With a crucial Premier League match against Cardiff coming up at the weekend, Newcastle were expected to put out a makeshift side for a fixture they played themselves into. Blackburn also had league priorities, a push for the play-offs not an unrealistic target for Rovers, and were expected to be without a number of first teamers due to injury and illness. A 4th round home tie against Watford awaited the winner.
Blackburn Starting Approach
Blackburn lined up in a 3-4-3 with wide players Harrison and Bennett operating as wing backs. Their idea was to play it long to Graham to win knockdowns and create opportunities from the second ball. Graham would deliberately line up against Sterry rather than Clark and Fernandez, which gave him a better chance at winning the physical battle. Armstrong would then drift infield from the left to create danger from Graham winning the knockdown.
Defensively, they set out a mid-block in between the 18-yard box and the half-way line. They used a one-man press in the final third, either through Graham or Armstrong but once Newcastle moved the ball into midfield they would pressure in numbers. Their 3 man defence set up left plenty of space on the flanks for Newcastle to utilise.
Newcastle Starting Approach
Out of possession, it looked like a 4-1-4-1 with Schär as a holding midfielder just behind Newcastle academy graduates Longstaff and Roberts ( a winger by trade playing centrally). In possession, the shape resembled more of a 4-3-3 with Ritchie and Murphy pushing up to support Joselu.
Defensively, it was the usual low-block set up and as a flat back 4 with a defender in front of them as another line of cover. There was a high-energy press in the middle lead by Longstaff, Roberts and Ritchie who would look to force Blackburn into passing errors. Schär would also drop in to make it a back 5 whenever Blackburn sustained possession in the final third.
Newcastle managed to misplace their first pass after the kick-off, but that far from set the tone for proceedings as they had taken the lead before the first minute was out.
Goal – 1’ Longstaff (BLA 0-1 NEW)
From a throw in on the left side, Blackburn committed a lot of numbers to try and win the ball back. That left a gap in the middle, and with the defensive line on the edge of the box, Longstaff had a lot of room once Joselu played into him after good hold up play. The academy lad acted quickly and his willingness to get a shot away was rewarded with a goal after a big deflection.
The game ebbed and flowed for the next 20 minutes, with Blackburn seeing more of the ball. They tried their tactic to Graham on a couple of occasions without causing too much danger but highlighting that they planned to target Sterry on the right.
Goal – 22’ Roberts (BLA 0-2 NEW)
Manquillo was pressured into a pass back to Woodman, who in turn was closed down by Armstrong as he looked to clear it. Joselu did well to get in front of 2 Blackburn players to flick the ball on. From there it was Murphy against Nyambe and the winger beat him once to get the shot away, and then again to deliver a good ball that Roberts finished well for his first Newcastle goal.
The two-goal cushion gave Newcastle confidence and they started pressing higher up the pitch with Joselu, Murphy, Roberts and Ritchie looking to win the ball in the final third.
Goal – 32’ Armstrong ( BLA 1-2 NEW)
A third local lad on the scoresheet but this time it was in Rovers colours. Another long ball to Graham who again took up position against Sterry. He won the duel with ease and took advantage of poor Newcastle defending to slip in Armstrong who finished well up against Woodman. The Newcastle keeper made an effort to close the angle and was unlucky as he got some contact to the ball.
Defensively there are 2 things to note. First, the gap between Clark and Fernandez is enormous, allowing a Blackburn forward space to run into which Armstrong did. Second, Sterry moves away from the path of the ball, and Fernandez quickly wanted to cover that space which meant he ignored Armstrong’s run, a miscommunication punished. This is the second game in a row Newcastle have been undone by a long ball, but the mistakes were in front of the defensive line at Ewood, instead of behind them like at Chelsea.
Spurred by the goal, Blackburn began to dominate proceedings. An early warning to Newcastle came in the shape of a Lenihan header from a corner on 35’ that sailed over the bar.
They dominated the ball until half time (65% from Armstrong’s goal to the whistle) and pushed Bennett and Reed forward to add width to attacks.
Goal 45+1’ Lenihan (BLA 2-2 NEW)
An excellent piece of skill by Nyambe took out his marker Murphy and the Blackburn player won a corner from a blocked cross.
The usual zonal marking strategy was lined up by Newcastle. Lenihan made a clever run which he angled away from Longstaff and then beat Schär in the air to plant home Reed’s cross. Poor from Newcastle with 2 players in a position to prevent the goal, outsmarted and outjumped by the Rovers centre back.
Clark was replaced by Lascelles after a knee complaint at half time. The skipper lasted all of 2 minutes before feeling his hamstring when seeing the ball out for a goal kick. Bizarrely, for the next 10 minutes, the game was almost a ‘Lascelles Cam’ exhibition as he moved gingerly about the pitch.
Back to the tactics, and Newcastle decided to switch Ritchie and Murphy’s positions. Murphy was having a decent game on the right, and his first action on the left was to lose the ball in the middle of the park and Blackburn almost punished Newcastle, specifically Lascelles, who was defending almost on one leg. Schär helping his colleague out by putting enough pressure on Brereton.
Finally, Lascelles came off for Hayden, after almost 10 minutes from the point of injury. Hayden’s introduction brought about another tactical reshuffle. Schär dropping into the back 4 as Hayden flanked Longstaff and Roberts in the middle.
The first notable chance of the half came Newcastle’s way after Joselu put a low Murphy cross wide, although it did look as if the Newcastle forward was fouled in the process.
Blackburn replaced Brereton with the more experienced Conway, a like for like change. Armstrong also came off for Nuttal, Mowbray looking to freshen the attack.
