A Christmas Carroll
I can still remember the first time I saw a skinny teenager from the Teams gallop across the turf at SJP like an anorexic Great Dane chasing a seagull on Tynemouth Beach.
I applauded his enthusiasm at first, and that was all, but as he got older and heavier it became clear that he was a player almost like no other.
He bullied and beat defenders, even when they played for his own team…and he carried the scars to prove it. Experienced players backed off him and feared him. He scored goals. Then he left. Well, now he’s back.
Against Southampton, United once again defended the Gallowgate end in the first half and it quickly became apparent that as usual the opposition showed more attacking intent but not necessarily with more ability, just with more enthusiasm.
Both teams were evenly matched between attacking prowess and defensive resilience and it was going to take something exceptionally good or a defensive error to break the deadlock – very little of that came in the first half.
For the black and whites, an exciting ASM run into the penalty area gave Almiron a shooting chance which he was unable to convert, partly due to a deflection taking the pace off the ball at a crucial moment. For the Saints, a poor Willems crossfield pass left Fernandez stranded and Redmond through one on one with Dubravka, the Slovakian keeper making an excellent save with his legs. The resulting corner, expertly delivered, again fell to Redmond, but Dubravka was once more equal to the strike, parrying Redmond’s shot two handed wide of the goal.
Not much else happened in the first half, a couple of handball claims were VAR checked but on both occasions the Saints were rightly denied penalties by a referee who got most of the big decisions right and all the small decisions wrong. While United maintained their usual cautious approach and Southampton pressed and pushed, goal threat remained as scarce as a genuinely made and properly thought-out election promise.
A poor first half gave way to a better second one.
The injured Clark was replaced by Schar in the Toon defence and his first contribution was to duck under a routine header away, allowing Danny Ings to run through to fire past Dubravka, Fernandez doing his best to help atone for his Swiss colleague’s error. It was a disappointing re-introduction for Schar, a player who has contributed much since his arrival eighteen months ago, but thankfully it was to be his only negative contribution and one of very few mistakes the United defence made during the game.
Southampton’s gander was up but a Cedric Soares shot was the only real opportunity they created during United’s worst period in the game, which quickly came to an end with the arrival of Andy Carroll, replacing the anonymous Joelinton on the hour.
After an initial period where the hapless ref was unable to understand what a fair and unfair grapple was, Carroll’s influence started to change the game. It wasn’t just his pinpoint cross for Jonjo Shelvey to time his run to perfection and head past a static McCarthy, it was more Carroll’s ability to chase after a ball which looked to be going out which meant so much. Most observers have said that a fit Andy Carroll is a challenge to any team but getting him fit is the biggest challenge for the one he plays for. He is starting to look fit now.
The game became stretched as both teams sought a winner. Space opened up in the Magpies’ normally compact defence and Southampton almost capitalised, Ryan Bertrand headed over from three yards – where I sit, it looked like he had cleared it off the line. Shane Long I think also almost got in at the back post with just a little too much pace on the ball across goal for him to finish.
Newcastle were in it though and finally got the clear-cut chance which had previously alluded them. A long range skidder from substitute Longstaff was too hot for McCarthy to handle and Fernandez nipped in to score from a few yards out.
I don’t know because I didn’t watch it but I have heard that at the same time on-loan keeper Frazer Forster was single-handedly winning the Scottish cup for Celtic, as his Southampton superior was wiping the Lurpak off his gloves. I didn’t hear Ralph Hasenhuttl mention that post-match as he was bleating on about statistics, if I was a Saints fan I would have found his post-match Pardew style comments dispiriting:
“The first goal we didn’t defend well and the second was a shot from outside the box. It is a pity… I didn’t see a lot of chances for Newcastle today, plenty for us. We didn’t get the result but it was a very good game from us. I only saw my team playing football today.”
While Southampton did play more of the little football on show in a dismal game, to concentrate more on the scoreline than the reasons for the scoreline is a bit like Ian Wright complaining that he didn’t win I’m A Celebrity without acknowledging that he didn’t win it because he’s a bit of a knacker sometimes.
If you can’t score goals and you can’t defend then you are not going to win games, it doesn’t matter how much possession you have. If your players can’t head the ball in from three yards then you are going to need a lot of chances, if your goalkeeper spills a shot straight into the path of an onrushing opponent who is first to the ball with your defence nowhere then the opposition don’t need a lot of chances. If he doesn’t think it is his job to fix that, he probably won’t have his job for much longer.
‘Not the sack he was looking for at Christmas’
Still, it wasn’t all plain sailing for United. The result was a bit hard on a team which came to attack, presumably buoyed by a couple of home wins against the bottom two clubs in the league. Their two wingers caused problems and playing two strikers was quite refreshing for a team struggling for points. I haven’t routinely watched them but credit to them for setting out to play attacking football, especially given their precarious status. They obviously lack quality but that is not insurmountable.
