Newcastle United were tipped to be relegated this season. Rafael Benítez left the north east club in the summer which angered the Newcastle faithful as they blamed owner Mike Ashley for not doing enough to keep the former Real Madrid manager at the club.
Steve Bruce replaced the Spaniard only winning two games in his first 10 matches in charge. Those wins however came against Tottenham away from home and Manchester United at St James’ Park. As the season has progressed the performances have improved, and the team look extremely well drilled.
The style of play has been a defensive counter-attack one with the team setting up as a 5-4-1 formation which rapidly converts to 3-4-3 when they attack. Martin Dúbravka is a regular in goal with Steve Bruce having five solid centre-backs to pick from to fill the three centre-back positions. They come in the form of Fabian Schär, Florian Lejeune, Ciaran Clark, Federico Fernández and club captain Jamaal Lascelles. This defence have kept 6 clean sheets in the league this season.
The wing-backs who convert in to midfielders are the Dutchman Jetro Willems on the left and American DeAndre Yedlin on the right. They add to the counter-attack threat with their speed and skill. Spaniard Javier Manquillo, Paul Dummett and Emil Krafth offer the depth in the squad for those positions. Midfielder Matt Ritchie has been playing wing-back since Rafael Benítez was at the club. His deadly crosses have been a threat for years and have him down as the chief set-piece taker. He recently returned from injury which has kept him out for most of the season. His return couldn’t have come at a better time as Jetro Willems is set to be out of action for a while after picking up an injury against Chelsea.
The pace and skill from wingers by Miguel Almirón and Allan Saint-Maximin on the break are the biggest threat for Newcastle this season. Some of the skill and attacking flair created by these two probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The centre of the park is filled with Jonjo Shelvey’s range of passing and the engine of midfielder Isaac Hayden. The Geordie Longstaff brothers, Christian Atsu and South Korean Ki Sung-Yeung complete the midfield artillery.
Local lad and club favourite Andy Carroll returned to Newcastle this season joining 23-year-old Brazilian Joelinton who was the club’s record signing in the summer. These two mainly rotate in leading the front line. Their style of play involves strength in holding up the ball and bringing the midfielders into play when needed. Dwight Gayle and the Japanese Yoshinori Muto have also featured in some games especially when they have converted to a 4-4-2 formation.
The biggest criticism Newcastle have had is that they do not score enough goals. Shelvey is the team’s leading scorer with 5 goals. No one else in the squad has scored more than two goals with most of the goal scorers being defenders. Christian Atsu and Andy Carroll lead the assist tally with 3 each.
There is no doubt that the defensive setup in games leaves Newcastle surrendering most of the ball possession. Their threat is on the counter-attack and set-pieces. They can punish big teams as they have proved. However, if they concede first, they tend to struggle, and this is mainly due to the lack of goals.
Newcastle will continue to play in their defensive style until they secure 40 points. Only then would we expect Steve Bruce adopt a more attacking style.
Newcastle’s next Premier League game will be away from home against Everton on Tuesday evening.