After a turbulent summer for Newcastle United, which started with links to a Middle East rich group takeover and the fantasy links to Mourinho & Mbappe, the Magpies instead began the season with the all too real arrivals of Steve Bruce & Andy Carroll. The only Middle Eastern influence to look for is the Gulf in class between the new gaffer and his predecessor.
Despite this, Newcastle carried on with a recruitment strategy mirroring that of the 15/16 campaign, spending large sums on exciting, yet largely unproven forwards. With 23 league goal duo Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon now gone, the new boys had big shoes to fill.
Arsenal had quite a busy summer themselves. Their fanbase has been pressuring the ownership to spend some money to compliment an already existing £100m strike-force, and the Gunner’s board responded by bringing in the likes of record signing Nicolas Pepe (£72m), Kieran Tierney and David Luiz. It’s fair to say the fans seemed happy with the summer business, yet some doubts remained about the overall standard of their defence.
Newcastle team shape
Newcastle played with a back 5 in all pre-season games (apart from the very first), and Bruce’s arrival saw the team settle into a new 5-3-2 shape.
This differed from Rafa Benitez’s 5 at the back lineup (5-4-1) by including a 3rd central midfielder, and adding an extra striker while sacrificing wingers and relying on the fullbacks for width.
Arsenal team shape
Emery experimented with 5 at the back and 4 at the back formations at various points throughout his debut season in England, attempting to figure out his best side.
The formation he used most frequently, however, was 4-2-3-1 (17 times, via transfermarkt.com), and that was in evidence at St James’ Park as Aubameyang spearheaded an attack with Mkhitaryan, Nelson and Willock in support.
The Magpies were cautious in build-up, attempting to use the dribbling ability of Almiron to drive up the pitch. Despite starting 3 central midfielders, there was a preference to work the ball out wide for crosses rather than go through central channels.
Creating width was the responsibility of the fullbacks, with Ritchie’s average position being past the halfway line. Manquillo wasn’t able to have the same effect on the right, constantly penned back in his half due to Arsenal’s preference to attack down their left (51% of their attacks).
Short passing was not leading to many created chances, inviting Newcastle to launch long balls via Schär and Dummett (24 in total), looking to Joelinton for knockdowns and flick ons.
Out of possession
To prevent Manquillo and Ritchie facing wingers 1 v 1, Hayden and Longstaff would drift out wide to provide extra support. This meant that Arsenal could rework the ball to the middle quite easily to start again once Newcastle forced them back.
Newcastle’s press was quite high due to Arsenal’s preference to play it short from goal kicks, with Almiron’s pace a useful weapon in closing down pass options for Leno.
Most attacks started from Leno for the Gunners, playing it short and then looking for the front 4 to create danger. Monreal and Nelson (30 total passes to each other) combined down the left, looking for Aubameyang. Maitland-Niles and Mkhitaryan (21 total passes to each other) attempted the same on the other flank, although met strong defensive performances from Dummett and Ritchie.
Another attacking avenue for the Gunners was to allow one of Willock or Nelson to drop deep, dribble up the pitch and look for a wide player to put the cross in. A bit like Almiron for Newcastle, only Arsenal had more numbers in support on the wings.
Out of possession
It was the basic workings of a 4 man backline and the 2 midfield pivots dropping deeper and shielding whenever Newcastle advanced. Arsenal were quick to use one of Xhaka or Guendouzi to help out the fullback whenever Newcastle worked it wide.
Curiously, they allowed Newcastle an average pass streak of 12 before attempting a defensive action, suggesting their press wasn’t as intense as Newcastle have often faced, as well as the effect of the added centre mid for the Toon. The last time these two teams faced each other, that figure was 6, quite the drop-off.
Story of the match
A steady start
It had the feeling of a season opener, both sides guilty of giving the ball away unnecessarily, with a slow tempo to proceedings.
One of the elements to look out for in the new formation for Newcastle is the dynamic on the wings. Last season, defensive and attacking support between the fullbacks and the inside forwards (Manquillo-Ayoze on the right and Ritchie-Almiron on the left) had worked quite well.
Now, it was up to Longstaff and Hayden in the midfield 3 to help out as needed. Defensively, they were up to the job, the midfielders going wide and forcing the opposition back, as seen in the clip below.
But how did the lack of wingers affect the attacking play? Manquillo and Ritchie needed to be at extremely hardworking in order to create opportunities, and the lack of wingers to play off of lead to breakdowns such as the one seen with Manquillo here.
The two teams cancelled each other out for long stretches, but it was Newcastle who managed the best half-chances in the opening 30 minutes, with Joelinton glancing a header wide and Shelvey seeing a deflected effort strike the outside of the post. By the end of the half, the Gunner’s only had 1 shot on target and had been out-tackled 17 to 5 times as Newcastle dealt with everything that came their way.
