Armchair Tactician By Simon Gallagher
By Simon Gallagher
Monday 07 Feb 2011 14:20:00
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A lot has been said this season of Newcastle’s failure to dispense with supposedly inferior footballing sides (especially at home), with cloggers like Stoke and Blackburn taking three points apiece from the men in black and white up at St James. So what exactly is it, tactically speaking that makes it so difficult to beat teams like that who will, come season’s end, most likely be closer to the bottom with Sunderland than the top with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United?

Well, the simple fact of the matter is that a fair portion of Premier League football clubs, including the two mentioned above who both beat us at home play a particular brand of anti-football that is designed to stop their opponent from playing, while picking up scraps for themselves (usually through over-aggressive tactics or a cynical long throw or two). They set out their stalls early by putting eight or nine men behind the ball and stopping Newcastle from playing: to me, that says a lot about a manager’s lack of confidence in the skill of his team, but that tactical approach does seem to have quite an impressive return.

This season, with the exception of the Bolton disaster, Newcastle have fared a lot better against teams who have looked to play, exploiting their commitment through a combination of defensive steel and a usually clinical killer instinct in the final third, thanks to the development of Andy Carroll. The team thrives when their opponents invite them into a match, rather than closing the doors and waiting for lucky breaks or set-piece opportunities to turn their game. Doubters may say that this is because in those games it is us who become the passive team, waiting for opportunities, but over the start of the season that simply has not been the case. Just look at the Manchester City performance in which we dominated for large portions of the game, despite City’s willingness to run the ball.

So what is it that makes it so difficult to beat these teams? Let’s look at Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn, and the most soul-destroying result of the season so far (given that it was points given away to Fat Sam and his delusions of genius). On the night Newcastle looked dull and stagnant, unable to compete 100% with the physical approach of the Blackburn players, particularly the monstrous Christopher Samba at centre-half, and definitely unable to find space through their packed defensive shape. I remember looking at the team sheet before the game, and remarking that Allardyce was playing with five defenders, one who would play in midfield and three attacking midfielders, and laughing at the imbalance to the team.

What I and Newcastle obviously hadn’t counted on was the attacking midfielders’ willingness to play more as marauding wing-backs, tracking the ball relentlessly and squeezing Newcastle’s team narrow in the middle of the park. This approach shackled our creativity, drawing Joey Barton inside too much, and frustrating him to the degree that he lashed out at Morten Gamst Pedersen and picked himself up a three game ban. It also meant that the two weakest positions that Blackburn carry at the minute- the full-backs- were protected so much by the midfielders that they had very little to do all game. In fact, I can’t remember Pascal Chimbonda- the definite weak link in that team- having to defend even once all game.

The other thing that was immediately obvious against Blackburn, as with Bolton in fact was that as a team Newcastle were second to every ball dropping out of tackles or defensive clearances. The way the anti-football team plays, their diligence and discipline means that they usually have three or four midfielders constantly harrying for the ball as it drops, concentrating on winning the ball at any cost and then rebuilding from that position, rather than advancing off the ball to try and take advantage IF they win the ball.

I am using the term anti-football in a derogatory sense, considering how bad a spectacle it makes of a football match, but there are in fact some elements of the approach that are admirable, and can have a place in Newcastle’s tactical armour. Tactical discipline and calm are two aspects that we took into our performance against Arsenal, and the team’s ability to stick to a very precise game plan and not lose their heads lead to three unlikely points. The key to that result was that Arsenal knew they had been in a game (though thankfully we never went as far as kicking opponents) thanks to some robust and brave defending, and everyone put a shift in.

The slight difference with our Arsenal performance was that we did not simply close ranks and all sit behind the ball in the manner that Blackburn and Stoke before them had done at SJP. In fact, as most of the fans down at the game will no doubt agree, we invited Arsenal to play far too much, but were never drawn irredeemably into their passing traps, meaning they weren’t allowed the freedom to walk through the middle of our defence that has been on show with a number of their goals this season already.

And what is the solution to beating anti-football teams then?

 It pains me to say it but Newcastle can be disastrously one-dimensional at times when things are going wrong. Look at the Bolton game- without the lynch-pin of Cheik Tiote to boss the midfield and release players ahead of his position, and the pin-point passing of Joey Barton we looked limited, with Jose Enrique and Gutierrez left with the responsibility (but not the help) to inject some Latin flair while everyone else stopped and stared. And then when we went further behind, and the only option was the change the way we were playing, Hughton wasn’t able to because of the limitations of the bench and the lower reaches of our squad in general.

The key is unpredictability. Say what you want about Lomana Lua Lua, he had the ability to unlock even the tightest and most closed of games from the bench thanks to the certain unquantifiable something he had. Looking at the squad right now- aside from the injured pair of Hatem Ben Arfa and Dan Gosling- we have little that suggests that any substitution at all could have a strong effect on the pitch. The obvious exception is perhaps Haris Vuckic, but even then when coming up against a team with a very tight game plan, and a willingness to put physicality above finesse you might have some fears about the young Slovenian- just look at his fairly muted performance against Accrington Stanley.

The closer it creeps to Christmas, and the January Transfer window on the other side, the more I’m recognising the importance that two or three key signings might have on not only the make-up of the team, but also the added dimensions that could be added to the team when faced with the stagnating effect when teams like Blackburn are on the agenda. I’d say a striker to take all of the focus of Carroll (and give Shola’s long tired legs the rest he always looks like he needs), a creative (and possibly unpredictable) central midfielder with something different- even if as just a stop-gap until Ben Arfa returns- and a right winger (I hear Shaun Wright Phillips is after a game). But whoever we eventually sign, let it be in the name of tactical depth, so that when we are made to look one-dimensional by appalling anti-football teams, we can offer something new to redress the balance.

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