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Death & Tactics: Analyzing Newcastle United 4, Arsenal 4

Note: All the standard disclaimers apply. This is not the end to the conversation, but the start. This feature will look different every week, and may not run some weeks.  I'll add one for this game: I'm not going to use this space to address any of the officiating controversies in this post (but you should feel free to discuss them in the comments section if you like). As always, make sure you check out RKW's Reasonable Reaction Review.

I've watched this match three times now and have been thinking about it all week long, and I still don't think I understand the magnitude of what happened at St James' Park last Saturday.  A Premier League team has never come back from a 4 goal deficit before.  To say it's a rare occurrence doesn't do it justice, but somehow this game feels like it fits in this up-and-down season.  Inconsistency has been the hallmark of this campaign, but usually it's more of a game-to-game thing.  This week, we saw the ugly and the beautiful on display.  Follow the jump for a closer look at both.

00:00-25:52 - Arsenal Dominates

It was clear from the kick-off that the Gunners were determined to move the ball up the field through short, quick passes, as they are prone to do.  In the first 42 seconds (leading up to the first goal), they completed 15 out of 16 passes and involved 8 of their outfield players in the action.  Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson were sucked toward midfield by all of the passing, and the much faster Theo Walcott sneaked right past them on a good through ball from Andrey Arshavin.  Not acceptable, but hey, there's 89 minutes left, right?  Surely this team wouldn't concede two in the first 5 minutes like they did against Manchester City, would they?

Well, yes.  There's even less to say about this next goal, which came in the third minute.  Arshavin was the set-up man again, this time from a free kick, and Johan Djourou simply beat Kevin Nolan to the ball in the air.  I said I wasn't going to use this post to talk about referee Phil Dowd, but...that foul called against Danny Simpson on Cesc Fabregas was bogus.  Definitely more suspect than the one called on Tomas Rosicky against Joey Barton that led to Cheik Tiote's equalizer much later on.  Okay, I'm done complaining.  For real.

As awful as Newcastle were defensively for the first two concessions, the third was exponentially worse.  Take a look at the photo below:


The issue here is not one of being outnumbered; it's one of poor marking.  If you can't see the ball, it's in between Jose Enrique's legs (sorry for the poor quality).  Walcott is being closely watched by JE, but he anticipates an aerial cross, so he throws his foot up in the air and Walcott goes under him.  Here's the problem: It looks as though everybody in the box is also anticipating an aerial pass.  Mike Williamson is flat-footed and Danny Simpson is actually running away from his man toward the center of the goal.  Before the play, you can see Williamson point and tell Simpson to take Robbie van Persie, but he opts instead to drift toward the back post without his man and so loses track of him.  Coloccini has cheated up and can do so thanks to Cheik Tiote coming back to help, but he's not in position to cut out the pass, so despite the fact that Newcastle have numbers, van Persie is basically all alone and has an open net to finish into.  When you watch it live, it looks even less like bad marking and more like pure, unadulterated laziness.  This goal never should have happened.

The nightmare, of course, was not over.  Again, the problem was marking.  A long series of Arsenal passes leads the Newcastle midfielders up the field, and Andrey Arshavin gets a long pass past them to Theo Walcott, who immediately sets Bacary Sagna up for a cross.  Jose Enrique closes him down, but it's not enough as Mike Williamson has lost track of Robbie van Persie.  Fabricio Coloccini is playing the near post and is caught watching the pass.  He is unaware that there has been a problem with the marking.  To be fair to the center backs (not that they deserve any sympathy), Steve Harper appears to lose the ball in flight and reacts late to van Persie's header.  26 minutes in, and the deficit is 0-4.

27:00 - 67:00 - Adjustments

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow here.  Instead, here are a few observations.


Leon Best seemed intent on proving this week that men don't understand the offside rule, either.  By my count, he was ruled offside 5 times.  One of those was the errant call that RKW referred to in his review, but there was also another instance where he actually wasn't called and should have been (nothing came of the opportunity).  He didn't start drifting into an offside position until after Newcastle were down 4, which leads me to believe that perhaps Alan Pardew asked his striker to try to spread the Arsenal defense out.  Best wasn't exactly smart about this (you simply can't stand 5 yards offside and call for the ball, for example), but overall the strategy had its intended effect.  Joey Barton started launching long passes in the general direction of goal whenever he got the chance, and on at least a couple of occasions chances were created as a result.

Formation Switch

For the first 25 minutes or so, Alan Pardew's squad was playing a strict 4-4-2 on offense and on defense.  I was unable to pinpoint exactly when it happened (if I'm guessing, it was probably after Abou Diaby was sent off), but at some point, they switched to a formation that was frankly pretty confusing to me.  At times it looked like a 4-1-<4>-1, but was probably more of a 4-5-1 most of the time.  Cheik Tiote, Joey Barton, and Jonas Gutierrez all took turns playing the '1' in the back of the midfield, and at times that '1' pushed up the field when the team was on the attack (understandable when down 4 goals).  Tiote naturally plays more of a defensive role, but I can't recall a time when I've seen him play the role of collector and distributor as he did in the second half of this game.  I also thought it was strange that Jonas Gutierrez was so prone to laying back, at times letting Jose Enrique Sanchez play in front of him even when the ball was on the other side of the pitch.

