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ANALYSIS: How Benitez & Newcastle can navigate season-defining festive period

Newcastle United: Volatile, erratic, capricious, mercurial. All the attributes that lead to a very confused and frustrated fan base. Ever since Alan Shearer left the club in 2006, Newcastle United's performances and form can only be aptly described -by a very angry AC Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso- as "ah-Sometimes maybe good, sometimes-a maybe s***".

The season could not have started any worse for the Toon, with no win in their first 10 games (7 losses, 3 draws), their worst ever start to a Premier League season. However, in true United fashion, they have stormed home with 3 wins in a row, only to be embarrassed by West Ham 3-0 at St James, rendering the footballing world confused as Newcastle sit in 15th place.

The general consensus, as it normally is at this time of the year, is that United need to hold out until January, when in the transfer window Ashley's pockets will burst and the club will announce multi-million-pound signings, the saviours of the club, rocketing them up the table.

The harsh reality of this season, however, is that even if the unthinkable happens and Newcastle sign valuable players in January, Newcastle still need results before the month's end. If not, they will fall into the depths of another relegation dog-fight, unbefitting the club and its world class manager. If this is the case, they could face a third relegation or, even more severe, the possibility of Rafa Benitez walking away from the club.

We here at TribalFootball have analysed Newcastle's positives, problems and why the festive period could define their season.

The positives

However volatile Newcastle remains, one thing is consistent: the regimented structure of Newcastle's defence, organised and coached by Rafa Benitez who will always make it difficult for any side to break them down. Newcastle boasts some strong defence stats this season. In the Premier League United are 5th for Avg Shots Blocked, 3rd for Avg Crosses Blocked, 3rd for Avg Interceptions, 9th for Avg Successful Tackles and 1st for Clearances.

Newcastle has a strong line of centre-backs headlined by revered heroic captain Jamaal Lascelles.Then there is the surprise summer signing of Federico Fernandez who is averaging 6.6 clearances a game (6th in the league). They are joined by Swiss international Fabian Schar who is averaging 3 intercepts per game (4th in the league). Furthermore, Newcastle has the former Burnley goal scorer Ciaran Clark and local hero Paul Dummett. Whether it be in a back four or a back three, United is a solid unit in defence, both in the air and on the ground. To top it off, their defence is also grounded by the shot-stopping and vocal Martin Dubravka who has kept four clean sheets this season (4th best) and is a main-stay of Newcastle's side. Also, playing on the right side of defence, is the rapid flash DeAndre Yedlin with terrific defensive closing speed who also provides strong overlap when going forward.Indeed, he has a goal and an assist to his name so far this season.

In the midfield, Toon is also bolstered defensively by the tackling machine Mohammed Diame who has turned himself around since being booed off the park by the Newcastle faithful half way through last season. He is now one of the premier box-to-box midfielders in the competition.

Offensively, Newcastle has two dynamic options in midfield.

First, there is Jonjo Shelvey, a player who optimises Newcastle's mercurial nature, and who continues to be the focal point of creativity when playing.Shelvey has been widely criticised for his poor temperament, pugnacious attitude and vulnerability to finding his way into the referee's notebook. Impressively, though, Shelvey has not picked up a single card in the Premier League since December 2017. Shelvey has only registered one assist in his injury-interrupted season and 18 key-passes in his 9 games. Thus, he has yet to create a significant impact on the team, largely due to a less dynamic game style. Alternatively, the soothing influence of South Korean Ki-Sung-Yueng, when Shelvey has been absent, has brought a lot of composure to the side through his calmness on the ball and passing vision.

The negatives

The problem, however, lies at the front end of the pitch. Newcastle United has always been renowned for their number 9s, the talisman who bangs in the goals and leads the club to glory. However, this season, Newcastle has had a dearth of players of this description. The Newcastle strike force is underwhelming, lacks fire power and, most fittingly, is widely inconsistent.

Changing the focus for a minute, imagine a team that plays like this:

  • A game style of minimal possession of approximately 40%
  • Keeping the ball predominantly in their own half
  • An average passing streak of 3
  • Frequent long balls to a big Centre forward
  • Multiple crosses into the box targeted at the big Centre forward
  • Taking lots of shots outside the area
  • High shot frequency when in possession
  • Playing with lots of width through the wings

Sound like a Sam Allardyce team or maybe a Tony Pulis side, and if not them then certainly a proper English manager. But no, it's the Champions League winning Spanish manager, Rafa Benitez. This Newcastle United side plays a no-nonsense, quintessentially British game style which in order to work needs the support of a strike force to score when the opportunity presents itself, even if the chances are few and far between.

