Premier League Tactical Preview: Newcastle (A)

Premier League Tactical Preview: Newcastle (A)
December 5, 2015 Mihail Vladimirov

By Mihail Vladimirov.

This fixture has traditionally been seen as one of the most entertaining clashes in the Premier League. But in the past half a decade this hasn’t really been the case, often because Pardew’s smart tactical approaches often succeeded frustrating Liverpool and taking the sting out of the game.

Anyway, with Liverpool currently being ‘red hot’ (7 wins in their last 8 games in all competitions and 13 goals scored in their last three domestic visits) and Newcastle’s form being more ‘black’ than ‘white’ (9 defeats and only 3 wins in their total of 16 games in all competitions up to now), there is a potential for another goal-fest. Interestingly, the last time such a thing happened was back in 2013 when Liverpool caught Newcastle at a similar low point, in dismal form, to run riot at St. James’ Park and win 6-0. If both teams play as their recent performances suggest they would, such a scoreline wouldn’t be a surprise.

Newcastle in crisis, yet again

During the Mike Ashley years at Newcastle, the sight of the Magpies struggling thanks to a series of poor managerial appointments (a couple of which led to the team’s relegation to the Championship back in 2009), continual internal fights, fans unrests and poor transfers dealings become all too frequent to the point of being accepted as the norm for a club traditionally considered as one of the top in the English football.

Every few years or so there seems to be a stroke of optimism thanks to an unexpected lull in all the issues surrounding the club and the first team. A few years ago this happened in Pardew’s first full season, 2011-2012, in charge. Back then the combination of Ashley being willing to invest in the team, some shrewd player acquisitions (both during the summer and winter transfer windows) and having an above averagely competent manager in charge almost resulted in an unprecedented (for the period of the post-Abromovich era) qualification for the Champions League.

What followed next was total mismanagement on all things football-related that logically resulted in the inability to capitalise on such a sudden rise. Key players were sold for good money but not replaced adequately, poor squad management and overall planning caused the following season to be a complete disaster with Newcastle flirting with the relegation until the last couple of games. This set the club back to its previous low point of being in total operational chaos with fans actively protesting against the manager and owner, which impacted the players and logically the results.

A better 13/14 season saw the team finish in 10th place but after a poor start (most of which was unfortunate as the team was performing quite well) to the following season and the constant wrath saw Pardew leave the post at the start of 2015 to join Crystal Palace. What followed was far from unexpected total collapse, which once again saw the team barely escaping relegation at the end of the season.

During the summer, the club owner Mike Ashley made the pompous statement that he is going to do everything in his powers to return the club to its glory days and is prepared to back his words with actions. In fairness to him, he forked out quite a large sum for new players (near £50m) on top of appointing another decent manager. The fans were now happier, the growing unrest started to fade away and the players brought in seemed to keep everyone optimistic for the season ahead.

For a change, the season started well and following some spirited performance it looked like a corner has been turned. There was no more talk of unrest against the owner and manager, the fans were mostly content. On a footballing level the previous feeling of disarray was replaced with the players now playing with discipline, a sense of togetherness and clear purpose. All looked set for an unusual period of genuine optimism and calmer surroundings which would give the new manager and his staff the required time to oversee a gradual improvement to eventually establish the team in the top echelons.

But a couple of unfortunate defeats (against Arsenal and at West Ham) in a row, compounded by few individual mistakes all too quickly brought the ghosts of past back and everything looked in to be in the balance, on foundations made of quick sand. The next game – Watford at home – was hyped as the one to define how the season was going to progress and if this was going to be another false dawn. Logically, under such pressure the team froze, played with obvious fear of a third defeat in a row which eventually led to a loss.

That the team lost a two-goal lead to only draw and fortunately escape another defeat against Chelsea in the next game didn’t help either. What was the final straw though was the way the team was defeated away at Man City. Not only were the Magpies thrashed 1-6, but their overall attitude and application was bordering on unprofessional, to say the least.

Suddenly the wheels came off and everything fell apart. This was now officially the Newcastle of old – fragile, lifeless, disinterested, showing no signs of resilience in adversity or a will to fight back. Even the big win against Norwich (where the team scored 6 goals from 6 shots on target) didn’t seem to change much; as the performances in the last five games would be quick to verify.

In the moment, Newcastle are a total wreck, a pale imitation of a football club that is supposed to compete at the highest level in English football. The way the team looks tactically is bordering amateur – no signs of an overall game plan, a shambolic defence and next to no attacking threat. The stats are bearing that out ruthlessly. The Magpies have conceded the joint most goals in the division (30) and even if it can be said they are slightly unlucky to have allowed so much – as the xGA metric suggests – they have the worst rating for ‘expected goals against’ in the division too (22.6). Attacking-wise the numbers are similarly bad – the team is third worst for goals scored (14) which is thanks to their third worst xG rating (11.5). The team being as bad defensively as they’re going forward is also illustrated by the following stats – Newcastle is the team that have conceded the most shots per game (16.9) and they’re the team that shoots the least per game (9.4) in the league.

That Newcastle are currently sitting in the bottom three, won only two league games, kept only three clean sheets and failed to score in seven of their games (to go with all the above metrics showing their defensive and offensive ineptitude) should be, at least partially, attributed to the manager. Although Steve McLaren is too often unfairly ridiculed – as he possesses a fine tactical brain, a statement justified by his achievements abroad – it’s hard to look at him as the inspirational figure that has the capacity to drag the team out of the slump. The task in hand arguably requires man-management skills and charisma over a tactically sharp but a rather insular mind. As the start of the season showed, tactical organisation is all well and good but if the players are to down tools no tactics can prevent the inevitable collapse. It might be that it’s not the manager’s fault (or it’s not only his) for the latest downfall, but it’s his responsibility as a manager to lift the team and guide them through this latest crisis. If he is incapable of doing this it immediately means he is not fit for the job and won’t last long, as harsh as this may sound.

How could Newcastle approach this game? 

There are some noises that following some alarming performances in Newcastle’s latest two defeats, McLaren is looking to ring some changes and is finally prepared to drop some of the so-called star players. The problem is that with 10 players being unavailable through injury, the manager has little options left to rotate his starting XI, especially in defence and midfield. As such it could well be a case of seeing the Magpies continuing with their recent formation and starting XI.

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