at half time), Newcastle’s central midfield pairing of Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye overcame their numerical disadvantage to control the central midfield area. Both players performed their defensive and attacking duties well. They were determined in their work rate to break up play and positive in their distribution to maintain Newcastle’s attacking momentum.

Tiote, returning from a 6 game absence through injury, had 84 touches of the ball, more than any other player, and won all of the 4 tackles that he competed for. He also attempted more passes (70) than any other player with an impressive 87% finding a teammate. Cabaye, meanwhile, had 78 touches of the ball, more than any Swansea midfielder, also made 4 tackles and achieved an 80% pass completion rate. The figures highlighting both players’ authority on the game.

4. Santon surges forward to support

Santon passing heatmap

Santon passing heat map. 64% in Swansea half.

Up against the quick-footed former Newcastle winger Wayne Routledge, Davide Santon, making only his 2nd league start for Newcastle, read the game well making 4 tackles, and won his individual battle with the diminutive winger who was later switched to the opposite flank. However, it was going forward that Santon impressed. The young full back regularly looked to get forward to support and overlap Jonas Gutierrez, with 64% of his passes taking place in the opposition half, and would be a worthy contender for man of the match.

For the opening 13 games of the season, Gutierrez has played in front of Ryan Taylor. While Taylor has filled in admirably, he is not naturally a left back, which has regularly lead to Gutierrez selflessly playing deeper to offer protection to his teammate, and in the process almost sacrificing his attacking duties. With the more accomplished Santon at left back, Gutierrez’ defensive shackles were lessened which lead to him attempting 12 crosses into the box in open play, more than any other Newcastle player. In fact, to highlight Santon’s attacking impact, 42% of Newcastle’s attacking play was on their left against Swansea, far higher than their seasonal average of 33%. Although two right footers on the left aren’t ideal in the long term, Santon’s introduction at least gives Newcastle another attacking option in the short term.

5. Newcastle encouraged to attack the flanks

Newcastle crosses

Newcastle open play crosses. Top: successful. Bottom: unsuccessful

When without the ball, Swansea typically reverted to a 4-5-1 formation with the central midfield trio – Mark Gower, Joe Allen and Leon Britton – joined by wingers – Wayne Routledge and Scott Sinclair – in dropping deep to close the space between defence and midfield for Newcastle to play into. With space restricted in the middle, and with central playmaker Hatem Ben Arfa merely a spectator from the substitutes’ bench, Newcastle instead looked to attack on the wings.

In total, including free kicks and corners, Newcastle attempted 41 crosses into the box, almost 5 times the 9 that Swansea attempted, as they looked to provide ammunition for their front men Demba Ba and Leon Best (replaced for the final 20 minutes by Shola Ameobi). However, of the high quantity of crosses, only a third (14) found a teammate, although the Newcastle attackers were often outnumbered by Swansea bodies who defended well and, alongside Vorm in goal, thwarted Newcastle’s many deliveries from wide areas.

At the end of the day…

It proved to be a disappointing day for Newcastle, who had to settle for a point in a game which they created enough chances and played well enough to take all 3.

In fact, to highlight Newcastle’s dominance in terms of chances, they had 22 shots, 7 times that of Swansea’s 3 shots. Yet, their aim proved to be out with only 3 of those 22 shots being on target which Vorm was ultimately equal to.

Although the outcome is frustrating, it is difficult to be too disheartened by the Newcastle performance. The defensive tactics worked well to stifle Swansea’s attacking game plan and on another day, with a bit of luck and better accuracy in front of goal, Newcastle could well have been celebrating the 3 points. Sometimes you don’t always get what you deserve…

The point moved Newcastle up into 6th place in the table and now means that they will go into Christmas in the top 7, having played 5 of the other 6 sides also occupying the top 7, which is a measure of their excellent start to the season.

Next up for Newcastle is a home fixture against inconsistent West Brom at St James’ Park on Wednesday night, 7:45pm kick off. Newcastle will be hoping to face the Baggies on one of their off days as they look to end a stretch of 5 games without a win and go into Christmas on a high.

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Dec 15, 2011

Newcastle vs Swansea: Tactical Preview


17.12.2011 – Saturday 3:00pm

Location:  St James’

Early prospects: Cautiously positive

Newcastle United take their injury ravaged squad back home this weekend to face Premier League new boys Swansea, looking to return to winning ways after a rough sequence of fixtures.

