A Reality Cheick For The Toon Midfield
After an impressive start to his career on Tyneside Cheick Tiote has endured a pretty mixed last 12 months for Newcastle. The Ivorian enforcer landed on his feet in the premier league, suited to his athleticism and battling nature and after his sensational equaliser against Arsenal in a memorable 4-4 draw, he quickly became a fan favourite.
This season his form has been considerably worse; regularly frustrating fans by being wasteful in possession and losing the ball by continually trying to turn inside on the edge of his own box.
Vurnon Anita and James Perch partnered Yohan Cabaye in the absence of Tiote, yet both games followed a similar pattern in terms of our defensive set-up. At the Etihad and Estádio da Luz, we sat deep looking to soak up pressure and counter attack. However, having numbers deep behind the ball does not mean that you are defending effectively, especially if there is no pressure being applied on the ball carrier. If you allow quality players like Silva, Tevez and Nasri for Man City and Gaitan, Cardozo and Rodrigo for Benfica time and space, eventually they will create an opening and punish you.
In both games we weren’t ‘busy’ enough in the midfield zone without the ball and applied very little pressure to the opposition without the ball. Cabaye was below his best in both games yet he still contributed 3 tackles and 4 interceptions against Benfica and 5 interceptions against City. Contrast this with his midfield partners in these two games – against City, Perch and Anita had only 1 tackle and 1 interception each; in his 62 minutes against Benfica Perch had zero tackles, zero interceptions and zero blocks, the only defensive statistic he registered was a foul for his yellow card.
In both games we struggled to pick up opposition attackers sitting in front of the defence and got punished for allowing them too much time and space. It is of course always a hypothetical but not unreasonable to assume that Tiote would have been more willing to battle for the ball and at least applied pressure on the ball, preventing forward penetrating passes. We would probably still have lost away to City even with Tiote playing but who knows how we would have otherwise fared against Benfica?
I certainly believe that if Tiote is fit to play in the home leg, Rodrigo dropping deep and Gaitan cutting inside, won’t enjoy the same luxurious time on the ball that we afforded them on Thursday. At St James’s Park, we can expect that Tiote’s battling nature and the roar from the Gallowgate will be much more effective at pressurising Benfica.
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