‘Just maybe not heading in the wrong direction quite so fast…’
The closest thing Newcastle United have to a local derby this season is playing Manchester City.
Alkilasikia, the Arabian Classico, Round One.
We should get a Round Two in May, we might have to wait a while for Round Three.
Not that it is exactly Barcelona vs Real Madrid, more Round One of a boxing match watching Tyson Fury fight Claudia Winkleman. And yes, unfortunately we are Claudia Winkleman. Made up to look the part but hanging on to our place on the biggest show in town knowing we are playing second fiddle to better looking participants.
It was a surprise that the game was going ahead, I completely understand anyone who says that the game should not have been played in the first place, if not because of potential Covid transmission but because they are very good and we aren’t. It is supposed to be a fair contest after all.
Still, it isn’t much fun watching the game wearing a mask, especially a Squid Game mask left over from Halloween.
Covid Pass at the ready I breezed my way into SJP unchecked without anyone batting an eyelid. Pandemic? What Pandemic? I wouldn’t even have known there was one if it hadn’t been for some of the Toon players very obviously working from home, while also being selected to play.
Whoever was controlling the Hologram that was Miguel Almiron (tried hard, played poorly) was definitely doing so from a fireside settee in Darras Hall. Playing on the right wing, no right foot, unable to cross when in the space his runs made. Perhaps we wanted to leave the crosses until Easter, this is Christmas after all.
The game started well but after only a few minutes Dubravka (tried hard, played poorly) gave away a needless corner and set the tone for a general lack of defensive care all round. Maybe it was all part of the plan. Years ago, Guardiola said that corners were useless to his teams as statistically very few teams score from putting a corner into the penalty area, something like six per season. Plan A: Let Them Have Corners.
‘Santa Clark: No mix-bag for you’
Only Ciaran Clark (tried hard, played very poorly) will be able to explain exactly what he was doing for City’s first goal after five minutes, the first incident of the game. It looked to me at the time like he just ducked under a routine cross for no reason allowing Dias to score into an empty net from a few yards. I watched it back later on, yes that is exactly what happened.
Had he been seven years old, I would have told him that there would be no post-match mix-bag for him to remind him not to do it again. As he isn’t seven years old (I presume) I repeat what I said after the Norwich game. Clark’s time at the club has to be over. He’s not up to this. He’s tried his best but his best isn’t good enough any more.
I will say what I said after the Norwich game. Eddie Howe needs to get these player decisions right if he is going to be a successful manager. If you bring a player in who made a horrendous rick the last time he played, then Howe needs to make sure that he isn’t going to do it again. He did it again. Five minutes gone, game basically handed to last season’s Champions on a plate. City were more than capable of belting us without our assistance, we didn’t need to be playing Santa Clark for them but that is what happened five minutes in.
The next twenty or so minutes were entertaining. The Cityzens were on their usual top passing form but NUFC were at least getting stuck in. JoeLinton (tried hard, played ok) nearly scored, shooting just wide from twenty yards. Lascelles (tried hard, played ok) cleaned out Silva I think, Hayden (tried hard, played badly) completely messed up doing the same to Rodri and got booked.
JoeLinton was successfully bullying City’s lightweight team, often looking like he had dropped back into the Cheick Tiote role. If the game against Manyoo goes ahead, maybe he’ll be centre half next week. The Sky Blues were looking a little alarmed and were lucky to get away with a free kick on the edge of their box when Fraser (tried hard, played poorly) mugged their defence, the referee looking kindly on the table-topping team. I mean imagine that happening, a referee favouring one of the top teams, it’s unheard of.
Two quick fire incidents changed the game and ended it for all intents and purposes.
Firstly, our midfield allowed Cancelo to waltz through Willock (didn’t try, was awful) and Hayden unchallenged to smash an excellent twenty yard strike past Dubravka which was going in from the minute it left his foot. 0-2.
Then the referee failed to award United a penalty when Ederson slid out to clear the ball and clattered Fraser instead with the ball yards away. The way Martin Atkinson waved his finger at Fraser in a “don’t try it on with me son” way was just as insulting. No longer a referee there to ensure the rules are followed, now the star of the show. There isn’t any reason that anyone in the world can give me for the challenge not being a penalty except complete incompetence or bias on the part of the referee. If you have another reason, don’t even bother sharing it because I won’t agree. So I am putting it down to incompetence or bias.
