Did Newcastle really show they can build from the back?
Forget the fact that Southampton were one of the Premier League’s surprise packages last season.
Forget the fact that they were fresh from a 5-0 aggregate drubbing of Vitesse in the Europa League.
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Hell, even forget the fact that they did the double over (and stuck 6 goals past!) Newcastle United last season.
Forget it all! With a new narrative from Mike Ashley and a new boss in the dugout and around £40,000,000 worth of new talent due to be on the pitch, Newcastle’s fans could have been forgiven for feeling somewhat optimistic as their club kicked off the 2015/16 Premier League season.
Forget the fact that they sat a bit too deep towards the end of the game and let a 2-1 lead slip too.
After a solid 90 minutes, and a decent result, fans could even be forgiven for carrying some of the optimism forwards into the rest of the season too.
On the subject of forgetting things, as the team news filtered out of the St James Park dressing room, Steve McClaren seemed to have forgotten his whole pre season.
Club captain Fabricio Coloccini was named in the starting XI despite not having kicked a ball all summer and Chancel Mbemba was starting alongside him, in a defensive partnership that McClaren was quick to remind us in his post-match interview had had “no minutes”. Ever.
However, Newcastle’s fans didn’t seem to care. In fact, they were just delighted that the much-maligned Mike Williamson was nowhere in sight. And to be fair, Mbemba looked to be that rarest of specimens: a promising Newcastle United defender.
He looked assured, strong, quick and made more clearances and interceptions than any other Newcastle player on the pitch. Everyone will be praying he keeps it up – if for no other reason than because being ‘McClarened’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as being ‘Pardewed’.
Mbemba is only 5”11 though. And Coloccini only 6”0. With Graziano Pelle standing at 6”4, Newcastle looked vulnerable from set-pieces and crosses and duly conceded two headed goals over the course of the 90 minutes, both of which came from deliveries down Newcastle’s left hand side where Massadio Haidara – now starting his fourth season at St. James Park – was simply too slow to close down the dangerous Soares and Tadic.
But forget that. On a day of such heady optimism I should be fair to the 22 year-old left-back. He might have demonstrated the first touch of a trampoline, but he at least sort-of notched a kind-of assist when his looping cross was deflected into Papiss Cisse’s path and the striker chested it in for his first goal of the season.
Forget the almost-but-not-quite-Ameobi-esque form of 21 goals in his last 82 appearances, Cisse has scored a goal-a-game so far this season. He’s (possibly) back.
As well as needing a competent left-back, another issue for Newcastle remains Tim Krul’s tendency to punt the ball long without success. He did it 11 times against Southampton and only managed a measly pass completion ratio of 67%.
Given that McClaren seems to be asking Anita or Colback to drop deep and pick up possession from the back, he must surely be frustrated at seeing the ball go into orbit and his team sacrifice possession every third time that Krul restarts play.
And on the subject of building from the back, I remain a bit unconvinced that Newcastle are very good at it yet.
If you do lots of maths you’ll discover that full backs Haidara and Janmaat made 111 passes in this game; centre backs Coloccini and Mbemba made 89; defensive midfielders Colback and Anita (replaced by Tiote) made 114.
In contrast to these 314 passes made by their defensive players, the more attacking quartet of Sissoko, Wijnaldum (De Jong), Obertan and Cisse (Mitrovic) only managed 122 between them. Patience is a virtue and all that, but that’s only 27% of Newcastle’s passes made by more attacking players. In a home game.
As a consequence, although they enjoyed 57% possession, the vast majority of this was inside their own half. They may have managed to keep 7% more of the ball than the South Coast outfit, but they had 6 fewer attempts on goal than their more incisive opposition.
That said, the quality and imagination of the more attacking moves that Newcastle did put together was better than they appeared capable of under Pardew and Carver. But then it had to be, didn’t it?
Wijnaldum rarely sacrificed possession and Gabriel Obertan registered a superb assist in the one flowing counter-attack that allowed him to run in behind Southampton down his preferred right flank. Sissoko cleverly chipped the ball ahead of him and Gini Wijnaldum steamed onto the end of his accurate cross to float a brilliantly headed debut goal into the far corner of the net.
The assist was certainly the highlight of Obertan’s afternoon. It wasn’t that he was terrible for the other 89 minutes, it’s just that when all you have to offer the team is raw pace and a half-decent right foot, you’re not likely to set the world on fire shoved out of position on the left wing.
With Mike Ashley actually in attendance, maybe McClaren was just trying to highlight how desperately Newcastle need some natural wingers on both flanks if they are to get the best out of the threat of Alexsandar Mitrovic, who, incidentally, was very lucky to stay on the pitch after scything into Matt Target three seconds into his debut.
Overall, Newcastle should be quietly satisfied with a point out of this game and are sure to be buoyed by the performances of new-boys Mbemba and Wijnaldum.
However, questions do remain: can Tim Krul stop wasting possession?
Will Haidara ever hack it in the Premier League?
And is Paul Dummett really the long term answer if he won’t?
Just how vulnerable will this new look defence be in the air this season?
And can Taylor or Williamson or Lascelles provide any sort of solution?
Is building from the back and chasing a possession statistic really the best way for Newcastle to utilise the strengths of their best players?
And is there currently enough pace and width in the midfield to really worry the league’s best defences and create sufficient chances for Cisse and Mitrovic?
We might find out some more answers against Swansea.
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