The below clip is an example of the aforementioned Arsenal approaches. With Willock driving forward, helping Arsenal find the wide option. Despite Ritchie being caught upfield, the ever reliable Dummett shows the benefit of 3 at the back by covering adeptly.
Things began to unravel for the magpies 8 minutes into the 2nd half. It started when Willems came on for Shelvey, the Englishman having picked up a knock in the first half when tackling Guendouzi, and no longer able to continue.
Question marks were raised over the lack of central midfielders on the bench when the team selection was announced, Bruce later explaining two defenders were needed in reserve due to fitness concerns over Lascelles and Dummett.
Therefore, seeing Shelvey’s replacement Willems go straight into central midfield was not surprising, given he played for there for Eintracht Frankfurt last season. It turns out, however, that the plan was for Ritchie to drop into central midfield and Willems to assume the left wing back position. It was bizarre to see Willems slot straight into the middle when coming on.
GOAL – 58’ Aubameyang (NEW 0-1 ARS)
With Willems and Ritchie finally in the positions Bruce intended, the first action of note for Newcastle United was to concede, with Willems heavily involved.
A simple ball from Schär to Dummett was followed by what at first appeared to be a simple ball to Willems. Jetro hesitated in receiving it and Maitland-Niles needed no second invitation to intercept and send a through ball into Aubameyang while the defence was out of shape. Lascelles ignored Aubameyang, drifting to cover Mikhitaryan (perhaps expecting Schär to attend the striker?) but it was a grievous error with Aubameyang in oceans of space, with the ball at his feet, delivering a composed finish past Dubravka. You could choose to blame Dummett for the pass or Willems for his positioning and hesitancy, but there were several defensive faults at play here.
Newcastle’s tactical discipline was rocked, and despite not conceding for the rest of the game, the players didn’t really seem sure of themselves in the 2nd half. Saint-Maximin came on for Longstaff, which meant the 3 centre mids were now Hayden, Ritchie, and Almiron. Saint-Maximin first appeared as a right-winger, later changing to the left, and later still being told by Bruce to play off Joelinton. It all felt a little bit amateur.
Full time came with Newcastle managing only 4 shots after conceding, and only 1 on target, a tame effort from Saint-Maximin. The lack of cohesion in positioning and movement was not punished by an Arsenal who were looking comfortable, yet ordinary.
Key Tactical Point
- The 5-3-2 formation – stick or twist?
Somehow, a 3 midfield formation ended with just 1 natural midfielder in it at the full time whistle. Had Ki been on the bench, Shelvey’s injury may not have been as costly. However, the general trend of play in the game brought forth the question of whether this formation is a positive going forward or inferior to the 5-4-1? Was there enough support in attack for Ritchie and Manquillo? Is having a third central midfielder worth the trade-off of sacrificing wingers?
It is too soon to judge from one game, and top 6 opposition no less, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on in the coming weeks.
By The Numbers
Hayden’s performance was a strong one, carrying on from where he left off in the previous campaign. He was alert to intercept when needed, and worked hard in providing support in attack and defence.
An encouraging performance from the new number 9. He will be disappointed with his finish for the one real chance he had, but his footwork to create that chance in the first place was impressive. He looked good in build up phases, dropping deep to initiate attacks, (as seen in this clip), and defending strongly from the front.
He won 8/11 aerial battles, completed 2/2 dribbles, registered 80% pass accuracy, made 1 tackle and 1 interception.
A midfielder by trade deputising at right back, Maitland-Niles put in an impressive display. He drove up the pitch really well to provide an outlet on the right, and was able to deal with most things that came his way in defence. He was alert to pounce on the loose ball ahead of Willems, and topped that off with a great pass from deep to assist Aubameyang’s goal.
The young midfielder gave a good account of himself on Sunday. Despite a few sloppy touches at times, he was aggressive in the middle of the park and was constantly dropping in between the centre backs to help them initiate attacking moves.
In an industrious display, he registered an 85% pass accuracy, made 2 interceptions, played 4 accurate long balls and 1 key pass.
On the face of it, a 1-0 defeat to a team like Arsenal can be accepted. What can’t however, is putting on substitutes who do not know which position they are supposed to be in. The 2nd half undid a lot of the good work Newcastle put in during the opening 45, where they were solid if unspectacular.
Bruce asked to be judged “after some time,” intimating that it wasn’t fair to criticise him before a ball was kicked. Well, the real stuff has now begun, and that was a discouraging start, to say the least. It’s up to him to ensure this was a blip, rather than the norm of what’s to come.