The Season So Far
As always, it’s been far from plain sailing in the North East, with chronic personnel problems and uncertainty over the club’s long-term future hindering any progress that should surely be made with such an obviously good manager in charge. There have been highs, chiefly the three-game winning streak in autumn in which West Ham, Swansea and Stoke City were comfortably beaten, but there have also been lows, none worse than their current run of four defeats in five.
Morale is low on Tyneside but the bile and rage which have been regularly witnessed in the St James Park stands over the years are notably absent. While recent results are hardly of the desirable kind, there’s a widespread acknowledgement that with the squad being as it is, there’s little more that can be expected, and that being twelfth in the table is actually pretty good.
On a positive note, the long overdue news that Mike Ashley is finally selling up has been received as though it were the second coming of Christ. Of course, the consortium looking to buy Newcastle comes with its own set of question marks and doubts, but the fans won’t worry so much about that at the moment – the important thing is that they’re never going to go anywhere with Ashley as owner, so anyone else taking the reins is a start.
The Season Ahead
Rafa Benítez will hope money is given to him in January, because Newcastle could really do with as many as four or five new players in key positions. Benítez, like many a manager before him, believes the Magpies belong among the elite, and the current reality has been difficult to accept. The squad is weak across the board, full of hard-working but limited Championship quality players, and the short-term aim of securing midtable stability obliges them to look to add a touch of Premier League ruthlessness. Benítez recently spoke about being outbid by the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town for players, so it all depends on funds being released.
Of the current squad, the strikers will need to improve their output in the second half of the season. Dwight Gayle, Joselu and Aleksandar Mitrović have four goals between them, as many as regular centre-back pairing Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark. They certainly have the chances to score, so it’s really up to them to start hitting the back of the net soon, or find that a new number nine arrives to do the job for them.
It’s a Rafa Benítez team so obviously they play 4-2-3-1 and aim to keep compact and organised off the ball, before attacking into space at transitions, typically down the flanks but not exclusively. Benítez’s buzzword has always been ‘balance’ and his teams are almost always perfectly weighted to accomplish various aims on and off the ball. There are plenty of reasons to believe that when the Newcastle team has the quality to match Benítez’s as a manager, good times will be ahead on Tyneside.
In terms of this game, however, we should expect a deep-set and sturdy 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 with little space between the lines. If Chelsea make loads of chances it will be down to a big advantage in terms of individual quality, not because of tactical errors on Newcastle’s part.
They’re very clear in their objectives and how they’re going to achieve them, and no-one is left in any doubt as to their role or their responsibilities within that role. They play generally reactively and work really hard off the ball, and have made 16.1 tackles per game, 12.1 interceptions and 11.1 fouls. No team has blocked more than Newcastle’s 8.8 passes per game, while only two teams have blocked more crosses. Getting through to the Newcastle goal, generally speaking, isn’t easy.
In the middle of the park, Jonjo Shelvey and Mikel Merino have real quality on the ball and a splendid eye for a pass, and Merino’s maturity and ability to dictate games have seen him compared to Xabi Alonso, and will surely see him go on to much bigger things. Unfortunately, there’s little comparable quality in other areas.
Their biggest weakness is their lack of individual quality and the obviousness of their individual traits. Take, for example, Will Hughes’ goal for Watford at St James Park last weekend and we can see a planned attack based on each individual weakness that Newcastle’s system can expose.
It all started with a long, right-to-left cross-field switch over the head of Magpies right-back-cum-brainless-sprinter DeAndre Yedlin, repeatedly exposed as the weak link by several targeted attacks in his zone. Richarlison, hugging the left touchline, clearly knew the switch was coming from deep, and he also knew that at any transition Newcastle’s panicked centre-backs would rush to cover the goal, but that their midfielders, more interested in passing than defending, wouldn't drop in and help. Thus, any charge to the byline and subsequent cutback to the edge of the box would all-but guarantee a shot on goal.
Meanwhile, Watford striker Andre Gray knew to charge into the box and pull the defenders where they already wanted to go, and Will Hughes knew that Richarlison had been told to cut the ball back to the space on the edge of the area, so he was already arriving there, all alone, when the ball was played. The finish was relatively simple but brilliantly taken, steered low and true into the far corner.
We can only imagine how Benítez must have felt as it all unfolded. He has done magnificent work in drilling average players to perform above and beyond their capabilities, but when you’ve got a right-back who’s simply not a footballer, centre-backs with no composure and midfielders with no interest in defending – and your opponent knows about each fatal weakness – there’s only so much you can do.
Rotation, rotation, rotation.
Frankly, we haven’t got a clue, but we hope Conte sticks with the 3-4-2-1 again here – there’s no reason to play defensive and go with only two attackers.
Chelsea 4-0 Newcastle. The gulf in quality is too big. Sorry, Rafa.