At this stage of proceedings I couldn’t care less if every game is a boring 1-0 win, as long as we do what’s needed in the last 7 games to get this club back where it belongs – playing Premier League football once again next season.
On Saturday, however, something occurred to me as I watched the side struggle to build up a full head of steam against a poor Wigan side – something we’ve seen all too often at St. James’ this season.
Whilst I took in the opening half an hour, it became obvious to me that our starting line up, to a man, was incredibly limited in an attacking sense:
NUFC XI vs Wigan (4-2-3-1): Darlow; Anita, Lascelles, Hanley, Dummett; Colback, Shelvey; Ritchie, Diame, Gouffran; Gayle.
While Rafa’s decision to field a side full of experience and know-how was justifiable, given the stakes were so high, this sort approach is what we have came to expect at home this season, helping confirm, to me, why we have sometimes struggled to take the game to sides at home.
Before you continue, please note that this is not an attack on our team or tactics, just an observation of the players at Rafa’s disposal.
Starting with the defence. In Lascelles and Hanley we started with two no nonsense brutes. That is their job first and foremost but given the way Wigan and several other visiting sides sit back at St. James’ Park, our centre-backs receive a surprising amount of the ball, meaning it would be to our benefit if they were more capable in possession.
Moving on to the full-backs Anita and Dummett. The pair are not modern day full-backs. Capable defenders at this level, no doubt, but if you’re looking to attack the opposition and play on the front foot, you wouldn’t turn to Paul Dummett and Vurnon Anita.
In Midfield, Jonjo Shelvey is unquestionably one who does carry a genuine threat in the side, with an eye for a cutting pass in any area of the field. His midfield partner however, Jack Colback, appears to be a hindrance to Shelvey. Colback is limited in possession, often a liability in his defensive third and isn’t known for his attacking prowess in the final third either. He ‘keeps it ticking’ but ultimately, he doesn’t offer enough in and around Jonjo Shelvey, who often comes deep to gain possession and build an attack, thus limiting his creative influence in the final third.
Now for the attackers. Ritchie, like Shelvey is another of our genuine threats, but without overlapping speedster, DeAndre Yedlin in the side, it requires more patience and finesse to forge attacks with the more defensive minded Vurnon Anita. Ritchie possesses real quality, and his combinations with Yedlin have been missed, offering the winger that extra bit of space for his wand of a left foot to work with.
Yoan Gouffran. The Frenchman has done a job in the team this season, there’s no denying that, however a left hand side of Gouffran and Dummett is incredibly cautious and without doubt limits us offensively. Gouffran is solid in possession but like Dummett, seems incapable of taking on a man and playing on the front foot. This has often been how we’ve lined up down the left, meaning attacks have become very one-sided towards Ritchie and Yedlin. As a result of this, our main threats at St. James’ have become predictable, justifying Rafa’s move for Townsend in January to provide balance and an attacking force down the left hand side. .
Played off the striker, Mo Diame has been far from his best in his first season with the club. He’s often struggled to get into the game at St. James’ Park, however given he has been a central midfielder for the vast majority of his career, he’s not a natural in such an advanced role. Having watched him on several occasions during his time at Wigan and West ham, he is capable of explosive moments and can make things happen, but these moments have been few and far between for a man lacking in confidence.
Finally Dwight Gayle. Like Shelvey and Ritchie, he is one of three players in that starting line up who carries a real attacking threat. Played as a lone striker, however, he relies on service and support, which given all the above has often been lacking at home. Teams also sit deep at St. James’ Park, starving Gayle of the space in behind that his combinations with Jonjo Shelvey crave.
Granted, the influential trio of DeAndre Yedlin, Ciaran Clark and Isaac Hayden would all return to that side, if fit, but the above does demonstrate the limitations of this side’s attacking prowess at home. The crowd, like any home support, expects the side to play on the front foot and score goals, however, that side on Saturday, like many we’ve seen this season, is set up for a solid win more than a spectacular one.
Looking ahead to tomorrow’s game, I would like to see Rafa field a side capable of playing on the front foot and causing Burton all sorts of problems.
In today’s pre-match presser, Benitez admitted that he fully expects Nigel Clough’s side to sit back and defend it out. With that in mind, the likes of Atsu, Hayden and Perez would all provide timely returns to the side, adding much-needed spark and dynamism to the side.
Let me reinstate once again that this is not a criticism of Rafa our our team, with our league position suggesting we’re doing more than what’s required to get out of this division. It is however a relevant point to make, given the club plan to make strides forward in the coming future, should we be playing Premier League football again in August.