‘Martin Atkinson: As the ball is five yards away, there is no foul here.’
And so to VAR.
I believe that is what VAR is for. For checking for incidents of refereeing incompetence or bias, even if the PL label it “being unsighted”. They managed it with Manchester City’s third goal. I have heard after the game that VAR didn’t check the Fraser non-foul but I find that hard to believe given the time the game took to restart after the next stoppage. It looked to me like VAR was checking, was going to give the penalty and the referee, Howe and the players could all have a laugh about it afterwards. “What am I like, how did I miss that?” “No worries ref, you got it right in the end.”
None of that happened. VAR is a PL ploy to copy Boris Johnson and his plan to Level Up by distributing all of the decisions to the top 25% of clubs. I did hear of someone on TV saying that it wasn’t a penalty because the ball was five yards away and the tackle happened two seconds after the ball had gone. Brilliant. NUFC can use that as a tactic next time we play Man City. Wait for them to pass the ball, count to two and then drop them on their backside. Pass, one elephant, two elephant, boot them into the stand. Can’t be a foul, the ball was five yards away. Doubly good because our players generally arrived two seconds late to tackle City’s players anyway.
Apart from anything else it was a shame because it all killed the game. NUFC battled manfully until half time but those two incidents ended our only hope of getting back into the game. Isaac Hayden headed wide from six yards and Jacob Murphy (tried hard, played ok) showed what his left foot is really for when shooting from outside the box. Jesus forgot that it was nearly his birthday and belted wide. No presents for him today.
Half-time saw the withdrawal of Joe Willock, replaced by Maxi (tried a bit, played a bit). I once heard Rafa Benitez explain the signing of Joselu (didn’t play today, our man of the match). He said that the team was like a table with three legs, even if you don’t have enough money to buy the fourth leg you want, the table won’t work without another leg so you get whatever you can afford. Joselu, the leg we could afford. It seems that in the Summer, Steve Bruce had a table with one leg and blew all of his wad on a golden leg, the leg he wanted, his main target leg. Unfortunately that left him and now Eddie Howe with a two legged table that tilts and falls under the slightest pressure. That £25million spent on Joe Willock is looking like a Turkey leg at the moment.
‘A broken table: The Newcastle United midfield’
We know the young Londoner may well need some time to settle in up North and probably isn’t the man we should be looking to, to lead the team in times of crisis, that isn’t his role. It probably also won’t make him a better player or a happier chap to take him out of the first team. But who cares? He was a passenger against Manchester City, well before his pathetic attempt at a tackle which led to a goal, he had already done everything from the book of Marcelino, the book of not wanting to play and showing his manager that he wasn’t interested. That is his decision. He was bought when the club were spending very little money and they won’t miss him when he has gone because they have loads of money now and can buy whoever wants to come.
What does need to happen though is that the eleven chaps who roll out onto the field need to be one hundred percent up for the challenge, a challenge already difficult enough without feeling sorry for themselves. Whatever Willock needs to get from the club to get himself back on track, he should get. It can’t happen on the pitch though. There is very little in the game as annoying as knowing that one of your team-mates is not really trying.
The second half was dull. Dubravka made a great save from a Jesus header but apart from that Manchester City played keep ball and looked happy with 0-2. NUFC were less combative and also looked happy with 0-2. United very rarely pressed the ball and that was fine with me. Manchester City train week in week out to play through the press, be confident on the ball, play quick first time passes and play into the space which their team-mates are trained to find. If you are going to press with half a team, which NUFC did at times, or press with the lack of concentration which some of the players showed while doing it, high performing teams like the Sky Blues will take advantage easily. That’s not to say that “the press” should not be done. Just that if you are going to do it, you have to do it properly and that takes practise, commitment, energy and concentration. Four of the things which have been missing in black and white this season.
Mahrez scored a third as Matt Ritchie (tried hard, played very badly) and Ciaran Clark watched. I hadn’t really noticed that Mahrez was playing until then. Twenty three minutes later Sterling added a fourth. I hadn’t really noticed that he had been playing until then either. Maybe that was the biggest difference between the two sides, their players who look like they do very little also score goals, our players who look like they do very little do literally that.