The rest of the second half was back and forth, Newcastle just shading possession (51% to 49%), but out of 9 shots between the sides, only Conway managed to get one on target.
Extra Time – 1st Half
Ayoze Perez was brought on early in extra time as Newcastle pushed their shape higher. Roberts was replaced which meant Hayden slotted centrally alongside Longstaff and Ayoze was in the favoured 10 role in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Blackburn also made positive changes, Rothwell and Dack’s introduction before full time changed their shape to a 4-2-3-1 with the scorer in the first game Dack playing in the 10.
Blackburn began to play more direct, whipping crosses in for the two threats of Nuttal and Graham. Dack just behind posed a danger from any loose balls.
And Dack had the chance to put Rovers ahead near the end of the half. The trusty long ball to Graham tactic, the forward again positioned against Sterry, put the ball into Conway, whose flick on was met by Dack in a great position, only for him to put it wide.
Goal – 105+3’ Joselu ( BLA 2-3 NEW)
Dack’s miss was to be punished immediately. Ritchie was dispossessed in the final third but Schär (advancing from centre back), picked up the loose ball, drove forward and hammered a powerful shot at Raya. Joselu, from an offside position, pounced on the loose ball to finish in the corner. No doubt had this goal happened at St James’ it would have been ruled out through VAR. Luckily for the Spaniard, it registered as his first goal since August.
Extra Time – 2nd Half
Goal – 106’ Ayoze (BLA 2-4 NEW)
The second time this game Newcastle scored within a minute of kick-off. Blackburn had committed men forward for a set piece, Newcastle won the 2nd ball and Joselu dropped off to lay it into Ritchie’s pass who sent Ayoze away for a counter. Bennett played Ayoze offside and Blackburn will be disappointed he didn’t push higher to catch Ayoze offside.
Ayoze stayed composed to finish from a tight angle, with the help of a poor hand to the ball by Raya.
That knocked the stuffing out of Blackburn who only managed 1 shot for the rest of the game ( to Newcastle’s 7 as more chances came for the Magpies). Newcastle also won the aerials (1 to 7) in the second period of extra time and had more possession and far superior pass accuracy (81% to 60%). After 120 minutes, it was finally job done.
Key Tactical Points
Schär as a defensive midfielder
By the far the most intriguing tactical aspect of the game for Newcastle. There have been small mutterings from the fans about trying this out given how comfortable the Swiss international is on the ball. It seemed to work well; on defensive transitions he was acting as the third centre back anyway and in attack he was able to anchor Longstaff and Roberts who took this opportunity to press high.
His opportunism also helped the side, his willingness to shoot from range winning a few corners and crucially, lead to Newcastle’s third goal. Is it something worth considering in Premier League matches, or an experiment to be left for Championship opposition?
Set piece and long ball troubles
Newcastle are organised defensively when the opposition come short and drive the ball to the final third. But the last two matches have seen gaps in the defence and positional inconsistencies when the opposition try the long ball route. Blackburn did not have anyone with the ability of David Luiz to split the defence but the movement of Graham, and the targeting of Sterry, gave them joy in getting past the Toon backline.
Set pieces were again an issue today, Blackburn managed a couple of free headers and punished Newcastle with one. Zonal marking seems to be as good as the concentration of the players in it. On some occasions, Newcastle have played it perfectly. In this game, however, the focus seemed missing, and some intelligent movement by Blackburn in the box caused problems.
There needs to be extra defensive work on both fronts if Newcastle are to avoid being punished for such errors in future games.
By The Numbers
Darragh Lenihan [MotM]
Although the centre back was part of a defence that conceded 4, on an individual level he played a very good game. His reading of the game was excellent, getting the most interceptions for his team. He was also a key part of the long ball strategy, finding a Rovers shirt from the majority of his kicks upfield. His aerial threat was too much to handle for Newcastle, twice getting a header away from a corner, and punishing the Magpies at the second attempt.
A hit and miss game from the Gateshead-born striker. He was the main outlet and instead of battling against Clark and Fernandez, he cleverly took up positions to exploit Sterry’s (lack of) height. His hold up play was good and he managed to play in his forwards on multiple occasions, registering the assist for Armstrong’s goal.
Fabian Schär [MotM]
In a new role, the Swiss international had a huge impact on proceedings. Injuries to other players meant he was changing position and finding himself in different areas of the pitch throughout the 120’. He went for long distribution and found a Newcastle shirt on numerous occasions. He also had more shots than any Newcastle player bar Joselu, most of them from range and with decent connection.
His defensive output did not suffer from the positional change, only Fernandez managing more clearances. His pass accuracy did noticeably dip, however, (68%) compared to 77% in the home game against Fulham earlier in the season, a consequence of more pressure against him in the middle of the park.
The much-maligned Newcastle forward had a very solid game on this occasion. Yes, the usual moments of consternation at his finishing ability were present but he was a key contributor in all 4 goals. A direct assist for the first (with a nutmeg pass to boot), the flick on in the 2nd, scoring the third, and then laying it off to Ritchie who assisted the 4th. His hold up play and movement were good, and his work rate for the entire 120 minutes was excellent.
With a crucial game against Cardiff coming up in the league, this was a selection that showed the league as priority. Roberts, a late inclusion, played his first senior game since 2015. Even at 2-2, it didn’t seem that Rafa was ever going to risk Rondon.
The game itself was encouraging and discouraging in equal measure. It was fantastic to see the young lads involved in the goals. But defensive frailties showed in this unfamiliar formation and XI.
Although winning the cup itself is a distant dream, scoring 4 goals from open play and advancing in the cup is still a joy to watch, even if it came at the expense of a couple of injuries and some bruised looking players by full time.