For one Friday night only, it was great being at a Newcastle United home match again
Newcastle United 1 Leeds United 1 : Friday Night, Saturday Morning
Most of this happened, I am 99% sure of it.
It was my own fault, I used to be quite against games being shifted around to suit TV and according to my own hazy memories I think the last time I saw NUFC on a Friday night was a 6-6 draw with Tranmere about thirty years ago. Now I am older, old even. Friday night usually doesn’t get as far as Saturday morning. Not this weekend, I had a few and went to the match. Then had a few more.
I’m glad I did. The last time I was at SJP was for a 1-0 win over Sheffield United in May when hardly anyone was allowed to be there. Before that, February 2019, 0-0 and boring (against Burnley). More people were allowed to be there but most probably wished that they weren’t.
Friday night’s game against Leeds was nothing like those games. It was one team committed to attack with an enigmatic and creative manager, against another team forced to adopt the same approach or take an absolute hammering. Two managers from opposite sides of the world. Literally and metaphorically. All played in front of two sets of very vocal and seemingly lashed up supporters who rarely stopped to take breath. I was sitting up at the top of the Gallowgate Scoreboard / Corner. It was very loud. It was like the good old days. Not Barcelona 3-2 or Portsmouth 1-0, when my ears were ringing…but I had lost my voice by half time. Hopefully not Covid related.
Apart from the obvious difference between my last two attendances, this being a Friday night game, it was obvious that everyone off the pitch was up for this one from the word go. The average age of those occupying the top of the Gallowgate has halved since that 0-0 18 months ago. There were a splattering of more experienced supporters like myself but generally everyone was much younger, much louder, much more drunk and not carrying decades of NUFC baggage around with them. They were there to have fun. So I joined in.
Not everyone did. The Toon stuck with that tried and tested 5-4-1 which has got us absolutely nowhere over the past four games and over the first thirty minutes of this game it was obvious to everyone, that if it continued like that we were going to get a humping. Leeds can play football anyway, they want the ball and want to do something with it. Sitting off them and letting them have it at the back on the halfway line was the sort of recipe that Lord Rupali used to advertise as a cure for constipation.
Letting their defenders have the ball under no pressure at all, gave them time to either find Rodrigo sitting between our midfield and back line unmarked, or play the ball over the top to Bamford who ran the channels all game. If any of our players broke rank like a startled sardine they were easily picked off. Most of the time it was Matt Ritchie or JoeLinton, most of the time the ball went straight to Raphinha. One time he scored. It was a cross, unchallenged. Not even a great one, it just eluded all of our defenders and our static returning goalkeeper Karl Darlow. It was an awful goal to concede. Luckily it was the only one, I lost count of how many times Leeds should have scored.
The Tykes didn’t have it all their own way on chances early on. They had most of the possession but for all their good attacking play, they were vulnerable at the back, as they always are. Almiron miscued and JoeLinton fired straight at Meslier when he should have scored. Matt Ritchie did score, at least I thought he did and was celebrating for about twenty seconds on my own, until someone told me his right foot shot from the edge of the area had hit the post. I don’t know how. Talk about moving the goalposts, someone actually must have done that. The crowd were angrily veering from Bruce-bashing to supporting the team. Two people near me had to be separated as one launched into another anti-Bruce tirade, the other telling him to support the team. Everyone else looked happy to do both.
‘Formation? What formation?’
After half an hour, someone somewhere, supposedly Graeme Jones, had had enough. Someone decided to do the absolute bleedin’ obvious as John Cleese would say. Leeds 4-1-4-1 meant that they had three central midfielders to our two and they always made it count. We had to match them in midfield, close that space and start pushing up. Newcastle’s best defensive midfielder stopped pretending to be a defender and was moved into midfield, United went to some other formation starting with a four. 4-3-3 sometimes, 4-2-3-1 sometimes, 4-jelly-like-blob sometimes. It was immediately better. Rodrigo was marked now, the Leeds backline was under pressure. The only real drawback was that no one had told Matt Ritchie, who continued to play as a wing back. He was summoned to the touchline for a chat with the management. It was all Matt’s fault again presumably. Raphinha could have scored again, his teammates could have doubled that tally from what he set up. Firpo particularly, missed a chance that only he will know how he missed, him and whoever offloaded him from Barcelona for £15million.
By now, referee Mike Dean had done something which Steve Bruce hasn’t yet been able to achieve, unite the Newcastle supporters against one common enemy, himself. Dean started by allowing a Leeds player to steal Maxi’s shorts in the first few minutes and decided that it wasn’t a yellow card so they just carried on doing it. Almiron got a card for calling Mike Dean what he is, in Spanish presumably. Whether Miggy dived when sarnied between two Leeds players while on a run I don’t know, he does like a bit of a tumble, but he was getting sick of being kicked by then.
Every team needs a bit of steel and for all their good play, Leeds weren’t afraid to dish it out. Not exactly ‘Dirty Leeds’ but not the beautiful game either. Dean continued to disrupt our attacks by either refusing to punish fouls or getting in the way himself. One of our prominent local politicians decided to sing “if you hate Mike Dean clap your hands” for most of the second half. We all joined in. Dean wasn’t cheating though. I thought he should have given Leeds a penalty in the first half when Willock clattered James. Dean was just rubbish.
