In Ancient Greece, the Pythia, or the High Priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, was for at least 400 years responsible for establishing a connection with the sacred through a series of oracular prophecies and decrees from the god Apollo. The priestess was considered to be the most powerful woman in the classical world for her connection with the divine (or her connection with the ethylene and methane that filled her chamber from the fault line in the natural spring under her, one of the two) and much of this power came in the form of the Delphic maxims, 147 aphorisms attributed to Apollo through the intercession of the Pythia that are meant to show a clear path to a fulfilling life. The eighth and most famous of these maxims is “know thyself.” The saying also shows up in the Luxor Temple in Egypt and is the basis both for Socrates’ assertion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and for Ron Swanson’s assertion that “I know what I’m about, son,” but at its heart it is an easy concept to understand – knowledge and understanding without self-reflection and self-awareness is superficial, and a contemplative understanding of what you’re about is key to contentment.
The reason I bring this up is because on Monday, Newcastle went south to face Burnley, another Premier League club that is outperforming expectations this season, and is doing so in largely the same manner – by understanding their own strengths and weaknesses within a team environment and by not fearing ugly success against objectively better teams. The match was destined to be borderline unwatchable from the start in the best way possible, and in the end Newcastle lost because Newcastle blinked first, sacrificing part of what it knew about itself.
There are a number of mitigating circumstances that could be pointed to as the cause of Newcastle’s tumble – the absence of this year’s top performer Mikel Merino, the club’s historical inability to perform on Mondays, etc. – but, ultimately, Newcastle wasn’t able to execute its plan of holding shape, absorbing pressure, and converting chances when opportunities presented themselves. On Monday, Newcastle did well to hold its shape, but, when given possession, the team did not look as though they knew what to do with the ball. Only 27% of Newcastle’s passes were to targets in the attacking third, compared to Burnley’s 37%, and while both sides ended with 12 shots and five shots on goal, Newcastle took only four of those from inside the penalty area to Burnley’s nine. As a result, Burnley rightly finished the game ahead in xG, 1.03 – 0.52.
From the outset, it appeared that Newcastle’s attacking strategy was to strike from the left side of the pitch, using a combination of Christian Atsu, Mohammed Diame and Javier Manquillo to avoid confrontation with Burnley’s strong left side of Stephen Ward, Jack Cork and Robbie Brady. To that end, Newcastle executed well, with 40% of its attack coming through the left. The problem with this, though, was that none of the three players on that side were very good on Monday. Christian Atsu had the best run of the three, creating Newcastle’s best chance of the match in the ninth minute and missing from inside the six-yard box, but lacked the ability to take on his defender or provide the defensive contributions that have made his season a success to date. Manquillo was unwilling to pass with ambition in the attacking half of the pitch, attempting only a single cross, probably the result of being played out of the position on the left side of the pitch. Diame did a great job of showing why he doesn’t play in the defensive midfield more often, leading the match in fouls and times dribbled past and leading Newcastle in times dispossessed despite finishing with the fewest touches of any player in the back seven, Rob Elliot included.
Ultimately, there’s no shame in losing to a Burnley side that finds itself in seventh place, especially at Turf Moor – of Burnley’s 40 points last season, 32 came at home, losing only six of their 19 home matches. Further, it may be that the recent run of form for Newcastle coupled with news of takeover bids for the club has obscured the fact that United is still a newly promoted side, and fighting for points is going to be a requirement throughout this campaign. But it’s difficult to watch this club lose points or matches for a lack of understanding or execution of the strengths that have gotten it to the top half of the table after a season in the Championship. Newcastle will have to remember itself to sustain this success.
Other notes from the match:
- In a match between two defensively sound sides wanting for great performances, it’s no surprise that the greatest performances on either side came from the men in the middle of the defense. For Burnley, Ben Mee showed himself to be well worth the advanced analytical hype he has been getting this season, leading the match with two blocked shots and an outstanding eleven clearances, while his partner James Tarkowski proved effective in defense and the attack. For Newcastle, Florian Lejeune continued to show himself to be the first choice to pair with captain Jamaal Lascelles, leading the match in interceptions and touches while completing 88% of his passes, all of which is made more impressive by Diame playing out of position as the protective midfielder on his side of the pitch.
- From an analytical perspective, the match on Monday was, to a certain extent, an example of chickens coming home to roost – Newcastle has now finished four straight matches with fewer expected goals than their opponents. Looking at the season holistically, this is the result of performances and results evening themselves out over time, as early in the season United was underperforming in results relative to the deeper analytics of the match; as things now stand, Newcastle has an expected 13.62 points, compared to an actual 14 points, and on the league table sit almost exactly where underlying metrics would suggest they would be at this point.
- By comparison, Monday’s opponents are vastly outperforming their measurables, which would suggest that Burnley should be in 19th place with an expected 9.04 points from ten matches, when in actuality they sit in seventh with 16 points. It’s likely that the pendulum of averages and statistical expectation will come for them one day, but Monday was not to be that day.