Criticism aimed at Newcastle United last year concentrated on two things: lack of goals scored and abundance of goals conceded.
If your defence can concede fives and sixes and your best attacker can only score nine, then you’re going to be in trouble. And so it proved.
However, one of the overlooked causes of Newcastle’s woes on the pitch last season was actually not in defence or attack, but in midfield.
A few years ago, Alan Pardew introduced the 4-2-3-1 formation to Newcastle and it looked very shrewd tactically. I remember the 2-0 victory over Swansea in 2012 that got Newcastle up to fifth place in the season we qualified for Europe.
Before the game, the talk was all about Swansea’s possession game, but Newcastle allowed them to keep the ball and managed to beat them by counter-attacking. The possession stats were 68% to 32% in Swansea’s favour, but Newcastle completely outplayed them.
The 4-3-2-1 formation that day started with Gutierrez and Tiote as the “two”, the sitting midfield pairing. A lot of people were surprised that Alan Pardew wanted Jonas in there when he was seen as a winger, but it turned out that he could also tackle, and his ability to hold the ball, dribble and pass were effective. Tiote was playing his usually game of breaking up the opposition’s play, but went off to be replaced at half-time by Ryan Taylor. Another player who could tackle, hold the ball and pass.
Gutierrez and Taylor were generally thought of as wide players, but by playing them more infield than usual, Pardew managed to narrow the midfield and cramp Swansea’s passing game.
Cabaye, who might have seemed the ideal player to play in front of the defence played in the middle of the forward three, and again it seemed to be a counter-intuitive choice by Alan Pardew, but it worked. He was pushed forward rather than back, so that his creative passing game had greater effect.
The role Cabaye played that day seems to be now confused with what’s known as the “number 10”, ie the “Beardsley”, the creative, unpredictable second striker. That role was instead played by Ben Arfa out on the right. Cabaye could add bite to the attacks in a much more advanced position.
Demba Ba never looked comfortable, but he stuck to the left touchline, thereby dragging Swansea’s right back wide. And it was one of the games when Ben Arfa just did his thing. Newcastle had an attacking six who were all comfortable on the ball – who could all tackle, dribble and pass.
4-2-3-1 has become the default formation and it’s lost its element of surprise. The understanding of the role of two “sitting” midfielders has also changed in just five years. Now it’s seen as defensive midfield.
Last season, Newcastle played the same 4-2-3-1 formation, but were often let down by the two sitting midfielders – different combinations of Colback, Anita, Tiote, Saivet and Shelvey.
Firstly, the full-backs were encouraged to advance. Janmaat did this happily, Dummett less so. The sitting midfielders should have had the nous or the instructions to cover for them when they went forward, but they didn’t. The centre-backs were then pulled into no man’s land leaving gaping holes in the middle. And then the sitting midfielders usually didn’t manage to get back into the centre to cover there either.
Coloccini got a lot of criticism last season. Some of it was deserved, but in some games he was still superb. But Coloccini is a sweeper; he plays as a defender with a free role that allows him to cover behind the defence or run forward and close down attacks, or go wide, as he sees fit. He wears number 2, which is the number sweepers wear in Argentina. But sweepers are not part of this formation. They don’t exist in the English game. We play our spare man in front of the defence.
So either Coloccini should have been moved into that sitting midfielder position to play his covering game with two centre-backs behind him, or Colback, Anita or someone else should have had the orders to cover for him when he did break from the central position.
It looks from the three pre-season friendlies (ED: article received before Southend) this year that Benitez is favouring a lightweight skilful three playing behind one striker, possibly Aarons, Perez and Ritchie, which means there will be a lot of pressure on the two sitting behind them to stifle opposition attacks, win the ball and then pass it or bring it forward themselves. It’s a crucial role, especially in the Championship, where although the skills might be less than the Premier League, the fitness, speed and strength of the players is not.
Looking at the possible players to fit into that sitting midfielder position, we see the same five we had in the Premier last year – Colback, Anita, Shelvey, Tiote, Saivet. I’m not sure any of them can do that job. Sissoko would have been worth a try as one of the two, as he can tackle, run and pass, but it looks like he’s going.
So if Benitez is still looking to buy, then maybe he should be looking at one or two for that role. Maybe a converted winger whose dribbling skills are known, but who can also tackle and pass.