Home comforts are certainly needed with the exertions of the previous weeks being fully exploited by a brutal and ruthless Norwich side last weekend in their own back yard.  A run of four games without a win may be understandable when put into the context of the games played, but it is still a run of which has only gathered one point and a return to winning ways this weekend is certainly needed to hold up confidence and self-assurance.  

Team Line-ups:
Our opponents today travel to St James still looking for their first Premier League away win, having only managed two draws on the road so far.

Despite taking a physical pounding on the field, NUFC miraculously managed to leave Carrow Road with no new injuries to report.  Dan Gosling’s straight red however appears not to have been appealed against despite it having a strong case of it being downgraded to a second yellow rather than a three match ban inducing straight red – either way he’s banned for this one.  Mike Williamson played 45mins of a reserve fixture midweek and subsequently declared himself fit – although NUFC still rate him as doubtful to start.  Captain Fabricio Coloccini and midfield attack dog Chieck Tiote are equally on the fringes and their potential participation is likely to go to the wire. Worst case would see the same line-up that faced Norwich but with Mehdi Abied or Alan Smith replacing Gosling – best case would see the aforementioned trio of injury doubts all pass fit to play. Let’s stay positive…

Swansea also come into this game with no new injuries of note, and can welcome Joe Allen back from suspension to the midfield.  Following a very welcome home win against Fulham, it’s likely the talented Brendan Rogers will keep a similar line-up for this game in a midfield centric 4231 formation, with Danny Graham and Nathan Dyer also possibilities to return to the starting XI.

Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
After gaining promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs, the Swans have taken little time to adapt to the top league – retaining confidence largely in the squad that brought them there.

•    Ball hogs! : The most obvious and well documented strength of Swansea City this season, and indeed a fair few seasons previous.  A very impressive average possession of 56% and pass competition rate of 85% allows Swansea to play a very patient and methodical style, building up pressure to create scoring chances whilst also providing reasonable protection against exposure to a defensive line largely unfamiliar to Premier League life.

•    Michel Vorm:  Another well documented strength and success of Swansea this season has been the performances of their Dutch ‘keeper (sounds quite familiar…).  The act-like reflexes of Vorm ensure that any breach of the Swans defensive line will still require some serious work produce a goal – Vorm proving this as recently as last week keeping Fulham at bay, even from the penalty spot.

•    Sinclair / Graham:  Particularly in their places within the 4231 formation.  NUFC have often struggled to deal with this formation when fielding a 442, regardless of the opposition, with the numbers in midfield and free movement from wide positions causing us defensive and attacking headaches.   The explosive Scott Sinclair operating from the left flank in particular will be one to pay heavy attention to going forward, as will the poaching Danny Graham working solo between the central defenders.

Tactical suggestions:
Nothing too expansive required for NUFC in this one – just pay proper attention to the simple things.

•    Press high up the field…:  Swansea setting out to play possession football is a given and through the stats shown earlier it’s equally obvious that they are competent at playing it.  With home advantage, NUFC should look to take the game to our visitors and press them highly up the field, attempting to corner them and pick up on loose balls.

•    …and keep it:  The second part of that strategy is to ensure we don’t surrender possession back to the pass-masters easily.  Against Norwich, NUFC on the whole treat the ball like it was a live hand grenade with a number of very clumsy passes making life on the whole greater more difficult for ourselves – Dan Gosling’s disastrous ‘through ball’ that lead to the Canaries crippling third goal being the most high profile.  As a prioirity, this needs to change this week.

•    Make most of the aerial advantage:  Expecting another physical forward line of Ba and Ameobi, NUFC should look to use their expertise in the air both to build attacks and to directly attack.  The familiar strategy of one of the strikers dropping off to support the midfield in the build-up should be beneficial against an opposition who are heavy in technical ability, but not so in muscle.

Final thought and gut feeling:
Regardless of opposition or injuries, there is still a sense of shell-shock at the number of goals NUFC have conceded (11 in the last four, compared to eight in the first 11 games).  The perception of losing the steady base upon which has undoubtedly resulted in NUFC’s excellent start to the season can have a pretty un-nerving effect on the remainder of the team and with that in mind could easily lead to an uneasy game this weekend.  I still expect a result with home advantage, but not an easy or convincing one at present: narrow home win.

