The Season So Far
As long as Mike Ashley remains as Newcastle United’s owner, the Magpies and their legion of fans remain in a kind of miserable, inescapable limbo: huge in terms of support, but minimal in terms of relevance; always living to fight another day, but going into each new battle weaker than ever before; alive, to all intents and purposes, but stalked by the spectre of death.
A three-game winning streak in November stands as the highlight of Newcastle’s season to date, but beating Watford, Bournemouth and Burnley shouldn’t be anything to write home about for a club of Newcastle’s size and standing. Those wins were also the Magpies’ first of the season, and they’ve only won once since. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
All hope is invested in manager Rafael Benítez, but everyone knows he will one day tire of the ludicrousness of Ashley’s Newcastle and move on to pastures new — if reports are to be believed, Leicester will aim to lure him away from Tyneside this month with the promise of an actual transfer budget and authentic Premier League infrastructure. No one would blame Benítez for jumping ship, especially with no change in ownership on the horizon and Newcastle’s relegation rivals on the verge of investing in necessary reinforcements and making life even harder for the Magpies.
The Season Ahead
In the immediate term, Newcastle’s home game to Cardiff next weekend is of titanic importance. With all-but-certain defeat on the cards this weekend at Stamford Bridge, Newcastle go on to play Manchester City, Tottenham and Wolves, so the Cardiff game looks like their only chance to get points on the board for a month or so. If they find themselves in the bottom three going into the home stretch, it will be mightily hard for them to find a way back up the table. While it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the fans, this is hardly a situation that we can be surprised by.
For years, Benítez has been reminding everyone that he can’t keep working miracles. Newcastle’s squad has looked weak for the entirety of his tenure, full of hard-working, honest but limited Championship quality players, and yet nothing has changed. Unless Ashley stuns the world by announcing the sale of the club and a new owner ploughs oodles of cash in at the last minute, nothing is going to change this month. Should Leicester’s interest in Benítez become a concrete offer, that would be the final nail in Newcastle’s coffin.
As with all of Rafa Benítez’s teams, Newcastle are extremely organised and defensively diligent. They are compact and aggressive without the ball and direct and unhesitating with it, typically attacking down the flanks or with long balls up to the target-man. Benítez’s overriding guide has always been team balance and, if this side appears unduly defensive, it’s only because they lack the quality to play any other way. There’s nothing ambitious about this setup at all but, given that their only goal is to finish in 17th position in May, ambition comes a distant second to pragmatism.
As one of the Premier League’s most lacking teams, Newcastle play very reactively and aim to limit their more talented opponents. They work hard off the ball and register a commendable number of defensive actions – tackles, interceptions, blocks, fouls etc – all while trying to manage the spatial layout of the game. Only Cardiff have averaged less possession this season and only Huddersfield have had a less potent attack, but three teams have higher Expected Goals Against figures and Newcastle currently sit 15th, so their risk vs reward calculations are paying off.
In recent years, Benítez has used a very bottom-heavy 5-4-1/3-6-1/3-4-3 setup in matches against the Premier League’s Big Six and we should expect him to play the same way here. The centre of the pitch will be very congested, and Chelsea’s best bet will be creating overloads against Newcastle’s wing-backs, who aren’t the best defensively. Once the Blues have gotten in behind on the flanks, the rest should take care of itself.
Above all else, Newcastle are very organised and motivated. They know what they have to do and how they’re going to do it, and no player is left in any doubt as to his duties. Somehow, Benítez has managed to motivate his players by talking about them as though they’re lambs being sent to the slaughter each week, making every point they win seem valuable and every league victory feel like a cup final win.
On the flanks, DeAndre Yedlin has the pace to trouble Chelsea on transitions and Matt Ritchie’s delivery from deep is always potentially dangerous, especially with a header of the ball like Salomón Rondón waiting in the box. Ayoze Pérez is maddeningly inconsistent and limited by Newcastle’s defensiveness, but on his day he’s good enough to open up any defence and kill any game.
Newcastle’s biggest problem is their attacking impotence: only two teams have taken fewer shots this season and only three have had fewer shots on target. They are so dependent on crosses and high balls forward that their attack is predictable and easily thwarted, and so their forwards get precious few chances to work the opposition keeper. This wouldn’t be a big problem if Newcastle could convert a high percentage of their chances, but they’ve also failed in that regard: only two teams have recorded a lower conversion rate this season. The result is that Newcastle simply don’t score: only Huddersfield have fewer goals and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.
Newcastle’s defence, led by captain Jamaal Lascelles, hasn’t exactly disappointed but it certainly hasn’t performed the miracles required of it to propel the Magpies into mid-table safety. There’s nothing that worrying about the spine of the team – any side with Martin Dubravka in goal, Lascelles, Fabian Schär and Federico Fernández in front, screened by Mo Diamé and Ki Sung-Yueng should be solid – but injuries have stopped them from gelling as much as they would like. This lack of fluency, coupled with the aforementioned lack of defensive quality at wing-back and the total lack of attacking threat, mean Newcastle are in constant danger of collapse.
Newcastle are still assessing Federico Fernández and Mo Diamé and both are rated 50:50 for this game. Ki is unlikely to figure due to a hamstring strain, while Jonjo Shelvey is out with a thigh injury. With resources stretched so thing, the Magpies’ starting line-up can’t really contain many surprises.
As for Chelsea, one suspects we’ll see a highly rotated eleven with so many players undoubtedly fatigued after an insanely busy Christmas period. Frankly, this should be the easiest league game of Chelsea’s season, so if Maurizio Sarri doesn’t take this chance to rotate, he’s an idiot.
Chelsea Reserves 2-0 Newcastle, forgotten before it’s over.