Any assessment of the match Saturday should start with a key acknowledgment: the match was not good. No one was great, no one was terrible, no one will remember this match come Christmas. Cabaye should have been sent off in the first half, Mikel Merino should have started next to Shelvey in the center of the pitch, and with the exception of Rob Elliot and the center backs, all Newcastle players had an average position within ten yards of the center circle.
This doesn’t mean there are no takeaways. There’s exactly one 6’2”, 21-year-old Spanish takeaway. Mikel Merino must – and no kidding, I mean must – be the first choice player in the midfield.
From the outset of the match, possession was choppy and sporadic, with Newcastle losing possession in its own half seven times in the first 55 minutes while failing to win the ball in the attacking half. Newcastle was outpossessed over that span by a club in Crystal Palace with three points and two goals to its name on the season. When Newcastle did have possession, it left a chasm between the midfield and the defense, as pictured below with Palace on the counter, a chasm that forced DeAndre Yedlin and Javier Manquillo into one-on-one defensive situations higher up the pitch than is comfortable. Newcastle was without direction, shape or ambition.
Then, in the 55th minute, Merino entered the match.
The impact that Merino had on the match cannot be overstated. After he entered the match, Newcastle kept 66% possession, improved its passing rate by six points, and didn’t lose possession in its own half while winning possession in the attacking half six times. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing that the wind speed dropped 30 kilometers an hour when Merino came on. Oh, and he also scored the winning goal, beating James McArthur to a corner for his first in the Premier League.
(As an aside, how insane is it that this guy cost Newcastle only £7 million in a transfer market that forced Manchester City to pay £45 million for Kyle Walker? On the other hand, while Saint Merino cost the club £7 million, the transfer value of the entire San Marino national football team is €350,000. Money is wild.)
To be sure, including Merino in the lineup is not a panacea for all of Newcastle’s woes – Ayoze Pérez led the match in possession lost despite having fewer touches than any other starters on either team and possessing the ball for less than 1% of the match, goalkeepers included, and only managed to attempt eight passes, three of which were in the final third. Joselu, for all his effort, was on an island at the top of the formation and registered exactly zero shots. However, Merino’s presence, at worst, provides structure and discipline to Newcastle’s formation, and at best allows Shelvey and the fullbacks the ambition to join the attack knowing that Merino will protect the back line.
Newcastle is not, at least yet, a major financial powerhouse. A future sale of the club may change this, but at the moment, movements in the transfer market need to land, as there isn’t the money to fix mistakes. Mikel Merino hasn’t merely been a win – it’s been an outstanding coup. There have been a few times in the 20 years I have followed Newcastle where a player felt almost too good for the club. Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa were a few. Mikel Merino is another. Newcastle supporters should relish this moment.
Other odds and ends from the match:
- It’s looking unlikely that Sunderland and Middlesbrough will be back in the Premier League any time in the near future, so unless Gateshead FC makes a run and earns four promotions in as many years, Newcastle will be without a regional rival in the North East for a few years. It could be tempting, then, to go looking for new rivalries, and given the presence of Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend, the departure of Alan Pardew for Selhurst Park, and NBC’s Twitter hashtag for the matchup being #NEWPAL, as though they are willing a new rivalry into existence for #narrative, Crystal Palace is a tempting option. I would advise, however, that actual rivalries require time and familiarity. It could be that an honest rivalry develops, and it could be that Cabaye’s dirty tackle on Yedlin will be looked back on as the start of the rivalry, but we are years away from that being a reality.
- As mentioned, Newcastle faced two recent players in Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend, and the two had rather different afternoons at the park. Cabaye had an afternoon to forget, completing only 68% of his passes, an unacceptable clip for any central midfielder, and managed to attempt only a single tackle other than his yellow card offense that should have earned him red. Townsend, on the other hand, fared a good deal better, causing problems in isolation for Manquillo and Christian Atsu and creating what was likely Palace’s best chance of the match.
- Unfortunately for Townsend and Crystal Palace, Atsu and Manquillo did plenty to keep Townsend on an island in possession, preventing any notable linkup play and forcing 59% of his passes to be backward. Christian Atsu continued a run of praiseworthy defensive efforts this season, blocking nearly as many crosses and passes (7) as the entire Palace side (8). In a season where, more often than not, Newcastle will face more talented squads on a weekly basis, the defensive efforts of the front six will be vital in securing the points needed to deem the year a success.
- Lastly, Jonjo Shelvey has, at times, shown the vision that he displayed in the Championship last season, picking out pass after pass over the top of opposing defenses. On Saturday, however, Shelvey showcased not only his admirable and otherworldly pettiness but also his sartorial eye, swapping the blue cast on his arm from last week for a black one to match the kit choices for the respective matches (above). Shelvey has struggled to replicate his form from last season, particularly when playing alongside Isaac Hayden in the midfield, but at least we know that he will always be doing his best to look stylish while playing for Newcastle.