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Dec 11, 2011

Tactical analysis: Norwich 4 Newcastle 2 in 5 key points

10.12.11 – Saturday 3pm
Carrow Road
Barclays Premier League

Steve Morison scores vs NewcastleNorwich 4
Hoolahan 39
Holt 59, 82
Morison 63 

Newcastle 2
Ba 45, 71
Gosling sent off 66 

A depleted Newcastle side suffered their 3rd defeat of the season in a 4-2 defeat to Premier League new boys Norwich City at Carrow Road.

The game’s opening goal came 6 minutes before the half time interval. A debatable corner was awarded to the home side – when Tim Krul was adjudged to have carried the ball over the line – who profited from the decision when Andrew Crofts’ header ricocheted in off Wes Hoolahan. However, Newcastle were level on the stroke of half time. Yohan Cabaye’s perfectly weighted chipped through ball was well controlled by Demba Ba who side footed past John Ruddy to make the score 1-1 at the break.

Newcastle started the second half brightly and had good chances to take the lead, but were behind again when a Norwich corner was headed home by Grant Holt – the striker quickest to the rebound after his initial header was stopped by Krul. And it was 3-1 only 4 minutes later, Steve Morison powerfully heading Crofts’ cross past the helpless Krul. Newcastle were reduced to 10 men in the 66th minute when Dan Gosling, having already been booked, was shown a red card by referee Martin Atkinson for a slightly rash challenge on Russell Martin. Yet, refusing to give up, Newcastle reduced the deficit 5 minutes later when Ba hit a left footed effort past Ruddy following good work from Shola Ameobi. But the game was ended as a contest 8 minutes from time when Holt was found in the penalty area by Bradley Johnson’s free kick to head his 2nd and Norwich’s 4th of the afternoon.

1. Team selection and tactics

norwich newcastle formations

Newcastle, hampered by injuries, made 5 changes to the side that had lost 3-0 at home to Chelsea last weekend. With no fit senior central defenders available – first choice pairing Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor joining Mike Williamson on the sidelines – Newcastle were forced into a defensive reshuffle. James Perch came into the side to partner Danny Simpson in central defence, while Ryan Taylor moved to right back with Davide Santon making his full Premier League debut at left back. Jonas Gutierrez returned from suspension to replace Peter Lovenkrands on the left wing, Dan Gosling took up the place of the injured Danny Guthrie in central midfield and Shola Ameobi was preferred to Hatem Ben Arfa to complete Newcastle’s changes. Norwich manager Paul Lambert made 4 changes to the side that had lost 5-1 at Man City the weekend previous with Zak Whitbread, Wesley Hoolahan, David Fox and Grant Holt replacing Leon Barnett, Elliott Bennett, Bradley Johnson and Anthony Pilkington in the starting line up.

Having used a 4-4-1-1 formation in their last 3 games, to accommodate Hatem Ben Arfa in the ‘number 10’ role, Newcastle returned to a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation as Alan Pardew looked for his 2 front men – Shola Ameobi and Demba Ba – to hold the ball up in the opposition half and reduce pressure on the makeshift defence. Norwich, after adopting a more cautious 4-5-1 formation at City, also used a 4-4-2 formation; Lambert sensing an opportunity to profit from Newcastle’s defensive frailties. With both sides adopting similar styles and attacking intent it made for an open and entertaining game of football.

2. Newcastle switch off at set pieces

Perch Simpson headers

Headers: Perch and Simpson

A common feature of the game which ultimately proved to be Newcastle’s undoing was their inability to defend set-pieces. The makeshift central defensive pairing of Simpson and Perch simply struggled to deal with the aerial power and movement of Norwich strikers Holt and Morison, and it’s telling that neither Newcastle defender won a header in their own penalty area.

Up until this fixture Newcastle had started with the same back 5, including Krul, for every other league game this season and had built a reputation as one of the league’s meanest defences. However, the absence of Coloccini and Steven Taylor proved to be a major disruption and setback for Newcastle against Norwich. Playing with 2 full backs at centre back, the understanding and organisation was naturally missing and proved to be Newcastle’s downfall. Not surprising then that 3 of Norwich’s 4 goals came from set piece situations, with the other a header from open play.

3. Newcastle defend deep and narrow

Unable to rely on their formidable central defensive partnership Newcastle instead attempted to deal with Norwich’s attacking threat by defending deep, to restrict the space centrally for their opposition to play into and to provide additional support for stand-in centre backs Perch and Simpson. Perhaps wary of the danger of giving away set pieces Newcastle also looked to win the ball back by anticipating the ‘next pass’,  highlighted by the fact that they made 22 interceptions compared to only 6 tackles.

