31.10.11 – Monday 8pm
Barclays Premier League
Walters 75 (pen)
Ba 12, 40, 81 (pen)
Newcastle continued their marvellous unbeaten start to the 2011/12 Premier League campaign, and moved up to third place in the table, with a 3-1 victory over Stoke at the Britannia Stadium on Monday night courtesy of Demba Ba’s ‘perfect hat-trick’.
Newcastle opened the scoring in the 12th minute when Gabriel Obertan’s accurate cross from the right was met by Ba whose diving header at the back post sailed past the outstretched Stoke ‘keeper Asmir Begovic. Newcastle’s lead was doubled 5 minutes before half time when Leon Best’s mishit shot trickled across the 6 yard area for the anticipatory Ba to prod home left footed.
Stoke increased the pressure in the second half and halved the deficit with 15 minutes remaining when Ba was adjudged to have felled Peter Crouch in the penalty area with John Walters smashing the resultant spot kick past Krul. Yet, 6 minutes later Newcastle were awarded a penalty of their own, when Robert Huth pushed Leon Best in the back, which Ba coolly converted with his right foot to complete his hat-trick and gave Newcastle the 3-1 victory.
Here we take a look at the 5 key points from a Newcastle perspective:
1. Team selection and tactics
Having adopted a 4-5-1 formation and making 5 changes to the starting line up for Newcastle’s midweek Carling Cup exit at Blackburn, Alan Pardew returned to his favoured 4-4-2 formation with Danny Guthrie replacing the injured Cheik Tiote in central midfield as the only change to the side that beat Wigan 1-0 at St James’ Park last Saturday. Stoke manager Tony Pulis, who had also made 5 changes to his side for the midweek Carling Cup defeat against Liverpool, also used a 4-4-2 formation and made 2 changes to the side that lost 3-1 against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last weekend with Jonathan Woodgate and Jermaine Pennant replacing Matthew Upson and Dean Whitehead.
Stoke approached the game with their archetypal direct style and looked to provide the front men – Jon Walters and Peter Crouch – with a healthy amount of aerial balls from defence, from the wings and even direct from throw ins. To counter this approach Newcastle, although employing 2 strikers, played a more defensive game than normal with the midfield sitting deep to restrict space, win the ‘second-ball’, soak up pressure and play on the counter attack which lead to the majority of the game being played in Newcastle’s half.
2. Newcastle nullify Stoke’s right sided threat
Stoke’s right side preference is underlined by the fact that they had double the amount of possession on their right side (57%) compared to their left (23%). Whether this was a ploy by Pulis to exploit the out of position Ryan Taylor at left back, a penchant to supply Jermaine Pennant on the right rather than Matthew Etherington on the left, or even both, it was a notable feature of Stoke’s play and something which Newcastle had to guard against.
They did so by deploying Jonas Gutierrez almost as a second left back in front of Ryan Taylor to double up on Pennant. Gutierrez dropped deep from his left midfield berth whenever Stoke attacked on their right, made 5 tackles and 2 interceptions and provided an ample level of support and cover for Ryan Taylor. Gutierrez’ performance set the tone for Newcastle with his work rate and selflessness to fulfil his defensive responsibilities standing out in a performance that was worthy of the man of the match award.
3. Newcastle target Stoke’s weaker left side
With Gutierrez stationed deeper than normal and subsequently restricted in his attacking duties the attacking emphasis fell to Obertan on the right of Newcastle’s midfield to exploit Stoke’s weaker left side and their own out of position left back – Marc Wilson. And this became the source of Newcastle’s first goal when Obertan took advantage of the space left by Wilson, whose poor decision making to go for a header that he shouldn’t have left him out of position, before supplying a precision cross for Ba to open the scoring.
Obertan was a useful ‘out-ball’ for Newcastle with his pace providing a valuable asset on the counter attack. He chased loose balls to put the defence under pressure, his crossing accuracy was much improved with 50% finding a teammate (20% vs. Wigan) and, although he is still prone to being caught in possession and there remains plenty of scope for development, the signs of improvement are showing in what was probably his most efficient performance in a Newcastle shirt since joining in the summer.
