Newcastle enter the clash with Everton hoping to extend their three match unbeaten run. A victory would give Newcastle ten points from twelve, the sort of foundation to build from that McClaren has been looking for since becoming manager.
Newcastle have the better recent form, but Everton will hope to add to a run of three wins in their last five matches at St. James Park.
Newcastle will have to be at their best to repeat last year’s 3-2 success.
Everton’s key men
With 17 goals and 4 assists already this season, Romelu Lukaku is Everton’s main threat. Lukaku, the Toffees record signing at £28m, intends to extend a remarkable run of scoring (8 goals) in 7 consecutive games, and has the pace, power and presence to do Newcastle real damage.
Chancel Mbemba will be key to negating Lukaku; the DR Congo international is one of the few players who can match Lukaku for speed, strength and aerial ability. It is important that Fabricio Coloccini plays a sweeper role, allowing Mbemba to attack Lukaku while being alert to the runs of Arouna Kone.
Behind the big Belgian, Ross Barkley pulls the strings and has a return of 7 goals and 8 assists this year. Newcastle fans have been punished by Barkley before; in March 2014, the English prodigy ran 70 yards at St. James Park, twisting, turning, leaving defenders aside before smashing it into the roof of the net.
Newcastle’s chances of stopping Barkley rely on Jack Colback, who needs to keep tight to the Everton man at all times. If you stop Barkley, you stop the supply to Lukaku, Kone and Gerard Deulofeu; whoever wins the battle of the home-grown talent will win the match, and few players get the better of Jack Colback.
Leighton Baines has been vital for Everton at both ends of the pitch in recent years, and remains a real threat from set-pieces – Newcastle can ill-afford to give away free-kicks around the penalty area.
However, the England man has only made two starts all season, playing just 209 minutes in total following a long injury lay-off. Baines’ effectiveness as an attacking full-back is unquestioned, but it will be a few weeks before he obtains full match fitness.
How Moussa Sissoko and Daryl Janmaat co-operate is key. Janmaat needs to focus primarily on defending, but can pick his spots to get in behind Baines on the counter. Sissoko’s power and pace will continually challenge Baines’ fitness and stamina levels over the course of 90 minutes; with intelligent play from Janmaat, Newcastle will expect their right flank to create several chances.
Time for Thauvin
Winning the midfield battle is the key to winning football matches. This season, McClaren’s first-choice midfield pairing has been Colback and either Vurnon Anita or Cheick Tiote. It’s time for Newcastle’s manager to take off the shackles, play Colback and Georginio Wijnaldum together in the middle and start £13m man Florian Thauvin out wide.
When introducing Wijnaldum in the summer, McClaren spoke of how Wijnaldum was to be Newcastle’s ‘double-six’ in midfield; he said it was the Dutch Player of the Year’s natural role. Deploying Wijnaldum out wide has brought 7 goals and 3 assists, which begs the question: how much better off would Newcastle be if their best player was played in his best position?
All McClaren has to do to find out, is to start Thauvin on Saturday. If he wants Newcastle to develop into European contenders, he has to approach matches like European contenders would, and a Newcastle team good enough to be in Europe doesn’t start two defensive midfielders at home; they take the game by the scruff of the neck and attack both the opposition and the match, whoever it’s against.
For Thauvin to become a key player for McClaren’s team, he needs to keep it simple. A team with designs on trophies will always keep a man up, because it offers a quick counter-attack and quick counter-attacks offer goals; whichever two start out of Siem de Jong, Ayoze Perez and Aleksandar Mitrovic, can drop deeper when necessary.
This also helps pin back the attack-minded yet underperforming Seamus Coleman; Thauvin is Florian Trident, his mere presence is a deterrent with potentially explosive results.
Thauvin helps the defence by not defending, by staying on the halfway line, by offering the long ball over the top, the relief of pressure on the centre-backs and the assists and the goals that give Newcastle something to defend.
All Newcastle need Thauvin to do is cross the ball. If he can deliver a ball to the goalmouth once every 5 minutes, this gives Mitrovic, de Jong, Perez and Wijnaldum 18 chances at goal. If Mitrovic can get his head to 9 of them, he’s going to get two or three goals. Perez, Janmaat, de Jong, Sissoko, Colback and Wijnaldum can handle the incisive short passing, diagonal runs and tidy finishes for now – there’s another 70-odd minutes for them. It only takes one goal to win a football match.
Playing Wijnaldum centrally, forces Everton’s Tom Cleverley and Gareth Barry to stay deep; playing Thauvin wide-left neutralises and exploits the underperforming Coleman.
With Sissoko doing the same to Baines on the opposite flank, this approach would create countless chances for Newcastle’s strikers, as well as the lethal Wijnaldum. McClaren was Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant in Manchester United’s treble winning season; he needs to instil that champion’s mentality at Newcastle if he wants to surpass the achievements of Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson.
He may not win the treble if he does, but Newcastle will win more football matches than they lose.
Papiss Cisse looks to be to set to miss the next few weeks, which means it is two from three up front. Ayoze Perez simply has to start. The Manchester United target offers pace, creativity and good link-up play, his hard work defensively offers good protection for the midfield and he is developing into Newcastle’s baby-faced assassin. The issue for debate is whether he is partnered by Siem de Jong or Aleksandar Mitrovic.
If McClaren starts Wijnaldum centrally, de Jong would offer a more compact midfield three; he could drop deeper on occasion to allow Newcastle’s top scorer to break. De Jong offers a greater passing range behind Everton’s attacking full-backs, which could benefit Perez, Thauvin and Sissoko on the counter. The Dutchman’s lack of pace would not be an issue against Cleverley and Gareth Barry, while his presence allows Perez to play on the shoulder of the Everton defenders.
After missing an open goal from three yards last week, de Jong will be desperate to atone; starting him could be the lift-off to his Newcastle career, whereas leaving him out could kill his confidence completely.
Many would like to see Mitrovic preferred to start, and with good reason. The Serbian international is developing into a talisman for the Newcastle crowd; his early over-exuberance has translated into a series of game-changing performances. Mitrovic could be Newcastle best chance of exploiting the inexperience of John Stones and Ramiro Funes Mori, neither of whom has much experience against a player of Mitrovic’s style and calibre.
His selection would allow Perez to roam in the hole, and if you remember how Mesut Ozil embarrassed Barry in the World Cup a few years ago, you can only imagine what a quicker Perez will do against an older and slower Gareth Barry. Mitrovic is Newcastle’s greatest aerial threat, which offers the best chance of getting the most out of Thauvin, while his hold-up play enables a focal point the entire Newcastle team can play off.
Who McClaren opts for will be interesting: Mitrovic would be my choice to partner Perez, but there is a case for starting de Jong. Mitrovic’s devastating impact against Tottenham, scoring one and assisting another in a 20-minute cameo, could actually lend McClaren to start with de Jong.
The neutrals may back Everton, but Newcastle can beat the Toffees if they produce the same determination, effort and attacking threat shown in recent wins against the two Champions League contenders.
The managers who prove to be successes on Tyneside are those who show courage, who set Newcastle up to attack football matches and who approach the job as if Newcastle are already challenging at the top, not merely aspiring to be.
McClaren needs to get the key decisions in selection and tactics right; with the support and backing of the crowd, Newcastle can produce some festive fantasy football for their fifty-thousand ever-faithful followers.
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