Up front Newcastle has four options. The first is the club's biggest summer signing, Yoshinori Muto. Slightly framed, he has struggled to find the rhythm of the Premier League and is not necessarily suited to be the main man in the Rafa Benitez game plan. With starts in only four games this season, he scored a solitary goal at old Trafford and averages but 0.5 shots per game in his 10 appearances.

The second is Ayoze Perez. The tricky number 17 has been a constant this season, sitting in behind the striker, starting 12 matches and coming off the bench twice in Newcastle's 14 games. His ability to dribble is probably the best in the squad although his ability to turn his talent into effective chances on the pitch has been sorely lacking with only one goal and one assist to show so far. He has a strong pass accuracy of 82.5% and averages 1.4 key passes per game.

However, the real key comes in the form of the Magpies two big men: Joselu and Salomon Rondon. The former, in his second season at the club, has epitomised Benitez's defence-first mentality. He is hard working, has strong hold-up play and brings other players into the game with his control and layoffs. However, for all his hard work, and his 2 goals against Chelsea and Tottenham, he has only managed the 5 shots on target in his 11 appearances with 3 headers on goal despite the heavy amount of aerial traffic deployed in the Rafa game style.

As for Salomon Rondon, the 186cm South-American beast has at times looked like Newcastle's answer this season. Only three weeks ago Rondon produced a man of the match performance against Bournemouth, scoring 2 goals in the win both with his head and with his foot. The Venezuelan averages a contextually huge 2.4 shots per game, 37% coming from his head. Despite his dangerous presence around the box, Rondon lacks cleanliness in possession, ranking inside the top ten in the Premier League for most unsuccessful touches per game.

On the wings, Toon is relatively settled - with Kenedy on the left providing the X-factor and Matt Ritchie on the right, who despite his horror miss against Burnley, remains a consistent barometer for the side continually making runs and putting the ball into the box.

How to win those decisive games

Therefore, it seems that Newcastle has all the ingredients to put together a solid campaign within its current roster. When it has worked this season, the results have been positive - 3 huge wins where Newcastle has stayed defensively compact, has played the ball wide and put balls into the box for Rondon to convert its chances. However, as shown on the weekend, when the team plays more expansive football without putting away its chances, Newcastle gets punished.

Against West Ham, Newcastle had a whopping 16 attempts on goal, 35 crosses and 59% possession. But Perez and Rondon were unable to convert guilt-edge chances and, lacking their inspirational captain Jamaal Lascelles in the side, the Magpies were humiliated. A similar display occurred against Brighton. Newcastle had 68% possession, 82% pass accuracy, 41 crosses and a colossal 27 attempts on goal.Yet with only the 6 on target, Newcastle walked off the pitch with a 1-0 loss.

In their three wins this season, Newcastle has only averaged 41% possession. For the remainder of games, the team needs to remain strong in their defensive structures. Then, with the width given by Kenedy, Ritchie and Yedlin providing crosses into the box, together with the midfield control of Diame, Ki and Shelvey, there should be plenty of chances to punish the opposition. The real question is whether Rondon, the starting striker for the remainder of the month, can be the big presence the whole of Tyneside dream about. The crowd must get behind him. With a clean run of games and some confidence, he can get on the end of the ball and knock home the goals so desperately needed. If so, Rondon and Newcastle can escape the jaws of relegation and look forward to a brighter second half and future in the Premier League.

Newcastle's next 6 games will define their season:

Away vs Everton Wednesday 5th December

Home vs Wolves Sunday 9th December

Away vs Huddersfield Sat 15th December

Home vs Fulham Sat 22nd December

Away vs Liverpool Wed 26th December

Watford vs Newcastle Sat 29th December

The Toon need to pick up points in these games as even with the potential inclusions in the transfer period, Newcastle face Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham in January.

It's now or never for Newcastle, and they have the ability to do what is required with the players that they have, but without the support and faith of the city, it just might be too late.

About the author

Eli Rubenstein Sturgess

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