Our opposition was ironically similar to us in many aspects: they’re under new ownership, injury stricken, have no European football (anymore) this season, and have Cobham graduates both on the bench and on the pitch. In fact, the match mirrored our symbiotic schlocky, with both goals scored from defensive errors gifting chances to the opposition that happened to be clinically finished. Similarly, they too have been wobbling in form, ranging from 3-0 defeats to Everton to 3-0 wins against Fulham, and have struggled to find consistency both in front of goal and in defense. A true battle of injury-plagued mediocrity was bound to ensue - and it did.
While Pochettino has been trying to inculcate this squad to play as he would like, it it quixotic to assume that the plan will come to fruition until the squad is healthier and all available players are, well, available. Once again we were forced into a substitution prior to halftime due to illness/hernia, and for all the praise our physios have gotten from the mainstream media and indeed general public, they are letting the manager down by allowing players who seem clearly unsuitable to start to be given the run out. Crazier still, Armando Broja was the player chosen to come on for Enzo (who was certainly making a great impact on this game prior to his removal), far from a like-for-like, and while that slid Nicolas Jackson wider for Broja’s more dominant physical presence, it also made our play much more narrow.
For the umpteenth time, our narrow play has a hard time breaking down a packed and defensive low block, especially one filled with the talented players that Newcastle have. Therefore, it is unsurprising that we were dominating the ball with 76% first half possession, we ended up with a lower first half xG (0.53 to their 0.63) despite our 8 shots (1 on target) to their 3 shots (also 1 on target.) Raheem Sterling was the only player to pose an actual threat in the first half - and both circumstances came within a minute of each other, and both started from from great play from out wide, either via Conor Gallagher making a great run (29th minute) or from him taking matters into his own hands a minute prior. Unfortunately, he did not put either chance into the proverbial potato sack. While the first is a much more difficult finish, the second is nigh inexcusable.
You can see the minimal width via our pass map, which include our average player positions. Newcastle, as esteemed as the media claimed them to be whilst dragging Chelsea for no apparent reason despite both teams having equal difficulties in the injury department, offered nothing. Their pass map demonstrates that as clearly as ours demonstrates our dominance of possession as well as a lack of width.
Let’s take an honest assessment, we could have easily lost this game had Kieran Trippier not made a foolish mistake, and it could have similarly finished in a draw if both Thiago Silva and Benoît Badiashile hadn’t had mistouches in defending what should have been an easy clearance. The game was decided by individual mistakes and clinical finishes after said mistakes. When those two things are the deciding factors of a game, it leaves tactics essentially by the wayside. The expected threats of the passes is also noted in the graphic above via the colour, and we should note that they have quite a few light urple lines to our few. Note that their pass directness averaged 38.7 while they only had five 10+ passing sequences throughout the match, while ours was 22.2 metres in directness and we had 37 10+ passing sequences. Once again, possession for possession’s sake nearly lost the match for us, just as our lack of width did. Both our territories of control and passing clusters were downright pitiful.
Albeit we have a tremendously comprehensive pass map, there were no truly discernable passing patterns that were established. Very rarely did Axel Disasi or Levi Colwill push on to create overloads, and that is not only noticeable with their touch maps but also by the fact that they had 54 and 62 passes respectively, half of that from all of Thiago Silva (128), Badiashile (130), Caicedo (126), and Gallagher (118). In fact, despite only coming on at half for Colwill, Malo Gusto made significantly more offensive contributions, and was even predominantly playing on the left until shifted to the right , his weaker side. Over 2⁄3 of his touches were in Newcastle’s half, while about 2⁄3 of Disasi’s and Colwill’s touches were in our defensive half. Putting that into perspective, 70% of the game was played in Newcastle’s half, and so there was certainly no need for them to be so withdrawn from the attack. Alas, this is why playing centre backs as fullbacks might help us to be defensively more sound, but certainly does not help our attacking impetus.
We keep searching for signs of improvement, and I, for one, do not see drastic improvements. I am tired of seeing 70%+ possession without goals to show for it. I am tired of seeing a rooted back four when the opposition is clearly on the back foot. I am tired of registering so few shots and/or shots on target when we have such dominant possession. I am tired of seeing such successful PPDA and winning so many high turnovers only to see the ball recycled into possession for nothing. I am tired of seeing so many opportunities wasted through insufficient finishing. I am tired of seeing our attacking players called for offsides due to poor positioning (6 times from Broja and Jackson alone). I am tired of writing articles about a squad of individuals that don’t have cohesion because, through injuries or otherwise, cannot develop any sense of synchronicity.
To point it out for something like the fourth article in a row, our fixture list through the festive period is one of the easiest in the league. It is time for the players on the pitch, no matter if they are first choice or playing out of position, to step up and remonstrate against the reality of the facts that I’ve just pointed out. I do see immense potential, but I also see it going unfulfilled, and another £100+ million striker should not need to be our January stop-gap solution.