Feature

What's wrong at Newcastle and how to fix it

8 Sep 2023
Eddie Howe and Jason TIndall at Brighton

Alex Keble looks at Magpies' stuttering start and sees where Eddie Howe can bring an uplift in fortunes

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Newcastle United

Sandro Tonali tearing around midfield and Harvey Barnes gleefully easing through the Aston Villa defence - that opening-weekend match feels like a long time ago now.

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Newcastle have lost three consecutive Premier League matches for the first time since April 2022 and enter the first international break of 2023/24 in 14th.

Last season it took 24 matches for Newcastle to hit three defeats, ending the campaign with only five in total.

All that optimism, and the hope that they could repeat last season’s triumph, have taken a big hit.

Tricky fixtures give Howe a pass

But, hang on, not so fast. A bit of perspective is needed.

Newcastle have this season travelled to Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester City – two of the toughest places to visit – and were within minutes of beating Liverpool at St James' Park before an extraordinary comeback led by Darwin Nunez.

What’s more, Newcastle won four points from the corresponding four fixtures last season, meaning Eddie Howe’s side are only one point down on 2022/23.

In fact, the difference between this season and last is vanishingly small.

Twelve months ago, Newcastle drew 0-0 at Brighton despite recording 0.2 Expected Goals (xG) to Brighton’s 1.5, whereas they had a 1.2 xG compared with Brighton’s 1.3 in last weekend's 3-1 loss on the south coast.

Similarly, a year ago they lost 2-0 at Man City, and this they went down season by a 1-0 scoreline.

So we shouldn’t get carried away with a reality that, for the most part, reflects bad luck with the fixture computer.

There are, however, some tactical concerns about Howe’s new-look midfield and the energy with which his team are playing.

Less intensity

The sample size is small and quite possibly skewed by a deliberately more cautious approach at the Etihad Stadium, and yet the data we have only conforms to the eye test - that Newcastle seem a little soft; a touch slower and lighter on intensity.

Comparing 2022/23 with 2023/24, Newcastle’s PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action, where a lower score signifies more intense pressing) has risen from 10.5 to 14.4, taking them from fourth on that metric to 13th in the rankings.

In line with that, Newcastle’s interceptions have dropped from 8.76 to 5.5 per match. Their recoveries are also down from a sixth-best 54.3 per 90 to 46.0, 10 places lower in 16th.

At 56.4 per cent, the win percentage of Newcastle’s aerial duels was the best in the Premier League last season, yet that number has slipped to 46.3 per cent, which ranks 14th.

As well as winning challenges less frequently and fading in the press, Newcastle have slowed down on the ball. Opta’s measure of teams’ build-up play and speed all point to more ponderous football from Newcastle this season.

Newcastle on the ball comparison
  2022/23 2023/24
Ave. time (secs) sequence of possession 8.64 (12th) 12.04 (6th)
Ave. no. 10+ pass sequence open-play 7.24 (13th) 11.50 (8th)
Ave. no. 'build-up' attacks 1.66 (10th) 3.75 (5th)
Ave. no 'direct' attacks 2.5 (2nd) 1.50 (10th)

These figures are particularly interesting because a move towards longer strings of possession and away from direct attacking football is difficult to explain as a consequence of playing strong opponents.

If the increase in PPDA and drop in off-the-ball intensity was caused by sitting deeper against teams such as Liverpool and Man City, you would expect Newcastle to be counter-attacking more, rather than putting long passing moves together.

In other words, the data tells us there is reason for mild concern. Newcastle have dropped off, and there is a consistent reason why their midfield needs work.

Changing role for Tonali & Guimaraes

Newcastle repeatedly beat Villa’s high line in their 5-1 win on the opening weekend, but since then Howe’s new central midfield has been too porous and easy to overwhelm, due in part to how Tonali has changed the role of Bruno Guimaraes.

Whereas last season Guimaraes was regularly a No 6, now he tends to shift positions with Tonali, the two men alternating going forward and dropping.

Against Man City, Manuel Akanji stepped into midfield to provide an extra body, overloading a Newcastle team who left too large a gap between defence and midfield (as shown in the graphic below).

This is a common theme due to the teething problems between Guimaraes (No 39) and Tonali (No 8).

Newcastle-touch-map-v-Man-City

The build-up to City’s winning goal highlights the issue.

Note the space Julian Alvarez finds in the second image two within seconds of the first image, when City’s number of midfielders distracted Tonali and Guimaraes.

Newcastle midfield v MCI
Newcastle midfield v MCI 2
Watch Alvarez's goal

Against Brighton, Newcastle were similarly overrun in midfield, only this time because Newcastle’s waning pressing intensity appears to have caused the opening of that gap between defence and midfield.

In the build-up to the second goal Newcastle were far too decompressed, as Evan Ferguson dropped into the huge open space, turned, and fired into the corner:

NU BR

Between those two matches, the 10 men of Liverpool turned things around thanks to Jurgen Klopp’s bold substitutions - and a crucial tactical change.

For the final 10 minutes, Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah drifted from their winger positions into the middle, a deliberate strategy to exploit the gap Klopp had noticed between defence and midfield.

The build-up to both Nunez's goals clearly show a repeat of the issue against Brighton and Man City.

NEW LIV 3(1)
NEW LIV 4(1)
How to fix the problem

At present, Newcastle’s issue seems to be about territory. If the entire team pushed higher, the gap between the lines would diminish, not only helping Guimaraes and Tonali connect better, but also preventing Alexander Isak from becoming isolated.

Isak’s touches are down from 34.5 per 90 last season to 22.3, while Newcastle’s passes into the penalty area have dropped from 10.6 to 7.3 per 90.

He looks disconnected from the rest of the team because of the general decompression and depth of Newcastle’s line, something illustrated when looking at how their touches have shifted deeper, despite a similar share of possession

Newcastle touches comparison
  22/23 23/24
Possession 52.3% 49.0%
Touches/90 581.7 628.3
% Touches in defensive 1/3  30.6% (19th) 35.2% (6th)
% Touches in middle 1/3 40.0% (14th) 45.6% (7th)
% Touches in attacking 1/3 29.4% (7th) 19.2% (15th)

* League rank in brackets

Newcastle are holding a deeper defensive line and pressing with less intensity, which inevitably means the gap between each line of the formation increases. Each of their last three opponents have exploited this.

The fix, then, is to be bolder, which of course might come naturally when playing weaker teams in the months ahead.

Their next four fixtures are Brentford (H), Sheffield United (A), Burnley (H) and West Ham United (A).  

Tonali and Guimaraes will improve their relationship with time, while four of the seven goals Newcastle have conceded in the last three matches were after Tonali had been substituted.

There is nothing here to panic about.

Newcastle have dropped a little – literally and figuratively – as they hesitate against three powerful teams capable of blowing them away.

Be brave, and go all-in on Tonali’s aggressive front-foot style, and the wins should return.

Also in this series

Part 2: Chelsea
Part 3: Manchester United

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