Before Kick-Off

It was a summer filled with excitement and restlessness: after England made it to the semi-finals at the World Cup, Newcastle supporters turned their attention back to the club.

Tensions mounted over the future of both Rafa Benitez and re-securing top-flight status, as there was a perceived lack of incoming quality over the transfer window. Though there was a quintet of new faces that arrived at Newcastle, there have been fears too little was done to keep pace with the rest of the league.

To kick off the campaign, St. James’ Park was host to title contenders Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham, visitors at the beginning of the ‘17-’18 campaign as well, defeated NUFC in both fixtures last season.

As Tottenham are favored to qualify for Champions League again, and Newcastle is predicted to finish in the lower half of the table, this match promised to be telling of Newcastle’s potential for the ‘18-’19 campaign.

Starting XIs

When Newcastle Had the Ball

Newcastle had two primary attacks outlets: Jonjo Shelvey, and the left flank of Dummett & Kenedy. Shelvey had the most pass attempts for Newcastle (57), with 13 of those qualifying as long balls. Dummett also had a high amount of forward passes (10), while Kenedy had the most completed dribbles of anyone on the pitch (6 out of 9 attempts).

When Tottenham did not have possession of the ball, they were aggressively closing down the opposition. In some cases, up to 4 Tottenham players would close down a single ball carrier in the opposition’s half. To facilitate this pressure, their backline was positioned in a “high block” fashion.

When Tottenham Had the Ball

Tottenham’s midfield of Dier & Sissoko funneled play chiefly to their left flank of Davies & Alli. Roughly 47% of their attacking events occurred on the left channel, as Alli sought to create mismatches against DeAndre Yedlin. Tottenham’s showed a preference for short passing, with only 15% of their passes being classified as long balls.

Newcastle maintained lower defensive pressure, in their normal compact 4-4-2 low block. Their midfield averaged roughly 16 passes per defensive action, which is well below NUFC’s ‘17-’18 average of 12 PPDA. As Tottenham approached Newcastle’s final third, Newcastle broke from their zones and closed down the ball carriers.

By the Numbers

Shots on Target25
Key Passes911
Pass Accuracy70%80%
Deep Passes Completed82
Dribbles Won197
Tackles Won1625
Aerial Duels won3320
Passes Per Defensive Action16.675.43
Expected Goals1.161.97
Expected Points0.652.14

Note: Stats are sourced from understat and whoscored.

How the Goals Happened

8’ Vertonghen (NEW 0-1 TOT)

Dubravka’s save from Christan Eriksen’s dangerous shot rewards Tottenham with a corner. Eriksen’s delivery, between the 6-yard-box and the penalty spot, is won by Davinson Sánchez who heads the ball to the far post. At the far post, Paul Dummett is on the wrong side of Jan Vertonghen who heads the ball into the crossbar and in.

The big story here is found by looking at man marking and the defensive setup. From this position, a left-footed Eriksen is going to deliver an in-swinging kick. So there is the potential danger of the ball going over Dubravka in goal into the far corner, also there is the element of covering all bases. Looking at the defensive setup in this situation shows that Joselu, Ritchie, and Diame are guarding the near edge of the six-yard-box or marking Dele Alli. It begs the question whether Ritchie would have been better suited at the far post.

11’ Joselu (NEW 1-1 TOT)

After a Paul Dummett signature throw-in, Newcastle do well to move the ball from the left to right. With a nice run into acres of space from Yedlin, who receives the ball from Jonjo Shelvey. Yedlin passes out to the right-hand side to the path of Matt Ritchie. Being closed down by Ben Davies, Ritchie does expertly to send Davies into the wrong direction and create space for a pin-point cross onto the head Joselu who heads it into the left-hand corner of the goal.

The takeaway from this goal, other than the sheer quality of Ritchie’s delivery,  is to take note of Joselu’s start-stop run to get himself out of an offside position into space between Sánchez and Aurier. Joselu’s positioning and Kenedy’s willingness to get into space for the far-post tap-in are examples of exemplary offensive movement.