Newcastle also lack quality but look to have more than enough unity and endeavour to comfortably survive. One thing Southampton did do especially well was put very dangerous balls into the Newcastle box from set-pieces, with pace and whip. It is a contrast to the tat served up by United, the irony of United’s first goal wasn’t lost on us. An awful free-kick taken by Shelvey, floated aimlessly towards the big lad, was easily cleared by Southampton, we can only assume Andy Carroll’s cross was borne out of frustration, one of only two decent crosses United put in all game.
For a team with little possession and a giant centre forward, that is an avenue of attack which is currently being criminally wasted. It might help if our left-footed winger played on the left and our right-footed winger played on the right. That would give them more incentive to get to the line and cross rather than cut in and shoot, which has hardly produced a goal bonanza so far.
Almiron looks far too fragile confidence-wise to have a pop and with ASM injured for a while, it might mean that Joelinton can move out to a wing and a real centre forward can play up front. That is not particularly a criticism of Joelinton, by the club’s own admission he isn’t an out and out striker.
At this stage of his career, I’m not sure what he is. That is a criticism of him.
When he was subbed on Sunday I heard the first real collective vocal outrage at his performance as “what a waste of money” was shouted by a couple of voices and one or two boos accompanied it. It was quickly stifled by the cries of other more patient followers about “damaging his confidence” and “boo-ing him not being the answer”. While both positions may be valid, one thing I will say, is if he is bothered what I think of him as a footballer then he probably has no place in the team. And what do I think of him as a footballer? Currently, for whatever reason, he has no place in the team. There are players playing better and who are fit in every position. What that does to his confidence is up to him.
Part of me can understand why he does his job with all the enthusiasm you would expect of someone who had been told to chase aimless balls booted in his general direction in the freezing cold. If he was six years old I’d buy him a balaclava and a hot chocolate. As he is not six years old, I suggest he looks for inspiration at the likes of Carroll who was all effort on Sunday, Almiron who still hasn’t clicked but runs his backside off, or Hayden who always does his best, even when his best is a little lost by his own admission.
“We didn’t get started in the first half, it certainly wasn’t my best game in a black and white shirt, I’ll give you that. But sometimes when it’s like that you just have to stick with it, keep running, keep working hard and hopefully something will fall for you.”
Isaac Hayden was a little bit harsh on himself with that post-match analysis. With United under the cosh a bit in the first half it was bound to be more about his defensive qualities than anything else. His hard graft allowed Shelvey to take the plaudits in the second half. The Dark Lord of the midfield was again quiet and wasteful in the first half and grew into the game as it went on. They weren’t alone on their inconsistency, only really Carroll, Fernandez, Dummett and the increasingly indispensable Dubravka can say they played well. Everyone else put in a shift though.
Highlighting the positive, it wasn’t just Andy Carroll who changed the game. It was also an organisational switch which accompanied it by the Steves. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly what that switch was, from where I sit it looked like a back five, with Shelvey in front, Hayden, ASM and Almiron as a three supporting Carroll and then eventually a 4-4-2 when Longstaff had come on late in the match for Almiron. Others have said it was a 5-3-2. I’m not sure anyone really knows what it was, but whatever it was it was something and it worked because United won.
With a few more points in the bag, without counting our Christmas Turkeys, it might give Steve Bruce a bit more confidence to move to a more attractive style of play, quicker than that transition would have seemed a month ago. That United also came back to win from a losing position should not be lost on him either. Two home wins on the trot have now come from going a goal down and this latest one owed less to luck than the Bournemouth one.
I could well have called this match report The Return of The King. If that was the case then the return of Sean Longstaff to the team, even for a few minutes, was the return of the Prince. He has shown a lot of talent in his relatively few performances and if the team is to grow and improve then he is one of the players who will be central to it.
If the team is to progress from a defensive and pragmatic one to an attacking and exciting one then Longstaff will be key and he should be encouraged to stay, rather than jump ship like Andy Carroll was. Not just because it is him, but because the local lads are the ones who have the best chance of uniting the club, whether they are singing in the stands or playing on the pitch.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 2 Southampton 1 – Sunday 8 December 2pm
Shelvey 68 Fernandez 87
Possession was Southampton 55%, Newcastle 45%
Total shots were Southampton 19, Newcastle 12
Shots on target were Southampton 4, Newcastle 6
Corners were Southampton 12, Newcastle 3
Crowd: 42,303 (1,400 Southampton)
Referee: David Coote
Newcastle team v Southampton:
Dubravka, Manquillo, Fernandez, Dummett, Clark (Schar 45), Willems, Hayden, Shelvey, Saint-Maximin (Atsu 81), Almiron (Sean Longstaff 85), Joelinton (Carroll 59)
Darlow, Gayle, Atsu, Krafth
(Newcastle 2 Southampton 1 – Match ratings and comments on all NUFC players – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 2 Southampton 1 – Watch official match highlights and comeback goals here! – Read HERE)
(Isaac Hayden makes very honest admission about win over Southampton – Read HERE)
(Toon For Change public statement after 10,000 Newcastle United fans protest today v Southampton – Read HERE)
(Ralph Hasenhuttl : Says Southampton robbed at Newcastle as played all the football and most chances – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 2 Southampton 1 – Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Sunday’s win – Read HERE)
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