Well lets be honest. Very few of us expected a positive result from yesterday evening’s home fixture against Chris Hughton’s Seagulls. In the end the Magpies won relatively comfortably against a side widely expected to be fellow contenders come the season’s end. But just how comfortable was the win and what does this mean for the the rest of Newcastle’s league campaign?
First off, Chris Hughton had this to say after the game;
“I was really disappointed because, even in hindsight, I thought we had a really good opportunity. I didn’t think we were good enough on the ball but our stats equal all of theirs. Arguably we had two of the best chances from open play in the game. We conceded from two set plays and the second one was a great free-kick. Occasionally you go somewhere and you are absolutely outclassed, they have lots of chances, your goalkeeper is having to make lots of saves.
“That wasn’t the case – and if that’s not the case it means you are always in the game. But we didn’t have a good enough control of the ball at times and we conceded bad goals. What Newcastle managed to do was control the game. It’s not as if they had lots of chances. They hit the crossbar in that first half but the two opportunities we had were, I thought, two of the best of the game.”
So did he have a point? In terms plain stats, the answer is yes. Sort of. Brighton had 13 shots on goal, the same as Newcastle. However, only 2 of those were on target compared to Newcastle’s 4. Newcastle managed 86% passing accuracy, whereas Brighton registered only 78%.Chances created was just shaded by Brighton with 10 to 9, look closer and the Toon managed to create 5 in the box compared to Brighton’s 4. Brighton also had double the number of crosses that Newcastle managed (20 for them, 10 for us), however this stat flatters to deceive when you consider that only 4 of theirs were successful compared to 3 of ours. It was Brighton’s game plan to work the channels, but they did not get much change there.
The Magpies meanwhile, have shown they can now mix game plans up. Yesterday the focus was on attacking through the middle. At the beginning of the season we were working the channels, producing almost 40 crosses per game. If you look at tackling stats, then on the face of it Brighton win, with 38% success beating the Toon’s 29%. But look closer and you will find Newcastle actually won 5 more (24 to 19) than Fatboy Slim’s home town. The only stat the Seagulls can claim to have won convincingly is aerial battles, with a 63% success rate.
As for Hughton’s claim that Brighton deserved something because they had the best chances form open play – I take issue with that too. There is no doubt that Knockhert’s shot across the crossbar following a smart move inside our box was a great chance. Kayal had a good opportunity late on, which drew solid save from Selz. However, it’s not like Newcastle did not create good chances themselves from open play. Matt Ritchie drew good save form inside the box, Gouffran hit the crossbar with the goalkeeper well beaten, Shelvey hit the post late on and Gouffran should have done better with the goal at his mercy following a cross to the left side of the box in the first half. If Brighton had the potential to score 1 or 2 from open play, then so did Newcastle.
Watch the highlights and decide for yourself:
All in all, the stats were not much different between the two sides. But what about the home side’s performance made the difference? There are three things that have stood out in Newcastle’s current win streak that I feel are worth highlighting. These 3 things were all evident in the win against Brighton and I believe they will form the platform for a successful Championship campaign. I am not going to include Rafa Benitez’ tactical ability in those 3 things. That is self evident and was on show again yesterday when he switched formation to a 4-1-4-1, with Hayden performing on his own in the holding role and both Shelvey and Diame being allowed to play in advanced positions. This was in order to give Perez support up front with Mitrovic and Gayle both out with head injuries. We know Rafa can mix things up. We know Rafa is the Gaffer. All of the good things we are beginning to see have been instigated by him. So what are the other 3 things that he has been the catalyst for?
1) The squad’s work ethic.
If you look at the channels and in our own half, then what you see is a Toon side that grafts. Brighton tried to primarily attack down the flanks, but it was to no avail because our wingers and full backs were tireless their pursuit of the ball. When Brighton did come on the attack, the home side had the likes of Shelvey and Diame tracking back making meaningful defensive contributions. Last season that just would not have happened. When Newcastle did not have the ball, they were collectively pressing as a unit. Nowhere is this emphasized more than when you look at the clearance stats.
Newcastle made 23 clearances compared to Brighton’s 7. Because the players are now working hard for each other, when danger presents itself there is more often than not somebody on hand to make the ball safe. 11 of Newcastle’s clearances came from midfielders (Hayden 4, Shelvey and Gouffran 2, Diame 3). Not one midfielder made a clearance for Brighton. That is significant and the team ethic is what made the difference today.
2) Squad depth.
Newcastle United has for years struggled with having a lop-sided squad. Rafa Benitez and Lee Charnley have addressed that this season, using relegation as an opportunity to clear out the sick notes and feckless – and replace them with professionals that serve a purpose. Almost every position now has 2 players that can do a good job if called upon. With Achraf Lazaar and Darryl Murphy about to join the ranks, our squad for the season is more or less complete. This means injuries and suspensions will no longer mean an instant crisis. Why it has taken so long for the top brass to see the importance of having good, reliable squad depth full of players with the right mentality is beyond me. Better late than never I guess…
3) New found ability from set pieces.
I recall only a few years back how we ll despaired at the fact we had not scored from a corner for over 2 years. Here are the figures for Newcastle goals scored from set pieces in the last 5 years:
2012/2013 – 10 (4 penalties).
2013/2014 – 9 (1 penalty).
2014/2015 – 8 (1 penalty).
2015/2016 – 11 (3 penalties).
2016/2017 – 6 (1 penalty).
To put that into perspective, in just 4 games this season the Magpies have managed to score a sixth of the total goals scored in he last 4 years combined. If we continue to score from set pieces at just 50% the rate we have managed so far this season, we will still have managed at least 24 by the end of the season, which is almost as much as the last 3 seasons combined. Clearly Rafa has had our boys working on this vital aspect of the game and it is refreshing to see it paying off.
Lets hear from Rafa the Gaffer himself;
I will finish up by saying that yesterday was a big test against a very good Championship side. The lads rose to the challenge and sent out a signal of intent. If I’m being honest (as Alan Pardew would say), I could not see past a Brighton win. The game showed that Newcastle really is a force to be reckoned with in this league despite the radical changes that have been made both on and off the pitch. It seems everybody is beginning to sing off the same hymn sheet now and after a 4th win in a row in all competitions, the ‘game’ is well and truly on.