Maybe the most confusing part of the new formation was that Lovenkrands dropped back to the right point of the diamond (or back into the midfield line) with Kevin Nolan up front.  It reminded me of the 4-4-1-1 Chris Hughton was fond of at the beginning of the season where Nolan played directly behind Andy Carroll, but this time one of the midfield positions was filled by a striker.  As a result, Lovenkrands ended up making at least one cross and actually seemed quite comfortable doing so.  Here's just one example of the midfield diamond, shown while the Gunners have possession:


Mike Williamson the New Target Man?

This isn't necessarily unique to the middle or end part of the game, but I thought it bore mentioning.  The target man for Joey Barton on free kicks near the box was undoubtedly 6 ft 4 in Mike Williamson.  The ball was crossed to him 8 times.  He headed 2 shots (one was on target) and made 5 successful passes, all headers.  I wanted to check and see if this was indeed a new development and not just my imagination, and the chalkboard confirms it.  Here's a comparison of Williamson's passes against Arsenal with his passes at Fulham just 3 days prior.  Looking at the previous games will bear this out as well.


 by Guardian Chalkboards

It is clear that Alan Pardew saw something in Mike Williamson on the training ground and is now relying on him as a presence in the box.  It will be interesting to see if the arrival of Shefki Kuqi, a known quantity in the air, will affect this strategy at all.

Arsenal Goes Into Time-Waste Mode Way Too Early

The title of this section is a bit of a misnomer.  While Arsenal did start wasting time around the hour mark, causing their passing precision, among other things, to suffer, their bigger offense might have been that the players seemed intent on giving Robbie van Persie a hat-trick, at times passing up better opportunities in order to funnel the ball to him.  On at least one occasion, van Persie himself was guilty of taking an ill-advised shot instead of passing off to an open teammate.  I don't blame Arsenal for having the kind of attitude that causes players to laugh off poor striking attempts; after all, nobody had ever recovered from that kind of deficit before.  However, their lackadaisical attitude proved to be their undoing.  Even after Newcastle opened the scoring, the back line settled for lazy clearances and the strikers gave away several chances in the attacking third.  I don't want to belabor this point, but it is worth noting that attitude can be just as important as tactics, if not more so.

67:00 - FT - The Comeback

The First and Third Goals

Both of these goals came on penalty kicks, which is pretty straight-forward.  However, Joey Barton was helped both times by the inexperience of Wojciech Szczesny (recently proven to be the highest-scoring football name in Scrabble).  A lot of research has been done on how to stop penalty kicks, and the conclusion is fairly universal: At the elite level of the sport, the penalty taker's strike is too fast for a keeper to read and react.  In other words, to have a chance at stopping a penalty kick, the keeper's best bet is to guess one direction or the other and move that direction as soon as the ball is kicked.  Some conclude that standing still is just as effective.  Here is just one of several articles on the subject.  On both penalty kicks, Szczesny moves one direction initially, almost as if he's giving Barton a head fake, then moves the other way.  In both instances, he is too late, though on the second kick he almost fakes himself into staying in the middle, which would have stopped the shot.  I'm not suggesting that the young keeper should have stopped either shot, but he didn't really give himself much of a chance either.

74:22 - #LeonBestIsMint...and so are Nile Ranger and Jose Enrique

Best's goal is almost one of redemption.  Just a minute earlier, the shot he had placed in the back of the net had been called off as he was ruled offside.  This time, the goal was held up, closing the advantage to 2-4.  Nile Ranger had just come on for Peter Lovenkrands, and it was immediately apparent that the Arsenal players judged him to be a stronger threat than they did Lovenkrands.  Ranger collects the ball from Jose Enrique following a throw-in and is  surrounded right away by 4 defenders, leaving Leon Best on an island with Gael Clichy on the far post.  Ranger does some nifty ball-handling to pass out to Jose Enrique (again, Jonas Gutierrez was playing back) who made a brilliant cross.  Best's first touch was good and the finish was solid.  A true team goal.


All four defenders are looking straight at Ranger, whose pass toward the flag set up Jose Enrique's cross to Best.

86:55 - Tiote...Incredible! Astonishing! Sensational!

I hope you've seen the goal by now, because the one video I could find has been taken down.  Here's an idea, though:


As Joey Barton sets up to take the free kick, there are 10 Arsenal players in the box, including the 2 man wall and the keeper.  In this screenshot, there are 3 Newcastle players in the target area, but by the time Barton strikes the ball, there will be 5.  You can barely see Cheik on the edge of the screen.  Obviously there is nobody available to mark him, but why would there be?  Tiote is just there to try to shut down a counter, and besides, he hasn't scored a goal all season.


As the ball is headed straight toward Tiote, the Arsenal defenders run to put pressure on him, but they do so in a V formation, forming a perfect alley for the perfect strike.  Every time I watch this goal (and trust me, my number of views is now reaching embarrassing heights), I'm struck by how, well, perfectly it all came together.  You couldn't recreate this shot if you tried over and over for a dozen years.  For one thing, if you look at the first image, imagine how tempting it must have been for Barton to zip a pass on the ground to Danny Simpson, who is in prime position to get a shot past the right-most defenders.  Instead, he crosses into an area where his boys are outnumbered 7 to 5, and the bounce comes right to Tiote.  The defenders make a symmetrical tunnel (almost as if it's been rehearsed that way) and the goalscorer puts a ton of pace on the ball, curving it away from the keeper - with his wrong foot.  The odds of that happening are astronomical.  The odds of that being an equalizing goal in the 87th minute of what used to be an 0-4 match?  Holy crap.

What a beautiful game.