Rafa Benitez spotted one simple change he had to make on Saturday.
Recent matches had seen this particular weakness in his team become ever more glaring game to game.
Even us mere mortals watching from the terraces could see that it wasn’t working and to his credit the United boss accepted he had to tinker with his tactics.
Rafa Benitez made three changes to his line-up, with Aleksandar Mitrovic, Mohamed Diame and Grant Hanley coming in for Daryl Murphy, Ayoze Perez and Jamaal Lascelles respectively.
Whilst Diame had a really good game and Hanley did ok, the much improved performance as compared to the QPR one, came more from the alterations Rafa made to his tactics, in my opinion.
The constant passing around the back four is a tactic that not only was becoming less and less effective when trying to build attacks, it was also leading to any number of self-inflicted hazards as the opposition pressurised and occasionally caught in possession the United defenders.
Jonjo Shelvey had also been dropping deeper and deeper on a more regular basis, with Isaac Hayden adding to the issue by also repeatedly ending up nearing the Newcastle goal than the opposition’s.
Playing that kind of endless keep ball is a good idea maybe if every player is comfortable on the ball but that definitely isn’t the case with Newcastle’s back four.
Whilst Ciaran Clark and DeAndre Yedlin have no qualms at all when it comes to receiving the ball, it had become more and more problematic with Paul Dummett and Jamaal Lascelles, culminating in all sorts of problems when trying to retain possession at the back against QPR on Wednesday.
As well as their ability on the ball, Clark and especially Yedlin are also quick enough to be able to rescue the situation if they are caught in possession but both Dummett & Lascelles also struggle in that department.
Grant Hanley of course replaced Lascelles against Derby but the issue remained, as he has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses as the United Captain.
So it was noticeable on Saturday that whilst at times the ball was played across the back four at times, it was kept more to a minimum.
Rafa had clearly given his players new orders and if the ball wasn’t able to be quickly played through Jonjo Shelvey, then the likes of Ciaran Clark would play the ball forward to Mitrovic, Gouffran and or the other midfielders, rather than the repetitive keep ball we had become used to.
It didn’t have a 100% success rate of course and not every forward ball saw Newcastle keep possession but it worked more often than not and NUFC looked a far more dangerous team because of it.
Diame was finding loads of space due to the ball being forward quicker, whilst playing in a more advanced role Isaac Hayden also had his moments in that first half as Newcastle totally dominated.
If the ball did reach Jonjo Shelvey from the back four, most times he was looking to play a forward pass whereas usually it has been a case of if there isn’t a clear pass on, the tactic has tended to be for the midfielder to lay it off to a defender or Darlow then try to get it back again.
As well as creating more chances, the football in that first half especially was far better to watch than most games this season.
Maybe if the likes of Lazaar and/or Mbemba get games in this promotion run-in then the keeping possession at the back might pay better dividends but certainly for now, we need to play to the strengths (and limit the weaknesses) of this Newcastle team and accept that the likes of Lascelles, Hanley and Dummett aren’t the players to make a success of an endless keep ball mentality.