28.08.11 – Sunday – 1:00pm
Location: St James’
Early prospects: Again, solid if unspectacular.
Waffle: With the Premier League campaign now firmly underway Newcastle United look to build upon a surprisingly healthy start with a visit from fellow mid-table dwellers Fulham FC. When the merciless fixture machine produced the names ‘Arsenal’ and ‘Sunderland’ for Newcastle to start the season few could have envisaged arriving at this fixture undefeated and yet to concede a goal, given the preseason of turmoil and farce that preceded it. Even if by way of unspectacular score lines and performances, the superb start has worked wonders psychologically for fans, players and staff alike – the doom and despair felt by many fans forgotten in a flash of Ryan Taylor’s right boot – evidence in itself of how fickle football can be.
However, the results must be seen as a timely gift rather than a sign of competence for the season, particularly by those tightly clutching to the NUFC transfer kitty – obvious issues remain unresolved (Tiote’s fitness, our desperation for a natural left back and potent striker, the most pressing) and will only come back to damage NUFC in the long run if they remain ignored. Four points on the board with opponents in the way of, first Fulham, and next QPR present Newcastle with an encouraging chance to get some serious points on the board at a very early stage of the season, knowing full well that trickier times will eventually arise (our atrocious sequence of fixtures in November / early December being a prime example). But despite home advantage, this will not be a formality by any stretch of the imagination – Fulham being unbeaten against NUFC now in four consecutive matches home and away. We may have to wait a little longer for the ‘fast flowing football’ promised by Alan Pardew, but for now I’m happy to take another three points regardless of the prettiness of its delivery.
The Teams: One of the most steady and stable of any of the Premier League sides, since returning to the top flight in 2001 Fulham have flirted with the upper and lower echelons on a rare occasions, carving their own place in the centre of the Premier League.
Likely line-ups: FFC based upon a similar selection and style that took to the field in the 2-0 loss at Wolves – a balanced squad meaning the pack could be subject to some shuffling. NUFC probably looking to move back to a 442 with home advantage in mind and an emphasis required to attack, unlike last week – as Joey Barton’s future remains unclear we work on the premise he won’t feature.
Surprisingly for steady Fulham, this will be the 3rd consecutive game that they visit St James Park with a different manager in charge to the previous visit. Their recent managerial turnaround may have been quite unusual for the generally steady West London outfit, but it appears to have had little effect on the squad with a player list almost identical to the squad which reached the Europa League final in May 2010. Despite not possessing any ‘name superstars’, the FFC squad can feel confident that they have one of the most balanced and competent within the top flight, with players having been acquired astutely for each specific position – holding the correct qualities for the correct position and crucially being played to their strengths. The squad discipline is also something to be admired at Craven Cottage – Fulham only a couple of yellow cards away from ending last season their 3rd in a row at the top of the fair play table. To put that into perspective, the entire Fulham team picked up 55 points in the Premier League last season, whereas Cheick Tiote scored 17 unwanted points on his own in all competitions, under the same rules…
Prior to this game both teams contested Thursday night fixtures -NUFC seeing a largely changed team beat Scunthorpe after 120 minutes but perhaps significantly Fulham fielding a strong first XI for their long trip to the Ukraine to challenge the return leg of their Europa League tie against FC Dnipro – the tiring effects of the latter which could play beneficial to an NUFC side still suffering some of its own hang over from the farcical preseason preparations. A final word must go to their impressive but slightly misleading defensive form which has seen them register 10 clean sheets in their last 14 games, although six of those have came from the Europa League qualifying rounds where FFC faced less than difficult opposition, such as NSÍ Runavík of the Faroe Islands.
Notable dangers: Without sounding like a broken record, the source of the majority of Fulham’s threat still lies within the veteran Danny Murphy – using his wisdom and superb technique to dictate tempo from a deeper midfield position, picking gaps in which those more spritely in front of him (such as the fabulous Clint Dempsey) use to great advantage. Naturally, this style of play is not just exclusive to Murphy with the short, effective passing game being eminent throughout a team which rarely misplaces a ball and likes to control possession. Despite Fulham as a team not quite looking at the races in the loss to Wolves last week, they still managed to look dangerous going forward with a fluid attack seeing players regularly (and drastically) roaming the field and working the channels in a bid to drag defenders around and create space. Johnson and Duff were particularly nomadic (as the chalkboards below show) and could potentially pose a tricky proposition to a fairly rigid NUFC defence, happier to deal with aerial threat rather than that on the ground.
Left Duff – right Johnson. Note how, despite playing effectively as a lone striker, Johnson spends little to no time centrally and instead focuses on using his pace to get around the defensive line.
Tactical suggestions: Regardless of opposition, with home advantage NUFC simply have to start creating more chances. The first two league fixtures certainly will have been a tougher proposition than this one, ones in which grinding out a result, not dominating and controlling, were very much not the order of the day – but this game represents itself as a different prospect. Far be it from Fulham being expected to visit St James to hold out for a draw, the game is likely to be far more open – midfield emphasis on creating rather than breaking – building pressure rather than soaking it up. We mentioned earlier about Murphy’s pivotal role within the FFC team and this should not be underestimated as much his abilities should not – NUFC would be wise to push minimum one, more likely two central midfielders higher up the pitch (say, Cabaye and Gosling, with Tiote behind) to limit the time and space to Murphy, using raw energy to strangle Fulham’s play much in the same way Wolves did last Sunday.
Equally, Fulham’s ability in possession has already been noted but their lack of aggression (let’s call it that…) and tenacity means that they are not the greatest at regaining the ball through their own means – playing FFC at their own game and dominating possession, patiently waiting for gaps to appear in their lines could prove successful for NUFC. However, to do this NUFC will have to play a higher tempo game than they have shown in the first two outings – an instant change to the forward line in re-introducing the more mobile and willing Leon Best could help this instantly.
Final thought and gut feeling: Despite two extremely tricky fixtures to start the season, NUFC find themselves in the healthy position of being able build upon four very hard fought points – but gaining points from the tough ones is as good as wasting energy if the same isn’t done when the more favourable fixtures come around, especially at home (something we never quite learned last season). A tight game still expected given the state of flux our squad is in, but a win is achievable.
if you’re looking for some post-match entertainment (not that kind…), The first Toon Legends Talk In featuring Malcolm Macdonald will be taking place at Madame Koo on Collingwood Street.
Free entry, discounted pints and bottles and the Man United vs Arsenal game shown live on the big screens. Doors open from 1pm with SuperMac taking to the stage from 3:30pm. Click on the flyer for more:
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