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Total Defense and the Newcastle We Need

A look at Newcastle’s defensive excellence as a complete team effort and an example of how we, all of us, move forward

Newcastle United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

When I was growing up in the mid-nineties, from ages five to seven, I had trouble telling time. I could sit in a car for some time, and my mom could ask me how long we had been in the car, and there were even odds that it had been ten minutes or an hour. The one exception to this issue was that I always innately knew what time Power Rangers was on. I loved Power Rangers. For people who are unfamiliar, each episode had a similar formula – some henchman of the evil Rita would show up, five (later, six) karate teenagers in slick outfits would beat them up, the henchman would magically become the size of a city, the teens would summon their dinosaur robots called Zords, the henchman would still be too much for them, and then, finally, the dino robots would form the Megazord, a Voltron-like robot who would mess up Rita’s henchman and ultimately win the day. I didn’t miss an episode for years. I was obsessed. I was a pretty quiet kid who didn’t have many friends, so I think the idea of being able to work together with the friends you do have (oh, the karate teens were sort of outcasts, that’s an important facet of the show) to overcome adversity really spoke to me.

For any number of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about this theme of multiple relatively powerless people collaborating to overcome obstacles. One current example that has resonated with me has been the performance, especially on the defensive side of the ball, of this season’s Newcastle United side. Newcastle has, with maybe one exception, no one who would play a prominent role on a Premier League side hoping to qualify for European competition, but here they are, sitting in seventh through nine matches, ahead of sides like Liverpool, Southampton, West Ham, and Everton – clubs which Newcastle supporters could reasonably expect to finish behind coming into this season.

The biggest contributor to Newcastle’s early success has been its ability to prevent opposing sides from scoring goals or getting chances on goal – Newcastle is fourth in the Premier League in goals allowed (8) and fifth in expected goals allowed (9.94). Despite only sitting at 16th in possession, Newcastle has prevented its opponents from getting significant scoring opportunities, allowing the seventh-fewest shots in the league. In fact, so far this season, Newcastle’s opponents have generated only 19.82 shots per 90 minutes of possession, second only to current Premier League leader and unspeakably loaded Manchester City.

Southampton v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

How has Newcastle pulled this off? In digging into the underlying data, it becomes apparent that the defensive efforts have been so successful primarily due to a total team performance, starting with the man up top. Joselu, among Premier League strikers with at least five appearances, is third in tackles, second in passes blocked, sixth in defensive clearances, all of which are in the 75th percentile or better among forwards, as well as being ninth in intercepted passes. Joselu is joined in his defensive efforts by the first choice wingers, Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie, who excel in differing and complementary areas. While Ritchie is first among qualified wingers in clearances and interceptions and fifth in tackles, Atsu comes in at fourth in clearances and first, fourth and fifth in blocked passes, shots and crosses, respectively; in fact, Atsu leads all Premier League players, not only wingers, in blocking passes.

Wing defense is, of course, not merely the responsibility of wingers, and the fullbacks have been no slouches themselves. On Ritchie’s side of the field, DeAndre Yedlin is second among qualifying fullbacks in crosses blocked, first in clearances and in the top third of fullbacks in interceptions, while Javier Manquillo joins him in the upper third of fullbacks in successful tackles and blocked crosses.

Newcastle’s central midfielders have also held up their end of the defensive bargain, starting with Spanish revelation and the love of my life, Mikel Merino. Merino, who also has the eighth highest overall WhoScored rating on the season among central midfielders, is second at the position in tackles attempted and third in tackles won, is in the top quartile of midfielders in interceptions, clearances and crosses blocked, and in the top third of shots blocked. Ayoze Pérez, who has been much maligned in his position as an attacking midfielder, is first among midfielders and third overall in passes blocked.

This leaves Newcastle’s center backs, and here is where we start getting into some less-than-stellar news: Newcastle United’s center backs, including club captain and hero Jamaal Lascelles, do not look too hot when scrutinized under the lens of underlying data. In only one defensive metric (Ciaran Clark is in the 58th percentile for blocked crosses) are any of Newcastle’s central defenders in the top half of premier league center backs this season. In fact, in few cases are our defenders even close to being average. Captain Lascelles is 41st of 45 qualifying defenders in attempted tackles, with Clark joining him in the bottom quarter.

However, in the words of economist E.F. Schumacher, statistics have never proven anything. It’s easy to look at these numbers as a sign of weakness for our central defenders, and it’s entirely possible that this reading of the statistics is correct. Instead, I choose to look at the whole body of work for this Newcastle side, one that shows players in primarily attacking positions outperforming their positional expectations in areas like blocks and interceptions and come to the conclusion that, despite Newcastle’s proclivity for conceding possession, opposing teams are rarely given the opportunity to get to our center backs in the attack. Further, the center backs have contributed in other ways – Lascelles leads all players at the position in goals, for example, and has half of the club’s game-winning goals on the year.

Newcastle United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

There is no secret formula. There is no silver bullet. The plan is a simple one – every match, Newcastle sends eleven players onto the pitch with clear instructions and the discipline and determination to execute on these instructions. The players that Rafa Benítez puts on the pitch on a given matchday understand that the team cannot succeed without them, and that they must be reliable and trustworthy while also feeling comfortable relying on and trusting the other ten men on their side. This requires an incredible plan and ability to get players to buy in on the part of Rafa, to be sure, but it also depends on the execution of every man on the pitch. This is where other Newcastle squads have failed, and where this one has succeeded.

If you’re reading this, you no doubt know that Newcastle United is currently for sale, and that Amanda Staveley is currently doing due diligence on the club. You likely know that Staveley is willing, according to reports, to provide anywhere between £150 and £500 million to Newcastle in the transfer market over the next two years. This is the sort of ownership and the sort of Newcastle United that supporters deserve. I would argue against, however, looking too far into the future at the expense of appreciating the present side. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Megazords, as I mentioned, and I’ve also been thinking about Ashley’s and Rafa’s respective comments on transfer activity and the state of the club at the beginning of the season. Here is where I’ll ask the #sticktosports crowd to stop reading. At a time where institutionalized white supremacy, toxic masculinity, science denial, and ardent nationalism are becoming more and more commonplace and given more and more legitimacy, where many of us find ourselves comforting in and being empowered by things like the International Women’s March and rallies to call our representatives in massive numbers, there is no magic formula, no silver bullet. Success and survival comes from organizing, understanding the mission, working hard and trusting your team. A future as a European juggernaut is the Newcastle that we deserve, but I think that this version is the Newcastle that we need right now.