So many times when watching Newcastle United it seems like the stats and numbers don't exactly match up to what I remember the match being. In the case of Newcastle's loss to Arsenal on Saturday, this is not at all the case. The numbers and stats suggest *exactly* what I remember happening. I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I suppose it's our half-filled glass of water. When I posted the instant reaction to the match just after the final whistle, the overriding feeling was that the second half performance was enough to outweigh the stretches of poor play from the first half. Looking at the stats, this bears out.
For large sections of the first half, Arsenal were able to push forward on a fairly regular basis. They were able to fairly easily get through the makeshift Newcastle back line, but poor touches in the Newcastle box – primarily from Danny Welbeck – meant that Arsenal weren't able to take full advantage of what they were creating. In fact, the match ended up turning on fouls conceded by Newcastle some 30 yards from goal. Whatever John Carver said at halftime (to paraphrase, he says that he told the team to "puff their chests out and be proud of the shirt", which is nice except that there is little evidence that any of the players are proud to pull on the Newcastle jersey) turned the match on its head. The player influence graphics from StatsZone app illustrate exactly this:
First half player influence
Second half player influence
You can see clearly that in the second half, Arsenal were well and truly pinned back. The difference between halves is even more striking when you start looking at the passing numbers.
First half passing
Some clubs pass more than others, and you don't necessarily have to pass a lot to be well involved in a match. So Arsenal passed a lot more than Newcastle in the first half (completing 90 more passes in that time frame). Over the entire 90 minutes, the total number of passes by the two teams were within 8 of each other (NUFC - 449, Arsenal - 441) and the completed passes within 2 (NUFC - 342, Arsenal - 340), which sets up this illustration of Newcastle's complete control of the second half:
Second half passing
Newcastle completed 92 more passes than Arsenal in the second half and ended up with 51% possession for the match. Much of this was built in the second half which was as compelling a performance as we've seen from Newcastle this season (and perhaps for years farther back than that). Perhaps it's an indictment of where the club are at this point, but the Sissoko goal and subsequent performance had the 50,000 plus fans at St. James' Park electrified. If the club are able to kick on from the feeling and performance in the second half, there is still hope for the derby. The sad thing is that there is now an international break between us and there and we'll probably fall off from this relative high.
Of further note
There was another thing that was pretty evident during the Arsenal match. It wasn't always comfortable – in fact it was sometimes nerve wracking – but Newcastle's back 5 were clearly under direction to avoid hoofing the ball blindly forward. For the entire match, Mike "Mr. Hoof" Williamson tried only four "long passes", two of which were his patented hoofballs. This is a direction that was years in the making. We haven't had the type of player who could take advantage of such a tactic since the days of Andy Carroll and Leon Best. We have discussed the virtues of avoiding the long ball from the back, especially as pertains to Tim Krul's distribution. If you don't have a player who can control the long hoofs forward, you're essentially gifting extra attacks to your opposition. The lack of this is part of what made the passing performance so great on Saturday.
John Carver has done precious little to prove that he should be given the job on a permanent basis, but at least he is finally starting to make noticeable tactical adjustments which are expressing themselves on a positive level on the pitch. In fact, had our lone true CB not been destroyed by Olivier Giroud for their second goal, we could be sitting here talking about a very encouraging point taken from this match. Now we have to sweat whether or not the squad will carry this momentum over to the derby.