It’s fair to say the season opener did not go well for Newcastle United. The euphoria of having world renowned Rafa Benitez commit to the Geordie faithful kept many a fan full of optimism for the upcoming year in the Championship, with bookmakers and pundits alike tipping the Toon to finish as League Champions.
Several long suffering fans have been fervent in their belief that there will no quick fix for years of stagnation and yesterday they were proved right. Mitigating circumstances could be put forward by outlining the fact that the club has seen 8 new players come in, with 5 of those starting yesterday in Mats Selz, Grant Hanley, Isaac Hayden, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle.
There is no doubt that such significant change to the line up will require an adjustment period. However, that particular excuse does not wash for what can only be considered a poor performance by the Magpies. Not when you consider that Fulham also happen to have signed 8 new players this season and 4 of them started the game yesterday: left-back Denis Odoi, Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas, the centre-half Michael Madl, signed from Sturm Graz and forward Sone Aluka, who came in from Hull. In fact, 3 of Fulham’s 4 defenders were brand new – and yet they looked far more organised then Newcastle did defensively.
Newcastle set out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vernon Anita was deployed on the right, with Matt Ritchie on the left. Ritchie did not look particularly comfortable cutting in on his weaker right foot for the majority of the game until he switched to the right later on. That left Anita on the left, with an anonymous Jack Colback sitting back alongside a a player in Isaac Hayden who put in lots of effort, but still needs time to adjust. Anita did try to get the ball moving forward but he still fails to convince anywhere other than at right back.
There will be no player by player scoring here, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more poignant stats. The two sides appear to have set out with a similar formation and game plan. Fulham’s Jokanovic is no managerial lighweight, having previously gotten Watford promoted from this very league before being unceremoniously canned and having his chance at the big time cruelly stolen from him. The point being he is a manager that knows this league and more importantly, knows how to succeed in it. A challenge Rafa Benitez will need to rise to sharpish if the Toon is to top the table come the season’s end.
There was not a great deal to be positive about following this game, however I will focus on this direct comparison first: Jack Colback versus Isaac Hayden. Colback had an impressive pass completion of 89%, but Hayden was not too shoddy with 86% himself. The main difference between their passing being their intent with the ball. Colback only managed 9 forward passes. Hayden did over double that with 21. Hayden had 17 more minutes than Colback on the pitch, but that’s still some contrast. Looking at direct head to heads and you have to wonder what does Colback bring? Here are their respective heat maps showing Hayden is more mobile and effective.
Colback managed one cross, zero successful tackles from only one effort, lost his only aerial duel, made no interceptions, one clearance, two blocks, zero take on’s, zero key passes and zero interceptions. Total useful actions: 4. Conversely, Hayden managed two clearances, three interceptions, won 4 of his 5 aerial duels, half of his 6 tackle attempts, won one take on from two attempts with no crosses or key passes to his name. Total useful actions: 13. Neither is going to set the world alight in the final third and we don’t expect that. What we do expect is a defensive midfielder capable of influencing the game – putting himself about, making his presence felt and moving the ball forward for the more creative players to do their bit. It’s clear already on day 1 that Colback is very poor competition for Hayden, who will no doubt bring an improvement in this position compared to last season.
It was Gayle, Ritchie and Anita with one key pass each that created Newcastle’s best chances to score, but poor finishing from Ritchie and young Rolando Aarons in particular ensured we did not capitalise on the little spark that we did show. Speaking of Matt Ritchie. He is going to be some player. It did not come off for him yesterday, but that was not for lack of effort. He had 4 shots on goal, 2 on target and 2 blocked. He attempted 7 crosses but many did not reach a forward. This can be explained by a mixture of lack of intelligence from the forwards, resolute defending by Fulham and his own lack of accuracy at times – but he was there looking for a way in all the same. His passing was at 80% too. Anita showed he is not a winger and it’s a position that needs to be addressed. For a neat and tidy player, he managed only 70% passing accuracy and made only two attmpts at crossing. He still managed to out do Colback defensively though with one block, two crosses, two interceptions and a tackle – interestingly almost all in the right back slot – where Daryl Janmaat was playing.
Janmaat however, is deceptive. His crossing was woeful with zero completed from 6 attempts, but he still managed to win 3 of 5 attempted tackles in the right back area. His passing stats look good with 90% complete, but of 57 passes, only 13 were forward and he won no take on’s going forward. I honestly think he needs to concentrate on staying back and let the wingers do the forward work instead of leaving gaps in defense. He is not bad defensively, having made 8 clearances, one block and one interception.
Dummett on the left managed only 3 successful tackles from 9 attempts. He won no take on’s, completed 1 cross from 4 attempts, created nothing and made no interceptions – but did manage 23 forward passes, 2 blocks and 4 clearances. The stats say he should be a central player.
I wont go into much more but just want to highlight Ayoze Perez. We know his delivery from set pieces was terrible yesterday. However his overall contribution was shocking. Zero successful crosses from 4 attempts, 2 shots – one blocked and the other off target, only 11 attempted passes of which 3 were forward, zero chances created, one failed take on, two lost aerial battles from two, 3 of 5 tackles failed and nothing in the defensive side of the field. He was completely ineffective. What about Dwight Gayle? Well he was back on at least one occasion, making a clearance in the Newcastle box. He was useless in the air with 5 of 6 challenges failed, he failed two tackles and made no crosses but did create one chance on the edge of the box amidst a 90% successful pass rate – only 2 of which were forward.
It’s been commented on already, but the weaknesses in the squad are obvious. Very little creativity from midfield, not enough natural wingers, no natural left back, a right back that thinks he’s a winger – except he’s a poor one. No physical presence up front when Mitrovic is on one of his enforced holidays thanks to poor discipline. If those positions can be addressed by the end of the window (Rafa has hinted that most of them will be), then this season will go a lot more smoothly than yesterday’s trip to Fulham did.