The subtle but vital Rafa tactical change that transformed Newcastle v Birmingham
The Newcastle 4 Birmingham 0 scoreline was impressive enough but arguably, the performance was far far better than you’d imagine, if you hadn’t seen the game.
Newcastle came up against a fourth placed team who had only lost twice away from home and before Saturday, had conceded only 10 goals in nine matches on their travels.
With Newcastle so dominant and making them look so poor, it is easy to think that Birmingham were simply a poor team that were taken to the cleaners.
However, the performance by Newcastle from the very first minute was in total contrast to the recent games against the likes of Forest and Blackburn. Two teams that the league table tells you are very much inferior to Birmingham this season.
Whilst many Newcastle players did play a lot better on Saturday, I think the foundation for all of that was a subtle change by Rafa Benitez in how he used Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden.
Yes we have become used to seeing this midfield pair dominate their opponents in terms of possession but increasingly, opponents appeared to have worked out how to play against them, especially Shelvey, in terms of minimising the cutting edge that the Newcastle pair had.
Shelvey, and to and extent Hayden, have game after game been pinging the ball around the pitch with accurate long passes. However, it has been increasingly to less and less effect, with other teams defending deep and the Newcastle wingers/full-backs heavily marked and the ball eventually been worked backwards – rather than chances created.
Against Birmingham, it looked clear to me that both Shelvey and Hayden had orders to get further up the pitch (rather than just standing next to the centre-backs and repeatedly getting five yard passes from them).
Even more important, the pair had been given obvious instructions to also run with the ball as much as possible.
The transformation was immediate and both central midfielders caused all kinds of problems as they ran at the heart of the visitors’ defence and made them commit.
Perfect illustrations of this were the second goal created by Hayden’s skilful run and then Shelvey’s lung-busting charge for the fourth and Gayle’s hat-trick.
Newcastle were far more of a dangerous animal with this subtle change of tactics, hopefully it is here to stay.
Here are the stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 4 Birmingham 0
Newcastle: Gayle 18, 24, 77 Gouffran 47
Possession was Birmingham 38% Newcastle 62%
Total shots were Birmingham 5 Newcastle 20
Shots on target were Birmingham 2 Newcastle 10
Corners were Birmingham 1 Newcastle 7
Newcastle starting 11:
Darlow, Anita, Clark, Lascelles, Dummett, Hayden (Lazaar 82), Shelvey, Ritchie, Gouffran (Atsu 72), Diame, Gayle (Mitrovic 79)
Sels, Mbemba, Yedlin, Tiote
Referee: Andy Davies
Crowd: 52,145 (Birmingham 3,184)
(Birmingham boss Gary Rowett waves the white flag after watching his team being taken apart – read it HERE)
(To read the instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to the match go HERE)
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