4. Defending deep and thwarting Delap’s dangerous throw ins
As has become the norm for away sides at the Britannia Stadium, Newcastle came under continuous pressure from Stoke’s relentless aerial deliveries into the penalty area via corners, crosses, free kicks and throw ins, and had to defend resolutely throughout to maintain their status as the league’s meanest defence and prevent their opponents from scoring in open play.
Newcastle defended as a unit from the front with each player aware of their defensive responsibilities and were successful with 26 of their 33 attempted tackles (78% tackle success). They packed the box when defending throw ins and set pieces, leaving Cabaye as the only man forward, and repelled Stoke’s many aerial deliveries through anticipation of the ‘second ball’, solid positioning and the gloves of Tim Krul who claimed or punched away every cross he came for. Although Newcastle defended superbly as a team, again, each of the back 4 is worthy of a mention for their contribution – from Steven Taylor’s 9 clearances, Coloccini’s assured leadership, Ryan Taylor’s 3 tackles and Simpson who – in perhaps his most accomplished performance in the Premier League for Newcastle – made more tackles (7) and had more touches (59) than any of his team mates.
5. Best Ba none
Having almost signed for Stoke in January, before signing for West Ham after Stoke refused to sanction the deal on medical grounds, Demba Ba was centre stage at the Britannia Stadium and was roundly booed by the home crowd with each touch of the ball. However, Ba, perhaps thriving on the attention he courted, was in typically deadly form with each of his 3 shots resulting in a goal to achieve his 2nd hat-trick of the season and taking his tally for 2011/12 to 8 goals in only his last 5 games. Not bad for a free transfer.
Ba will take the plaudits, and deservedly so, but a mention is also warranted for his strike partner Leon Best who was a willing runner all game, who retained possession well with a 77% pass completion rate – higher than any of his colleagues – and also won more headers (4) than any other Newcastle player. Pardew has shown faith in the pair, while there must have been the temptation to bring in the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa, and although at times understanding between Best and Ba has been lacking, the signs of a potent and industrious partnership are beginning to show with Pardew’s faith repaid in commitment and goals.
At the end of the day…
They said Tottenham at home was going to be Newcastle’s toughest test, Newcastle drew. They then said that Stoke away was going to be Newcastle’s toughest test, Newcastle won. They say that the league table begins to take shape after 10 games, Newcastle sit unbeaten in 3rd place…
While it’s generally accepted, even from the most ardent Magpies fan, that Newcastle won’t be able to sustain their position in the top 4, especially if injuries take their toll, hopefully they will begin to give Newcastle the credit that they have merited up to this point rather than dismissing their league position as ‘false’ and as a result of ‘not playing anyone yet’. And when discussing the race for the top 4 to at least mention each of the current occupants, even if it’s just to say ‘Newcastle are doing well, but Tottenham/Liverpool/Arsenal are better equipped/experienced to finish 4th’. We realise that. We accept that. But, Newcastle at least deserve a mention, in the next ‘top 4’ discussion, for their early season exploits.
Back to the game. Although Stoke enjoyed more shots (12 to Newcastle’s 8) and more possession (56% to Newcastle’s 44%), Newcastle came with a game plan which they executed superbly and were deserved of the 3 points for their staunch defending and clinical finishing.
Credit must go to Alan Pardew and his backroom staff. Having failed with an experimental 3-5-2 formation at the same ground last season, Pardew’s tactics and game plan worked to perfection as he became the first Premier League manager to lead his side to a victory at the Britannia this season and the first Newcastle manager to achieve an away victory at Stoke in 26 years. It was also welcoming to see small details – such as Gutierrez getting goal side of the Stoke player who attempted to block Krul at corners, freeing the Dutch keeper to attack the ball – implemented by Pardew and his team to disrupt Stoke’s usual game plan, as well as the Newcastle full backs resourcefully using the towels available at pitch side – the irony being lost on Tony Pulis.
The 3 points lifted Newcastle into 3rd position with 22 points gained out of the 30 available so far, and helped maintain their unbeaten league status – a record that they share in the esteemed company of Man City, Barcelona and Juventus out of Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Next up for Newcastle is the visit of Everton to St James’ Park on Saturday, 12.45pm kick off. A victory would lift The Magpies, albeit probably temporarily, up to 2nd place in the Premier League table. What would they say then…
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