Chelsea’s away form has been distressing (all season, not just under Graham Potter), as has our form been against clubs in the upper half of the table — four losses, three draws, and zero wins in all competitions against any team in not just the top six, but top ten, home or away. Those matches have also often exposed weaknesses in our game, as this one unfortunately did, too.
Warning: the image you are about to see containing away stats may be disturbing to some viewers.
Newcastle have been in great form since the end of last season, so despite our recent run of 4 straight wins and an 8-0 scoreline against them, the fact that they were coming into the match on four straight wins in the league proved to be more influential to the outcome. They sit third in goals scored (from 12 different scorers), third in direct attacks, and even third in the Premier League table. But, more impressively, they are tied for the least goals conceded in the league and have the most clean sheets. All those factors made the trip to St. James’ Park, our last game before the start of the World Cup, quite ominous - and rightly so.
To start the game, Potter went with a 3-4-3 without true wingers, opting for Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher instead. That duo plays much more centrally and had to repeatedly drop deep in order to pick up the ball. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Lewis Hall were in the ever-so-important wingback positions to start, but Loftus-Cheek had to be replaced early on by Thiago Silva and therefore César Azpilicueta was shifted into the wingback role until halftime. Armando Broja led the line, but was essentially isolated up top and had a monstrous defense against which to contend.
Newcastle invariably play a 4-3-3 with little rotation aside from the personnel in their three-man midfield. They also play an entirely contrasting offensive style to us and are among the fastest and most direct attacking teams, having made the second most successful direct passes in the league. They cover ground quickly in attack and those fast transitions often stressed and eventually doomed us. Worse yet, their coordination in press smothered our central play and thereby any chance of progressing the ball through our preferred passing avenues. That impressive aspect of their game probably led more directly to our loss than their direct and imposing attack.
By essentially man-marking across the centre of the park, our passes were forced wide onto the flanks and were often suffocated through the compression of space from their seeming omnipresence. Often on the flank in which the ball is being played, the congestion of traffic was worse than (insert major city here) during rush hour. Broja was only minimally involved as the pass maps below will indicate, but he also did seem to be taking one too many touches, which is a complaint normally reserved for his eventual replacement. He finished the game with only 21 touches and one successful take-on, but he alone is not the reason we had such a low xG once again.
It must be said, Newcastle bamboozled us, and Joe Willock and Sean Longstaff blanketed our deeper-lying midfielders. The effectiveness of their midfield trio in tracking both Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić while also picking up the dropping runs (often with the help of Dan Burn) from Gallagher or occasionally Mount, ruined any progression we had, and both our team pass map and especially passes received map show just how ineffectively we progressed the ball through the middle. According to WhoScored’s touch map, over half of our starting front three’s were actually in our own half, and Mount even ended the game with more effective defensive contributions than offensive.
When both of our possession based midfielders have lower pass accuracy than our squad average, we are in trouble. Each time that we tried to play out gradually and controlled, which was virtually every time we were in possession, we were forced into rushed decisions because of our midfielders’ unavailability. Those decisions meant we lost possession 31 times via 16 turnovers and 15 dispossessions, many of which were in the centre of the pitch and even in our half. We completed only 52% of our long ‘passes’ because many were simply panicked clearances.
This passes received location map is abysmal but we should also consider that we did have an average pass streak of 5, so we were essentially playing the ball across the back line and even relentlessly to Édouard Mendy, who finished with nearly 50 attempted passes (at roughly 75% accuracy) and isn’t quite comfortable with the ball at his feet. Our passing was so poor that we finished with only 7 completions into their penalty area, 25 into their final third, and just 47 in their half, compared to their 12, 34, and 60, respectively. Second warning: painful to peruse, but if you would like to compare ours to theirs and see just how easily and effectively they played through our wide areas and into our half, click here.
For as poor as our passing was, their press was promising. Eddie Howe spoke in his presser (pun intended) about how important it was to win the ball high up the field to disrupt our rhythm, and that is a humble statement for how positionally aware they seemed. After a goal kick, which was obviously played short because we were insistent on breaking their press
deliberately unsuccessfully, Silva would prefer to play it down the left side on which he is stationed, but there are no readily available outlets. He, in what seems to be an innocuous switch, finds Azpilicueta in plenty of space. The coordination of their press to both close down Azpilicueta while simultaneously shutting down all passing lanes except a retreat to our own corner via Trevoh Chalobah is amazingly symbiotic. Forcing the play through the press was wrong, as Azpilicueta does to an onrushing Gallagher, but minimal options were made available down that flank. Gallagher’s run isolates Broja up top and comes towards two players rushing at him while a defender is also touch tight on his back. When the most disadvantageous passes for Azpilicueta (back to Chalobah or Mendy) are also the smartest passes, we are being outplayed.
The first fifteen minutes in the second half of the last three consecutive games has resulted in all four of the goals scored against us in said games. Clearly, Potter needs to address our halftime restart after the World Cup restart. The half is a chance to regroup, reanalyse, refocus, or readjust as needed, and we haven’t done that well.
Potter claims there is pain meant to be endured for growth, and that is undoubtedly true, but conceding in the times which we have and in the quantity which we have (outscored 7-2 in the league in our last four) are beginning to suggest that while obviously behind the front runners, we may also be behind the chasing pack as we sit in 8th.
Despite all this praise for them and sad but true analysis of us, this is not a Newcastle fanpost, and although I was away for a bit (hence the delay on this piece), I have not returned with a change of heart. However, they are incredibly dangerous on set pieces - with more shots per and set piece xG than anyone else in the league according to The Analyst. I bring that up not because they were particularly threatening on theirs but because we are second to bottom in both of those same statistics. It makes little sense then why there are two players lined up to take a corner, especially when none were taken short. Imagine if either scenario below had been played short to whomever ended up being the decoy rather than the eventuality of a whipped deep ball across the box that ends up cleared...
Newcastle have a height advantage over most teams, and so if our agenda was to throw balls towards the back post with fewer players in the box than we potentially could fit, I’m not certain we haven’t given up on ideas. Neither their keeper nor most of their defense really needed to adjust where they were positioned based on the kick being inswinging or outswinging, and unless it is played short, their reactions would be the same, too. Had we played short, in both circumstances we would have had a 3 on 2 advantage coming into the box, and then perhaps we would have had more than 7 successful passes into their penalty area.
But wait, there’s more. Another thing we happen to be second (not to the bottom, yay!) in is proximity to goal while taking our shots, which would theoretically increase our overall xG. Yet we sit in the bottom half of the table in that regard and also fifteenth in total shots taken in the league. If Potter has decided to give his players more liberty in striking the ball, to play more freely, then why we are we still waiting to get so close to goal before shooting and why are we shooting so infrequently?
I’ve made no attempt to hide that I think any manager (just as Tuchel did) would struggle when such a crucial component of his game, our star wingback(s), was taken out. But I think we would all like to see more from the attack. Disjointed runs, frequent misunderstandings about the positioning of others, and losses of possession are too common. Just because we are onsides more often, we haven’t improved. What is our comprehensive objective?
Our most successful era had an unbreakable spine, but now there seems to be only a frail skeleton of an idea that is overly reliant on wingbacks and possibly that dependence is contributing to their injuries. Supercomputers are now calculating our demise and with the media putting out things like this, Potter faces scrutiny even with the full backing of the board simply due to the nature of his position. Let’s hope that we can continue to trust the process.
Sorry, I had to do it.