18’ Alli (NEW 1-2 TOT)

Pouncing on the rebound from Eriksen’s dribble and Dummett’s subsequent stand tackle, Serge Aurier finds the ball and delivers a deep cross to the far post.  At the far-post is Dele Alli expertly positioned to head the ball into the far corner.

Looking at how Alli got into an excellent goal scoring chance DeAndre Yedlin’s positional awareness and Martin Dubravka’s canceled run to gather the ball. Before Aurier’s pass is played, Yedlin looks into Alli’s direction to confirm his late run into the box but doesn’t finish his defending duties. Martin Dubravka’s canceled run can be a point of confusion for defenders, considering the path of the ball into the box and Alli heading in the ball from the 6-yard-line.

Key Tactical Points

  • NUFC’s Midfield vs. Tottenham’s Counter-Press

The secret has been out for years now: Tottenham utilizes a counterpress that shares many characteristics with Guardiola’s Barca side. This means that after possession is lost, Tottenham will commit as many people as necessary to immediately win the ball back. The thinking behind this is that a team at their most disorganized state (read: vulnerable) in the moments immediately after winning possession.

For a side with the bizarre duo of Newcastle (a destroyer + a long ball specialist), the counterpress was severely disruptive. While Jonjo Shelvey was able to provide some attacking firepower (13/21 passes in the attacking third, 2 chances created), there was little else.

A key to the stagnant counter-attack might have been related to Pérez’s positioning. Often times, Ayoze was the forward-most player on the pitch, even as Joselu seemingly recognized attacking breakdowns and then slipped into the “10” gap.

On a “normal day”, having both Joselu & Pérez up top would provide Shelvey with options for service. But on a day where there was little-to-no time for picking out diagonals, there were acres of wasted space between the forward and midfield lines.

  • Alli vs. Yedlin

Yedlin had a bit of a rough day matched up against Alli. Alli was able to confuse Yedlin’s marking decision-making, getting the slip in a couple times. Also, Yedlin lost all 3 of his aerial duels and won 1 of his 2 attempted tackles.

In attack, Yedlin failed his lone dribble attempt and completed 68% of his passes. While both Davies and Alli were responsible for squaring off DeAndre, it is fair to say that Alli got the better of this battle today.

Man of the Match

Newcastle MotM: Kenedy

Although it could be argued that Matt Ritchie should be Newcastle’s man of the match, Kenedy has to take the cake this time. Kenedy’s prowess and brilliance were shown with completing 6 of 9 dribbles. Looking frisky overall Kenedy was thwarted by his heavy first touch on a clear chance created by Joselu. His defensive effort on the day was also nothing short of fantastic, making 6 interceptions – more than any other player in black and white.

Tottenham MotM: Dele Alli

Alli made Yedlin look bad all day long which culminated in a goal from his late run into the box. Looking at his passing statistics, 19 of his 40 passes were in the final third setting up teammates and attacks very nicely. Although none of his passes were key passes the bulk of them being in key attacking areas in the final third. His defensive effort on the day was also good in terms of blocking, for someone who is generally considered an attacking player – with 2 blocked shots and 4 blocked crosses.

In Conclusion

The opening day losses streak continues, as Newcastle haven’t won the lead fixture since 2012. However, given the context of the summer transfer window and the opponent, Newcastle had a fair showing.

While Tottenham were definitely stronger in all phases, Newcastle created many quality chances. While on 2 shots registered on target, there were still 2 shots that struck the framework. Lascelles and Clark kept Kane quiet, Dubravka was superb when called upon, and Kenedy had a remarkable two-way performance.

Rafa said: “The difference in quality is what makes the difference. But my team didn’t give up and that’s a positive thing for the future. We made mistakes against very good players and it is difficult to stop them because of the way they pass the ball and move around the pitch. It is not easy when that have that quality, but we had chances to draw.”

While Newcastle United still left the pitch with 0 points, there were many positive displays on this day.