26.12.11 – Monday 3pm
The Reebok Stadium
Barclays Premier League
Ben Arfa 69
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
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