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Newcastle United – A team building philosophy

1 week ago
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Newcastle United – Once in 15 years and 12! We’ll come back to that later.

There are pretty much two approaches to winning in the professional game.

The first, and always our favourite, is the Kevin Keegan approach. As the great man himself said, “score more goals than them.” You can’t really fault it, can you?

The other approach which for discussion purposes only, we’ll call the Rafa way, can be summed up as “concede fewer goals than them.”

While they may sound the same, the approaches are very different, with the focus being concentrated in different parts of the pitch.

I’m only using Keegan and Rafa to lay out the groundwork here, so please, no comments on those two managers, or Ashley.

For a few years now we’ve lacked the strength in numbers at both ends of the field to comfortably pitch our tactical tent in either one of those camps, but then five months ago, something rather strange happened.

Someone in the Newcastle set-up went out and bought the makings of a defence.

I consider statistics to be the worthless spawn of a Mackem Underlord but let me throw some numbers at you.

In the opening 18 games Newcastle United conceded an average of 2.3 goals a game. How bad is this? Well, at the risk of sounding patronising, it means we’d have to be averaging three goals a game to win.

We weren’t.

In 18 of the final 20 games we kept seven clean sheets and conceded one goal eleven times, giving us an average of 0.6 goals conceded a game.

Yes – I have conveniently omitted five goal hammerings at Spurs and Man City but for three very good reasons.

a) they were essentially anomalies,

b) they don’t contribute to my point, an

c) I’m not stupid.

If you look back at the teams that have excelled in the Premier League over the years, so I’m talking Man U, City, Chelsea and Arsenal, in addition to ending up with more points than everyone else, they all had something in common during their stronger years that we tend to overlook.

They all had at least one, and sometimes even two, monster defenders.

In July 2010 we signed a rather out of shape Sol Campbell who, rumour had it, only joined us so that he could be closer to his wedding cake, but go back in time a few pounds and Campbell was pretty much the Compleat Defender. Think Jamaal Lascelles, only with all round ability.

Around the same time, Arsenal also boasted Tony Adams and Martin Keown. Also giants in their respective positions. Chelsea weren’t short of back four heroes either, with Terry and Cole, also then midfielder Michael Essien in their ranks as well. I remember Essien arriving on the scene and almost immediately being sent off for breaking someone’s leg. Hell of a way to stamp his authority on the game, on the opposition and anything else that moved. After his ban he certainly had the other teams’ players backing out of 50/50 tackles and spending more of their time nervously looking over their shoulders than was healthy.

I’m not condoning the Norman Hunter School of Tackling methodology but Essien was also very good.

When you think Man U defenders, your thoughts probably go straight to Rio Ferdinand, but my favourite was Jaap Stam. If we were talking a little further back in time I might even have been so bold as to mention a certain Steve Bruce. But we’re not, so I won’t.

When we finally get to Man City, they had probably the most influential defender of the Premier League era in Vincent Kompany. Kompany is the essence of the point I’m making here.

Every Premier League title winning team had a squad that was built from the back forwards, on a huge rock of a foundation, and while we may not have supported the teams, we all remember who those defenders were.

So one of the things bugging me about our team at the moment, and I appreciate that it’s still early doors, is that I’m not sure that we have that rock in place yet. We’ve got some decent defenders but do we have a Ferdinand? A Terry? A Kompany?

Don’t get me wrong, Trippier is good and has had a huge impact, but he’s no youngster, and as such, not so much a long term rock as more of a gravelly substrate.

Burn is a little bit younger but even at six and a half feet does he have the presence and leadership qualities that are required to make building a team in front of him worthwhile? That said, what an amazing buy he turned out to be.

I have no doubt in my mind that the next defender we bring in has to be that mythical beast of which I’m waxing. With a combination of youth, talent and leadership, and with the speed off the mark of a starving whippet.
Speed is important. Serious pace can cover for a multitude of inadequacies. Seven feet tall and built like a double wardrobe would be nice, but I’d take ability and speed, and we can work on his workout routine and making him taller later.

Deviating slightly from the theme here, you’ll never hear me say anything like “we should only sign players who WANT to play for the club.” That’s just silly. Footballers are mercenaries, and with very few exceptions they will always end up at the club offering the best package and / or the quickest route to fulfil their own personal goals.

When was the last time somebody came up through the ranks and said “no thanks” when Spurs, Liverpool or Arsenal came a knocking. All our heroes – Gascoigne, Waddle, Beardsley, and a hundred more, all moved on for better prospects, as I’m sure many of you have in your various chosen professions.

I did say above “with very few exceptions.” The only ones who immediately spring to mind would be Matt Le Tissier, who spent his entire career at Southampton, so he could live at home, and of course, Our Lord Alan Shearer. There may be others. Feel free to mention them below.

This brings me conveniently round to all of this talk of Sven Botman. There’s no doubt he’s a decent player but is he our defensive Messiah? I doubt it. And while I don’t need him to WANT to play for the club, all the evidence floating around him, points to him NOT WANTING to play for OUR club. If he was worth having he’d have been signed up and announced, instead of all these delaying excuses we’re hearing.

Yeah, of course we need a couple of decent strikers so we can chase the unicorn, but the sooner we get that star defender in, the sooner I reckon we’ll be on our way.

Oh – almost forgot. Back to the first line of the article.

How many times under Mike Ashley’s ownership did we end a season with a positive goal difference in the Premier League and how many managers have we had in that time?

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