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2,000 words analysis putting right the Joelinton role at Hoffenheim and why Newcastle getting it wrong

3 months ago
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The miseducation of Joelinton de Lira.

Arriving at St James Park on that sunny July afternoon, the weight of expectation sat heavily on the young Brazilian’s shoulders.

The club’s new record signing was a direct replacement for the much-loved Salomón Rondón, a player whose departure stood out as an act of defiance by Mike Ashley; a much maligned regime’s refusal to yield to both fans’ and Benitez’ demands which inevitably contributed to the latter’s exit to China.

Six months later and Joelinton stands as a white elephant, isolated and weary, a painful reminder of the incoherent strategy in play at Newcastle United both on and off the pitch. Is Joelinton doomed to supersede Florian Thauvin and Xisco as the worst signing of the Mike Ashley era or is there still hope for the struggling forward? After all, distinctly average wingers like Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie blossomed into two of the best players the Premier League has ever seen after switching to a more central role.

Joelinton was described as “outstanding” by Newcastle Head of Recruitment Steve Nickson after 24 scouting trips to watch the youngster in Germany last season, what exactly did he display at 1899 Hoffenheim to convince Newcastle to double their previous transfer record to secure his signature? Why did Julian Nagelsmann, one of the most tactically innovative young managers in world football see to make him such a central figure in a side competing in the Champions League and what can Steve Bruce do to get the best out of his misfiring striker?

Joelinton marked his Hoffenheim debut in August 2018 with three goals and an assist against FC. Kaiserslautern in the DFB-Pokal. It was a display that made Nagelsmann and co. take note of the young striker’s potential and gave the German side a new focal point in attack. Over the following months Joelinton developed into a vital component in Hoffenheim’s forward line and would likely have been an ever-present in the side were it not for a sprained ankle in late March.

Used primarily as a Centre Forward in a 3-5-2 formation (contrary to popular belief), Joelinton’s game was characterised by his ability to link attacking plays. By dragging defenders out of position he would create space for team-mates. Dropping deep to receive vertical passes to feet, he utilised his strength and technique to burst away from the tracking defender on the half-turn, running at the opposition backline and releasing forward runners who made the most of the space left by his trailing marker.

Seen as the ideal conduit for counter-attacking football his dribbling, pressing and positional play, honed through exposure to Nagelsmann’s tactical brilliance, often drew comparisons to fellow Brazilian and Hoffenheim alumni Roberto Firmino. His selflessness enhanced the effectiveness of his fellow strikers Andrej Kramarić and Ishak Belfodil who scored 33 goals between them last season. Despite his pace, Joelinton has never been suited to playing off the last man or making runs in behind the defence, often arriving late in the box to finish moves he had initially started by dropping deep.

It is impossible not to draw comparisons between Joelinton and Salomón Rondón; having signed four days after the much-loved Venezuelan left for wealthier shores living up to the void left by arguably the best signing of the Benitez era was always going to be a tall order. On the face of it Joelinton and Rondón appear very similar, both standing at 6’1”, both South American forwards, neither particularly renowned for their goal scoring ability yet there are differences in their playing style. Joelinton is noticeably more mobile; whilst Rondón is optimised for winning aerial duels, knock downs and using his body to shield the ball, Joelinton prefers to utilise his dribbling and technique rather than relying on sheer brute force. At 18kg lighter Joelinton does not offer the same physical threat as the Venezuelan, choosing instead to link play from deep by receiving balls to feet.

Much has been made of Newcastle’s decision to play Joelinton out of position, the Left Winger forced to struggle in vain in a striking position completely alien to him, however this is simply not the case. In 25 starts for Hoffenheim last season, Joelinton played as a striker in 19 of them, starting three games in a deeper “Number 10” role and a further three out wide. Of these 19 games up top, Joelinton played as a lone striker only once; Nagelsmann realised the striker’s need to link up with another forward to get the best out of him, something that has not been afforded to him in his time so far in England.

The stats show a marked difference in playing style since his move to Newcastle; Joelinton is winning more than twice the number of aerial duels than he was at Hoffenheim, his average of 5.1 aerial duels won per game this season dwarfing the 2.3 per game in Germany.

In fact, at the time of writing, only West Ham’s Sebastien Haller has won more aerial duels in the Premier League in 2019/2020. Whilst he is clearly winning these duels, playing the ball to him in the air hinders what he is best at; the harder to control aerial balls limit his ability to start attacking moves with his role now focused on knock-downs and lay-offs to team mates highlighted by an 18% reduction in dribbles per game and a 33% reduction in Key Passes per game compared to last season.