In between the third and fourth goals two other things of note happened. Maxi got into the game and we created a few chances. Ederson made a decent save from a Wilson header and United had three or four good opportunities while running towards the City penalty area. That they came to nothing was down to ability rather than lacking endeavour. Wilson (tried hard, played poorly) misplaced passes or wasted shooting chances created. Fraser crossed feebly when well placed. Maxi, who didn’t look altogether happy to be thrust into the cold, blazed over, tripped over or passed when he should have shot.
‘All we have left’
The other thing that happened towards the end was the crowd woke up and had a sing-song. After a minute singing “we are the Geordies” after the fourth goal, some of the “loyalist football supporters” sang the song while heading out the ground. Loyalty wears many hats obviously.
Those who stayed sang, those who went weren’t missed. The flags went up. “Eddie Howe’s black and white army” went up and stayed up for the last few minutes of the game. It was a lot of fun, thanks to everyone who stayed and sang. Where those who left were going I have no idea and it is of course their right to leave whenever they want, I felt like leaving after five minutes. Two of the players might as well have left at the start of the game.
What I will say is that the only thing United have going for them now is togetherness.
The club is a little disorganised, understandably up to a point given the fledgling administration but they don’t seem to be losing faith.
The manager is struggling to get anything out of the players but he is giving it his best shot.
The players are failing to show that they are anything more than the third worst team in the league but in the main they are putting it in much more than in August and September.
The one thing that those three units need is the vocal support of the fans. They need to know that what they are doing is appreciated. Even if what they are doing is as limited in quality as it was on Sunday. Without it, we are doomed. More doomed. With it, well they are probably doomed anyway but you never know. If we don’t try, then who else will. Those who left missed the best part of the second half. We drew that bit 0-0 and had a good old knees-up too.
None of that mattered to the result in the end. We lost to Manchester City. Perhaps not a surprise, they are a good team. They play with momentum, they are constantly working openings, they don’t hang about, take very quick free kicks and always look like they want to score goals, which is great to watch. I quite like watching them. I will much prefer watching them when we can compete with them, if that ever happens. Guardiola sounded a little bit annoyed after the game, probably aware that his team were unduly ruffled in the first half without any real need to be:
“the way we played in the first half was one of the poorest of the season. but it made me happy how we weren’t distracted for the points. I realised the margin — we have to be a better team. every player played not completely focussed and the second half was much better.”
Eddie Howe meanwhile kept up his optimistic tone which is, I suppose, the only thing he can do until he has better players to choose. This was far from a good team performance from his players and some of his team selection and tactics left something to be desired but at least he is giving it a go:
“There was a good feeling about the team, a good structure and good moments in the match. We are heading in the right direction but a long way to go.”
Maybe not heading in the right direction. Just maybe not heading in the wrong direction quite so fast.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 0 Manchester City 4 – Sunday 19 December 2pm
(Half-time stats in brackets)
Dias 5, Cancelo 27, Mahrez 63, Sterling 86
Possession was Man City 74% (64%) Newcastle 26% (36%)
Total shots were Man City 18 (6) Newcastle 5 (3)
Shots on target were Man City 7 (3) Newcastle 1 (0)
Corners were Man City 6 (3) Newcastle 3 (1)
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Crowd: 52,127 (3,000 Man City)
Dubravka, Murphy, Lascelles, Clark, Ritchie, Hayden (Longstaff 61), Willock (Saint-Maximin 45), Fraser, Almiron (Hendrick 80), Joelinton, Wilson
Darlow, Schar, Krafth, Anderson, Gayle, White
(10 Newcastle United players given new contracts when should have got rid – That is why we’re in such a mess – Read HERE)
(3 Positives and 3 Negatives from Newcastle 0 Manchester City 4 – Read HERE)
(Former top referee rules on controversial Newcastle United v Manchester City incident – Read HERE)
(Alan Shearer speaks for all Newcastle United fans after these key incidents v Manchester City – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 0 Manchester City 4 – Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Sunday’s defeat – Read HERE)
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