By defending so deep and narrow, however, only played to Norwich’s strengths, encouraging the Canaries to play down the wings to exploit the space and to play crosses into the box for the forwards to attack, which they did on no less than 21 times. In hindsight, a better defensive strategy may have been to adopt a high line so as to not allow Holt and Morison space and opportunities to attack the ball in the penalty area, although this is easier said than done with no natural leader in Coloccini’s absence to co-ordinate the defence.

Norwich Newcastle average positions

Average positions - Newcastle defend compact and narrow. Left: Norwich, Right: Newcastle


4. Norwich nullify Newcastle wingers

Norwich tackles

Norwich tackles, almost all in wide areas

It was a fairly unproductive afternoon for Newcastle’s wingers – Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan – who were unable to getter the better of their respective full backs – Kyle Naughton and Marc Tierney. Gutierrez, as has been the case of late, generally took up a more defensive position, while Obertan tended to cut inside rather than to take on his marker. As such, neither managed to put in a single completed cross to a team-mate with wide play quality generally lacking for the Magpies.

Newcastle instead looked to Ryan Taylor and Davide Santon to provide attacking support from full back, which they did well. Taylor was Newcastle’s most involved player with 81 touches, while he also put in 8 crosses from normal play – more than any other Newcastle player. Santon, meanwhile, showed a willingness to get forward, run with the ball and had the 2nd highest amount of touches for Newcastle, behind Taylor, with 77. The high involvement of both players adding weight to the suggestion that full back has became the most important position in the modern game.

5. The Magpies retain attacking intention with 10 men

Newcastle switch to 4-3-2

Newcastle switch to 4-3-2

In the space of 7 second half minutes to forget for Newcastle – from the 59th to the 66th – they conceded 2 goals and were reduced to 10 men. Following Gosling’s dismissal, and with heads possibly dropping and discipline starting to waver, the thought may have crossed Alan Pardew’s mind to take a damage limitation approach by withdrawing a striker for a midfielder and settling for not conceding any more goals rather than chasing the game. Former Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce has spoken of employing these tactics when his sides have been 2 or 3 goals behind, thankfully Pardew is not of the same school of thought.

Pardew, instead, retained faith that his side could get back into the game and kept his 2 strikers – Ba and Shola Ameobi – on the pitch and switched to almost a 4-3-2 formation with either striker expected to drop back into the midfield when required, still giving Newcastle 2 options to aim for up front. Pardew’s belief in his side appeared to give the Newcastle players a lift and only 5 minutes after going down to 10 men they were back in the game at 3-2. The admirable effort and work-rate of Newcastle’s 10 men was unfortunately unable to yield an equalising goal, yet, surely better to go down fighting than without a fight at all.

At the end of the day…

Those who have been uncomfortable with Newcastle’s presence near the top of the table, reserved by Sky Sports for ‘the big 6, will no doubt take joy in their points return of 1 from the last 4 games. However, much like against Chelsea last week, Newcastle could well have taken something from this game and can take some solace in their determined performance, particularly Demba Ba who impressed again up front.

Any Premier League side would arguably struggle without their 3 first choice centre backs and had one or even two of Coloccini, Taylor or Williamson been fit it’s not inconceivable that Newcastle could have taken 3 points home from the trip to East Anglia.

As it was, even with Newcastle down to 10 men for the remaining 24 or so minutes, it was a fairly even game with Newcastle just edging Norwich for shots on target; 6 to 5, and Norwich narrowly leading Newcastle for passes completed; 315 to 301. Most importantly, though, it was Norwich who were more clinical in front of goal and who are therefore deserved of the 3 points.

The defeat saw Newcastle drop down to 7th place in the Premier League table, however still with a healthy 5 point lead ahead of 8th placed Stoke. Not quite the ‘crash to earth’ or ‘bubble bursting’ that some would like to claim…

Next up for Newcastle is a home fixture against another Premier League newcomer – 11th placed Swansea – on Saturday 17 December, 3pm kick off. It is hoped that at least one of Coloccini or Williamson will be fit to return, while better news is hoped for on the prolonged injury of Cheick Tiote as Newcastle look to get back to winning ways on home turf.

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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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