The Season So Far
Schteeve Van Klaaren Steve McClaren’s stated goal at the start of the season was to push for European football, 2015-16 has been a disaster. Newcastle United have once again found themselves mired in a relegation dogfight, only picking up their first Premier League win of the campaign in October and repeatedly and embarrassingly collapsing at the first sign of opposition pressure. Their showing in the 5-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in November will surely go down as the worst performance any side will give this season.
Having failed so badly with the England national team, McClaren will always be something of a joke figure to English fans and it wouldn’t have been even slightly surprising had penny-pincher and noted Satanist Mike Ashley dispensed with his services before January. To his credit, Ashley instead listened to his manager’s very reasonable complaints about the players available to him and released the funds to correct the squad’s deficiencies in the transfer window.
The Season Ahead
Given the team’s consistently horrific on-pitch showings in the first half of the season, it seems somewhat naïve to assume that their problems will go away simply because they’ve spent money in January. That said, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the transfer window went very well for them indeed. Experienced and necessary reinforcements Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend were brought in for realistic prices, and the surprise retention of Cheick Tioté can’t have been a bad thing.
Given how obviously Newcastle were crying out for steel and vision in midfield, as well as more guile and variation on the flanks, we should see their attacking output increase notably due to their signings and their collective structure should improve, both with and without the ball, in the closing weeks - and this is really the key point: suddenly they look like a balanced, coherent, mature team. Although Newcastle remain just one point above the relegation zone, it would now be a big surprise if they finished in the bottom three.
McClaren is aware of how much the city of Newcastle needs – and ‘needs’ really is the right word here – to admire its football team. His tactics have, somewhat optimistically, been based on that feeling more than the strengths and weaknesses of his players. His end goal is to emulate The Entertainers, the spectacularly watchable but ultimately unrewarded side of the mid-90s whose motto seemed to "it doesn’t matter if you score three, we’ll score four."
In an era in which most teams flood the midfield to gain control of the game and manage the tempo of contests, Newcastle’s "let’s not overthink it, it’ll be more fun this way" approach is an admirable throwback/absolutely suicidal (delete as applicable based on your personal preference). The focus is all on getting as many men forward as often as possible and getting the ball into the box as much as possible, before running back en masse to fill the suddenly empty midfield.
As previously stated, they very obviously lacked the quality to make that gamble work for them, and as such their games were notable for the panic enveloping the men in black-and-white and their slapstick defending of innumerable counter-attacks. It often seemed like they were playing with only eight or nine men, such was their inability to get up the pitch and the number of vast spaces between their lines which opposing attackers couldn’t help but fill.
Post-transfer window, their 4-2-3-1 structure should be more balanced and their tactical aims more accomplishable. The addition of Shelvey, in particular, is very promising: he has the positional awareness, the raw anger and the range of passing to improve the performance of the team manifold from the centre of the park.
As most Chelsea fans will be all too aware, Newcastle really know how to play Chelsea. This is perhaps more true of games played at St James Park, where Chelsea have only won one of the last six meetings – the Blues have won the last three encounters at Stamford Bridge by a margin of two goals or more, keeping a clean sheet each time – but this is a very different proposition to the regular home game, what with Chelsea’s transformation into a midtable side and Newcastle’s surely imminent improvement.
Basically, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Newcastle put in a magnificent defensive performance by parking the bus and then nicked one on the break, if only because they’ve done it to Chelsea so many times before. They almost did it to Arsenal recently, completely outplaying the Gunners at the Emirates and creating an ample amount of chances to win the game. Of course, they ended up spurning them all and giving away a stupid goal from a set piece to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and Chelsea would love for that to happen again on Saturday afternoon.
It’s worth pointing out that spurning chances isn’t really a characteristic of this Newcastle team and wastefulness in front of goal shouldn’t be expected: although the Magpies have had extremely low attacking output in terms of raw numbers, they’ve had a respectable number of shots on target relative to their total figure, and their conversion rate of 9.3% is above the division’s average figure. If they could create more chances and maintain this figure, they would go up the table pretty fast.
It's also worth drawing attention to the formidable pace and power they have on the counter: Daryl Janmaat, Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend are formidable ball-carriers, and with Shelvey quarterbacking the ball to them on the move in transition phases, Chelsea could be in big trouble.
It goes without saying that they’re absolutely awful at defending. No team has faced more shots than Newcastle’s 394 this season, with 226 of those coming from inside their penalty area. They’ve allowed total of 130 shots on target in their 25 games and, given the absolute chaos that characterised their pre-January performances at the back, it’s no surprise that their save rate of 69% ranks as one of the Premier League’s lowest. Simply put, this is a team that you normally don’t have to work very hard to create chances and score goals against.
As previously stated, controlling midfield has been a big problem. Trying to play like The Entertainers without the right personnel is a recipe for disaster and, consequently, they’ve had a disastrous season. No team has spent more time in its own third than Newcastle, and they have frequently looked completely overwhelmed by the task at hand, almost literally crying out for a more organised and rigid defensive structure so as to protect their defence and allow more conventional build-up play in midfield.
It’s also worth noting that few teams have the capacity for self-destruction in the form of a stupid red card that Newcastle possess. No team has had more red cards than the Magpies’ four this season, and moments of madness are never far away when the likes of Mitrović, Shelvey and Tioté are on the pitch.
Chelsea should field a familiar line-up. Kurt Zouma’s absence will see Gary Cahill recalled to partner John Terry, and Guus Hiddink may reconfigure the midfield to bring Eden Hazard back into the fold and end the rather uncomfortable John Obi Mikel/Nemanja Matić partnership in the middle.
Steve McClaren has a massive total of fifteen players injured, doubtful or suspended for this one, so predicting his line-up is something of a crapshoot.
Chelsea to win an anarchic and open encounter 2-1.