Following Newcastle United's 2-2 draw with Southampton on Sunday, one player in particular seemed to draw the ire of the Toon Army more than any of the others: Massadio Haïdara. In all of the places that I frequent for my Newcastle news and fan reactions (CHN, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, the various local papers, a few other select sites), there was negative feedback for the left back.
When you brush aside the I-don't-like-him-but-don't-know-how-to-articulate-it genericisms like "He just hasn't been good enough" or "He hasn't impressed me," here's a paraphrase of the criticism: Southampton spent most of their time on their right side of the pitch because they were taking advantage of Newcastle's weakness (left back), and both crosses came from the man Haïdara was marking. Moving forward, his crossing was poor, and the Cissé goal only happened because of a lucky deflection. His tackling and clearances were lacking.
I remembered his game a little differently, and while I could see some truth in these assessments, I didn't think his play was all that bad. So, I decided to watch the game over again and keep an eye on Haïdara the entire time.
What I found was this (spoiler alert): He was both better and worse than people gave him credit for. There were low lows, but they're actually not the plays that people remember because they didn't turn into anything bad for the team. There were also some really nifty plays that many have chosen to ignore or have simply forgotten because they don't fit the conclusion that Massadio is a bad player.
I'd like to start with perhaps the most high-profile of his "mistakes" - the Cédric Soares cross that Graziano Pellé converted in the first half. Warning: Nitpicking is ahead. Initially, the play looks really bad for the left back. Cédric, who had not really ventured forward to this point in the match, steps up into space and whips in a cross that a seemingly out-of-position Haïdara can't close in on. There's actually something else going on here:
Sadio Mané runs past Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita, so Fabricio Coloccini, who was already in space, takes a step up. Haïdara continues to mark Dušan Tadić. To leave him at this point would be a disaster. Gabriel Obertan is running toward goal to stop Mané, allowing Cédric to make a diagonal run away from him. (Note: I tried to make a GIF out of this, but Southampton's stupid green kit was blending into the grass and it looked awful.)
Obertan has caught Mané, who is no longer part of the play having passed to Cédric, Coloccini has found Tadić, and Haïdara is closing down the cross. The result, as we know, is a Pellé goal. The commentator lays into Haïdara for leaving Cédric open. Really, though, there's a combination of miscommunication and bad reads in the build-up that make Massadio look bad for being the closest guy to the crosser in the end. He played it right - if he had left Tadić, it's an easy goal for him. The most egregious part of the play happens after the cross, as Pellé simply beat Chancel Mbemba in the air.
The other Southampton goal is less defensible for Haïdara. Tadić simply created space for himself and made a very nice cross in the end. It was not a good play for Massadio, and he should have done better, but again, Newcastle was beaten to a header as Daryl Janmaat was unable to hold off Shane Long.
Overall, I found Haïdara's man to man defense to be better than I remembered on rewatch. He spent the majority of the match marking Tadić, who, despite a late-season dip in form last year, is a very capable player. Haïdara was able to stay in front of him most of the time, and he won the ball quite a bit, making several key interceptions. Of course, defenders are judged by the few times that they do mess up, and Massadio's mistakes were high profile in nature. It wasn't the kind of shut-down play that will win matches, but I'd describe it as "mostly adequate." There's room for him to grow, and I saw no reason to think that the mistakes he made were not correctable.
In Steve McClaren's system, the fullbacks must play aggressively, as their natural position when Newcastle has the ball is further up the pitch in more conventional systems. This both hurts and helps Haïdara, who is capable when advancing the ball on the floor, but can often be too antsy to cross into the box. The below screenshot shows him just after receiving the ball. He has plenty of options - try a give-and-go with Obertan, dribble toward the middle and try to move the defenders out of position, or perhaps pass back to try and switch field. Instead, he opts for a very low-percentage cross, which is predictably cleared. His decision-making must be better if he is to thrive in this system.
When he does decide to advance the ball on the floor (this happened more often than I remembered), Haïdara is quite adept. He and Obertan have a good understanding of each other, and the pair combined to create quite a few chances from the left side. Those chances were often thwarted by (1) Obertan's lack of confidence in crossing with his left foot, and (2) Papiss Cissé giving away possession cheaply. He created one opportunity in particular that happened just before Cissé was replaced that absolutely should have resulted in a goal-scoring chance, but the striker coughed it up and that was that.
Overall, Haïdara's performance on Sunday would perhaps best be described as uneven. I suspect that the outrage about his defensive miscues is shaped in large part by the commentary provided by the television presenters. They continually commented about Southampton's desire to run things through right winger Dušan Tadić, attributing it to a lack of defensive proficiency by Haïdara. In reality, it was Jay Rodriguez's ineptitude that led to this approach. Daryl Janmaat was not letting him through, so they switched field. Haïdara's performance was not perfect on either side of the pitch. He must be more quick to pick up his man when the ball is turned over, so that he won't have to rely so much on his pace to make up for mistakes. On the other end, he needs to be less anxious and make better decisions.
Having said that, there are things to like about his game. When Newcastle were having success on the left side, it was usually as a result of his hard work and technical ability. As I stated earlier, I was surprised by the number of interceptions and tackles he made at critical times. He must be more consistent, or teams will start to view Newcastle's left side as the point of entry with least amount of resistance. However, there is plenty to build on. To call for his replacement would be premature - especially since there are more pressing needs around the pitch.