Newcastle United’s marked men
Six minutes. Ten if we’re being pedantic.
All that stood between Newcastle United and the most shocking result of this Premier League campaign. Despite holding a two-goal lead against the incumbent champions, it wasn’t to be, and the wait for a first win goes on. For once, it had nothing to do with spineless characters, hapless transfer policies or a Machiavellian chairman.
Isn’t that refreshing?
For ninety minutes at St. James’ on a Saturday night, it was just about the football.
It was a far cry from the Wednesday debacle, where every aspect of the club, from recruitment and management to club emails and PR machines, came under intense scrutiny. Only Ayoze Perez, Daryl Janmaat and the tea lady avoided being named as part of the blame game.
Fast forward three days, and it’s hard to point the finger at anyone after a gutsy performance against the incumbent champions, the likes of which has only been seen against Arsenal. Not one of the eleven let anyone down, and the crowd responded in kind with vociferous support. It was, for one evening, exactly as it should be.
Amidst the welcome and wholly deserving praise, some theories have been posited as to why Newcastle couldn’t quite hang on. The cash-rich champions can afford to stock their bench with the kind of quality that McClaren can only dream of, and that had a telling impact.
United’s second-half retreat back into their own third has been questioned, but how else do you counter the threat of the Hazards, Oscars, Pedros? After half-time, Chelsea only breached the brilliant back four once with the ball on the deck. That tells its own story.
However, they enjoyed more success in the air, particularly as the game wore on.
Boo boy Loic Remy had found enough space to get a couple headers away before being replaced by Falcao, but it was Ramires – all 5ft 11in of him – who did the aerial damage late in the evening. His unsighted run across goal rendered Tim Krul blind to Willian’s whipped delivery, and then subsequently, only the quick reflexes of the Dutch stopper prevented the unmarked midfielder from stealing the win.
Both times, Ivan Toney was the man tasked with marshalling Ramires. Had the physical but unusually disciplined Mitrovic remained on the field, the Brazilian might not have found it so easy to ghost unopposed into dangerous areas. Unfortunately, the outstanding Serb was, to put it bluntly, absolutely knackered, leading to Toney’s introduction.
The rationale was understandable; bring on a promising new boy with an injection of pace to relieve pressure on the defence. Instead, within a minute, the ex-Northampton starlet was deep in his own box, unfairly expected to shackle Chelsea’s liveliest presence. It’s fair to say he didn’t succeed.
And yet, the two were tangoing in much the same way soon after. Another Willian set-piece, and this time, a connection from Ramires. Without a two-handed parry from Krul, we’d all be despairing over a disastrous capitulation.
Set-pieces haven’t been United’s strong point for a while now, but for much of Saturday’s game, the defence comfortably dealt with crosses from dead ball scenarios. It only looked suspect in the game’s final throes.
Whether the Ramires-Toney mismatch was a tactical decision from the bench, or one made on the hoof amongst the players before the late set-pieces, it proved costly.
Still, the need for a little fine tuning at set plays is far from negative. All of the other recent concerns – a lack of momentum going forward, less than committed performances, underwhelming starts by new signings – were all far more pressing, and were addressed to varying extents.
That the only post-match issue can be rectified on the training ground, rather than in the changers or the boardroom, is a positive in itself.
Jose Mourinho would have expected the same kind of stubbornness and commitment that United showed against the Gunners, but the Special One – and, for that matter, the rest of us – didn’t foresee a performance with such attacking intent.
The Perez-Mitrovic axis already looks promising, the latter’s hold-up play and controlled aggression a particularly encouraging sign of things to come. Wijnaldum was a real handful down the left in the first half, and Janmaat now rivals Kolarov for the title of the Premier League’s most bombastic full-back.
The opening forty-five featured a brand of football that fans have long been promised, belatedly delivered by McClaren and his charges. Manchester City, fresh from a hiding and without the talismanic Vincent Kompany, will have taken note.
Unlike Ramires on Saturday, Newcastle United’s players will be marked men from here on out.
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