The second half was a bit calmer. Maybe everyone needed a longer breather. Darlow saved from Lascelles who seems to have forgotten how to head the ball in both areas and is now focussing his time in training to kamikaze Steven Taylor style tackles for the cameras. Maxi had a fierce left footer saved at the near post and the subs started to come on. For Leeds, young legs gave them energy but crucially Raphinha came off, Matt Ritchie recovering from a difficult first half to smother the threat in the second. Daniel James also came off, the £25million winger never really got into the game but even so, like Matt Ritchie, Manquillo was happy to see him go.
The Leeds substitutions re-charged their batteries but the subs never got into the game. Once Bamford had missed his latest sitter when put through by Rodrigo, Leeds’ time was up and they never looked as dangerous in the last part of the game. As other commentators said and I have to agree, Leeds weren’t the team of last season. Something was missing. Harrison in midfield perhaps, he was brilliant against us twice last season.
‘Can we have our money back please’
Likewise, the home United replaced a clearly unsettled Almiron with Fraser. It was probably the right call to take the Paraguayan off, it looked like he was having an internal battle after being kicked and booked in the first half. Fraser came on and not for the first time, he might as well not have bothered. Apart from a shot with all the power of a five year old, he brought nothing to the party. Most of the time when I watch him, I wonder if we could get our money back for him, even though he was free.
Krafth came on for a tired Manquillo and Murphy for JoeLinton. The Brazilian played ok until we got to within twenty yards of Leeds goal. Apart from making a pass to Maxi for the goal, he failed to upgrade his team play into any sort of a threat. On the one hand, it is improvement. On the other hand, his main job is to attack. It is a bit like saying the person who delivers the pizzas does a great job, carries the bag well and always shuts the gate when they leave, but never delivers any of the pizzas.
ASM missed what I believe was the last chance of the game, sent through on goal he cut inside and belted a left foot shot straight at Meslier. Maxi was very, very good on Friday. Good enough for the likes of Klopp, Guardiola and the rest to be watching I’m sure.
Elsewhere, everyone put a shift in at the very least. The team weren’t great at the back but we know this Newcastle team can’t defend, Ritchie and Manquillo definitely did as well as they could. Hayden played well in midfield, when he was moved there and despite Longstaff getting a bit of a panning from some other people watching, I thought he was mobile and creative in the second half when he was pushed a bit further forward. Whatever people think of him, if he leaves for free in the summer it will be for a team in the top eight of the Premier League. Not many of our other players can say the same.
I’m not sure about Joe Willock though. Obviously he was never going to be as good as when he was on loan, that’s the way football is. He needs a bit of time to get used to moving to a club with a lack of ambition. He tried hard on Friday and like Hayden was knackered in the last ten minutes but he never really threatened. I think positionally he is one of the players who suffers the most from the (lack of) tactics in a 5-4-1 and definitely needs to play further up the pitch. Which is probably where Maxi will play when Wilson gets back.
It seems odd that the club would identify Willock as their “primary target” in the summer and then not carve out a specific role in the team which brings the best out of him. Odd? Well we can draw one of two conclusions. Either they know they are selling ASM for big money soon and wanted to get his replacement in early. Which sounds far too sensible, so I’m going for the second option, they haven’t got a clue what they are doing.
Leeds manager Bielsa said after the game:
“It was a game that according to what happened, we should have won. A lot of options did not end in danger but could have been converted into danger.”
It’s a shame he can’t speak English. I’m sure it was much more interesting than that but the points he might made were generally thorough and correct. Steve Bruce wasn’t so spot on with some of his usual head-in-the-sand nonsense:
“That’s the big thing about the Premier League whether you’re at the top or the bottom. You have to accept when you don’t win a game you come under pressure.”
Whatever he thinks, he is under pressure for lots of reasons and most of them aren’t because we are not winning. He did say something I almost agreed with:
“The way they have gone about their work today, it could have gone either way, but it was a great football match.”
It was certainly entertaining and I definitely had a great time. First and foremost, I want Newcastle United to win. And win everything. That isn’t possible at the minute. Even winning one game isn’t possible. So in the absence of any real optimism it is the next best thing to see a game played at a hundred miles an hour by two teams giving everything in a packed stadium full of fans doing the same. I’m not expecting it to be like that every time I go to SJP, or even next time I go. Or perhaps any time I go until things change. But that’s the Saturday morning talking.
For one Friday night only, it was great being at a Newcastle United home match again.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 1 Leeds 1 – Friday 17 September 8pm
(In brackets the first half stats)
Possession was Leeds 65% (65%) Newcastle 35% (35%)
Total shots were Leeds 21 (13) Newcastle 17 (7)
Shots on target were Leeds 9 (5) Newcastle 7 (3)
Corners were Leeds 5 (4) Newcastle 4 (1)
Referee: Mike Dean
Darlow, Manquillo (Krafth 81), Hayden, Lascelles, Clark, Ritchie, Sean Longstaff, Almiron (Fraser 62), Willock, Saint-Maximin, Joelinton (Murphy 90+1)
Gillespie, Schar, Lewis, Hendrick, Fernandez, Gayle
50,407 (3,200 Leeds)
(Dwight Gayle comments from Steve Bruce raise important questions – Read HERE)
(Allan Saint-Maximin – Enjoy him in the time we have left – Read HERE)
(Steve Bruce says he will continue to keep out the noise and keep his dignity – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 1 Leeds 1 – Match ratings and comments on all the NUFC players – Read HERE)
(Marcelo Bielsa gutted after Newcastle 1 Leeds 1 – It’s a game we should have won – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 1 Leeds 1 – Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Friday’s draw – Read HERE)
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]