Bruce’s insistence on low intensity pressing in the opposition half is evidenced in a 50% reduction in attempted tackles by Joelinton compared to last season. At Hoffenheim, emphasis was placed on a high intensity pressing style aimed at winning the ball high up the pitch, a system in which Joelinton excelled. Joelinton’s new focus on knock-downs over dribbling, coupled with Bruce’s insistence on avoiding pressing the opposition defence, unfairly paints the Brazilian as a slow, lumbering, immobile forward when he is simply being denied the opportunity to influence games in his preferred manner. Most alarmingly, 44% of his shots this season have been headers compared to a mere 14% at Hoffenheim, a clear sign of the differing tactical styles of the two sides and an insistence on a physical style of play not suited to the Number 9.

Joelinton’s inability to influence games was most recently showcased in the 3-0 thrashing by Leicester on New Year’s Day. Lining up in a 3-4-3 alongside Muto and Almirón, Joelinton found himself marooned as Newcastle, who deliberately ceded possession to the opposition in the hope of engineering counter attacking opportunities, played with a low block 5-4-1 when defending. Allowing Leicester 70% possession, Muto and Almirón’s focus switched almost entirely to nullifying Leicester’s Full Backs and cutting out passing lanes, rather than supporting the attack. As a result, when the ball was played to Joelinton he was far too isolated to offer anything especially given Newcastle’s insistence on direct long balls out of defence for fear of succumbing to Leicester’s high press. The low block coupled with the rapid transition to the forward line meant that Joelinton’s team mates were simply too far away from him to offer support when he received the ball. This lack of balance between defence and attack led to Newcastle holding onto possession for a mere 12 seconds on average before losing the ball, a sight far too common under the turgid football on display in recent months.

The striker’s time on Tyneside has not been a complete write-off and Joelinton has shown the occasional flash of brilliance that (allegedly) led to Mike Ashley dipping into his own pocket to secure his signature, most notably in the 3-2 win over West Ham in November where, as the centrepiece of a front three, his hold up play and forward passes, combined with the attacking inadequacies of Cresswell and Zabaleta, allowed Almirón and Saint-Maximin, for once not pinned back by the threat of the overlapping opposition Full Backs, to burst forward and terrorise the West Ham back line. Joelinton was able to show exactly what he is capable of when he is offered the attacking support that was provided to him at Hoffenheim, a fact acknowledged by the fans who applauded him off the pitch when he was substituted late on.

He also stood out at Old Trafford when, picking the ball up deep on the left hand side, he dribbled through four Man United defenders, a quick one-two with Gayle freed him of a fifth before he played a perfectly timed through ball to leave Gayle one-on-one with the keeper only for the striker to blaze the glorious opportunity over the crossbar without troubling the relieved David De Gea. Later his efforts were rewarded, with Newcastle on the counter Joelinton exchanges passes with Matty Longstaff, the youngster’s lofted return pass over the Man United defender is poor yet Joelinton controls the wild ball, comfortably holds off Maguire, swivels and returns the ball to Longstaff who lashes it home for his second Newcastle goal. Unfortunately, this time Joelinton’s performance was overshadowed by the side’s subsequent defensive capitulation with several individual errors dominating the post match conversation.

So what exactly can Steve Bruce do to get the best out of his stuttering superstar?

Clearly, leaving Joelinton isolated as the sole attacking outlet does not benefit a player whose game is so heavily focused on supporting others. West Ham showed that if Bruce can reduce the defensive burden on Almirón and Saint-Maximin they can provide an exciting outlet for Joelinton, however, a lack of potency in the Newcastle forward ranks still needs to be addressed if Newcastle are to make the most of the Brazilian’s link-up play; last season at Hoffenheim, Kramarić and Belfodil respectfully held chance conversion rates of 21.9% and 19.7% whilst Arsenal loanee Reiss Nelson boasted an unbelievable 41.1% conversion rate from midfield. At Newcastle however the situation is a lot less promising, so far Saint-Maximin and Almirón have scored a mere 5% of their chances this season whilst Muto, Gayle and Carroll have yet to find the net at all.

In 2017/18, in his only full Premier League season with Newcastle, Dwight Gayle maintained a 10.5% conversion rate, pointing to a potential partnership with Joelinton. The pair playing ahead of Almirón in a Number 10 role would allow the Paraguayan to overlap with blistering pace and attack the space left by Joelinton when he drops deep to receive the ball and link play.

Maybe Bruce has no reason to accommodate Joelinton at all, after all he already has a striker in Andy Carroll who is perfectly suited to Bruce’s game plan. A striker who has been directly involved in a goal every 160 minutes on average this season. A local lad who has flourished since returning home in the summer, who is capable of linking play without the need for a strike partner alongside him

Regardless of whether Bruce ditches the low block in pursuit of a more attacking philosophy, finds Joelinton a strike partner or sacrifices him altogether, it is clear that Newcastle cannot continue to carry Joelinton in a system that is so at odds with his playing style.

Steve Bruce must adapt to avoid the Brazilian becoming a £40 million millstone around his neck.

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