Let’s just get this over and done with: Yesterday’s performance in Newcastle 0 Watford 3 was one of the worst we’ve seen this season – probably since the start of last season down at Craven Cottage, in fact.
At the same time, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In time honoured fashion, a swathe of the faithful have begun to jump to the sorts of conclusions Olly Murs would be proud of. No, those are not gunshots, Olly. No, the house is not on fire, guys.
Now don’t get me wrong; there were some terrible aspects of yesterday’s performance which deserve dissection. The troubling travails of DeAndre Yedlin were all the more tragic following the weeks since his return to the team, where his pace and powers of recovery have added depth to a backline somewhat lacking in pace, whilst also covering for his penchant for defiantly roaming way past the halfway line.
Yesterday should be put in context of those previous performances. The own goal was unfortunate, simple as that. Worse was the lack of effort at all for Watford’s third, where starting alongside Richarlison, the fastest player in our line-up proceeded to jog back towards goal leaving Lejeune and Clark desperately outnumbered and on a hiding to nothing. I don’t see him getting away with that again though, do you?
Of most concern was how out of position he seemed time and again as Watford’s Marvellous Marvin Zeegelaar ploughed a furrow the groundsmen at St James’s are going to have job flattening in time for Leicester’s visit. But was that dear DeAndre’s fault?
We were playing an extremely narrow 4-4-2 versus an exceedingly wide 3-5-2 which at times seemed to transform into a 3-6-1. It was notable how Yedlin seemed to be picking up positions in central defence where we would usually expect the skipper to be bashing people around and cajoling the coverers. So often was Yedlin so narrow, we saw Matt Ritchie one on one or chasing after the Zeeg, and Yedders seemingly stumped as to which channel he should have settled upon.
Then again, haven’t we been praising the heart of Ritchie and Atsu most of the season in getting back and performing their defensive duties like wing-backs? So, is it that yesterday the steam ran out of our wingers? Doubtful this early in the season. Is it that Yedlin and Manquillo are not good enough? Possibly, particularly the latter, in this writer’s humble opinion. Or is it that system?
With the personnel and the type of game we’re trying to play, 4-4-2 just isn’t going to work in most games against decent sides like Watford with powerful packed midfields and lots of natural width. We needed to be flooding the midfield, allowing our wingers wider, and playing that hard to break down, highly drilled game we saw in the earlier games of the season. So why aren’t we?
Well, it’s apparent having only scored once in the past four that we needed extra firepower. Hence the two strikers. That switch also coincided with the injury in midfield to Merino and the suspension of Hayden for this match. So, two in central midfield and two up top seems an absolutely logical choice.
In other words, the gaffer’s gone looking for goals and to make the most of the limited resources available to him. Sure, it’s backfired these last few games, but I’m not going to be one to boo them off the pitch for at least trying that. He got it wrong, fine. However, against a decent Watford who’ve troubled a lot of higher placed teams this year, the team and the manager don’t deserve that.
Of course, we do have the fabled Labours of Joselu to consider when it comes to the goalscoring department, and the lack of trust in Mitrovic is of course frustrating. But then consider the impact of Joselu had at the beginning of the season on the way the team played, and more recently in partnership with Gayle, at least in part against Manchester United.
Also, Mitro just isn’t the player we want him to be. Consider how many times he’s popped a blood vessel and gone raging after an opponent for no good reason, or the amount of games he’s had, and the lack of goals in return. Can we really blame Rafa for not trusting a player who hasn’t delivered in his Newcastle career to date?
Performances like this are a worry, for sure, particularly when we don’t see the blood being sweated by the players to cover for each other’s mistakes, or in not being as disciplined and as organised as we know they can be. But like the boss has said, we’re so much further along than we expected to be, and frankly there are always going to be losses like this one, or Bournemouth, or Man United, until we’ve added three or four far better quality players to the squad.
And at least Rafa’s still here, still trying things, and still making the best of what he has.
As ever, there are also some green shoots we can focus on.
Matt Ritchie continues to be the hardest working man in sports entertainment today and – assuming his lungs don’t explode on him at some point – that lad deserves a bloody medal.
On the other side of midfield Jacob Murphy has been one of our best players in this run of games. Low-hanging fruit, perhaps, but still the youngster seems to be coming on leaps and bounds and adds competition for when Atsu returns.
Talking of returns, Merino and Hayden coming back into the team will also strengthen the spine and relieve some pressure on Shelvey, who has also stepped into the captaincy far better than many of us imagined he would.
And then there’s the skipper himself, the colossus, the man, the myth, the legend; Jamaal Lascelles.
There’s no way Yedders is risking not busting a gut to get back if he knows he’s getting thrown up against the dressing room wall and his braids undone by the force of the skipper’s hairdryer. There’s no way Diame’s risking another shiner by not getting stuck right in. Jamaal will be back soon.
The last few games have been disappointing, but the conclusions we take from them are the same as those we’ve known since the beginning of the season: we don’t have enough Premier League quality players; we need a better striker; Lascelles is the glue that holds us together. But with hard work, and by putting our trust in Rafa, we’ll survive to fight another day.
Those were not gunshots, Olly. It was just a Christmas cracker.