Growing up, one of our family’s biggest rules was that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, so in that vein, I’m going to start with a positive – Rafa Benítez, seeing a string of unimpressive matches in the attack for Newcastle, decided to shake things up, replacing Ayoze Perez with Dwight Gayle. This was partly the right move, because Joselu has spent a lot of time this season tracking back and contributing on defense, leaving the side with no target in the attack, and if you’re committed to playing Joselu, another striker is necessary. Good move, Rafa.
Unfortunately, the change didn’t result in success on the pitch, as Newcastle, which spent most of the first 50 or so minutes on the front foot, fell at home to Bournemouth 1-0 on a stoppage time goal. As a result, United has now been held goalless in five of its 11 matches on the season, a rate that’s unsustainable for any side hoping to avoid relegation, much less one looking for a mid-table finish. The current rotation of attacking options isn’t working, and barring any transfer activity in January to bring in attacking reinforcements (like Cenk Tosun or Miguel Almirón), Rafa has only one option – Aleksander Mitrović needs to be getting into matches.
On Saturday, Newcastle dictated play for large chunks of the match and for most of the first half, and when given the ability to attack however it pleased, the side went to a tactic not seen often this season – it lumped in cross after cross after cross. In the first 50 minutes, Newcastle put in more crosses than it has in either of the last two matches, sending 20 into the box. However, the crosses were mostly either mishit or fell to no one, with only two of the 20 balls being won in the air by a Newcastle player. As United’s dominance of the match waned, so did its attempts at putting balls into the box, with only seven attempted crosses in the final 40 minutes.
Replace one of Newcastle’s two strikers with Mitrović and this is a different story. It’s entirely possible that he would not have won substantially more duels than Joselu or Gayle, but he would have at least contested for every cross, something that Newcastle wasn’t interested in doing – despite 26 crosses coming in from United, only six aerial duels were won by either team in Bournemouth’s penalty area, while Bournemouth had 16 clearances in the same space on the match, seven of which came from a 5’11” center back in Nathan Aké. Crosses were being put in, but with no Newcastle players attempting to get on the end of them, Bournemouth was allowed to let balls bounce out of play or hit the turf for an easy footed clearance. By contesting more of those opportunities, you create second and third chances that were not there on Saturday.
Mitrović has been a pretty polarizing figure since joining Newcastle, with some supporters viewing him as a tattooed-second-coming of Jesus and others believing that he should be shipped off as soon as possible. Those in the latter group are vindicated every time Mitro earns a card or a suspension for nothing other than a lack of discipline, but as I’ve noted before, he doesn’t have these issues for the national team, where he receives regular time as Serbia’s first-choice center forward. It’s worth wondering whether his overzealousness stems from a lack of consistent playing time and a need to audition for his job every minute he is on the pitch, and if that is the case, giving Mitro consistent run on the Newcastle side could offset his temper. It’s not as though anything he does would be any worse than what is currently going on.
Other notes from the match:
- While I was watching on Saturday, I made a note of how poor Simon Francis looked in marking Christian Atsu, so I was shocked to check WhoScored on Sunday morning to find that Francis was not only Man of the Match but also had the highest rating of any defender in the Premier League this weekend. In looking at the underlying metrics, it’s easy to see why – Simon Francis, a fullback, won 16 aerial duels on Saturday, a huge number and by far the most in the match. I originally thought this had to do with the crossing numbers noted above, but a look at his aerial duel map paints a different picture – most of these came near the center line on his right side of the pitch. These duels, especially at this frequency, are likely coming from Rob Elliot, who seems to believe that sending balls for Atsu, who gives up at least four inches to Francis, to win is a good idea. Elliot has done a job this season, but his distribution coupled with some poor positioning on his part that has gone mostly unpunished begs the question of when we will see Karl Darlow get some time in goal.
- With the injury to Mikel Merino, Newcastle was left without a true defensive midfielder that Rafa trusts enough to name in a starting lineup, meaning that, once again, Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden would start next to one another in the center of the pitch. Jonjo did well to step up his defensive efforts in Merino’s absence, attempting (and winning) six tackles on Saturday to lead all players from either side in both categories. Jonjo’s positioning was also exceptionally disciplined, particularly for a player with a penchant for getting involved in the attack. On the attacking side of the ball, Jonjo was less than stellar, completing only 67% of his passes, but his defensive performance was sorely needed on the day, especially given that…
- …Isaac Hayden continued to show that he has little time for positional responsibility or holding any sort of formational integrity. With Merino out of the match, ideally Rafa would be able to replace him with a like-for-like defensive midfielder; given a lack of such players, Hayden enters the match, forcing Shelvey to play the defensive role that he can play when needed but that is not his strength. In a perfect world, Hayden would be an option coming in for Shelvey in a more traditional box-to-box role and another holding midfielder would be used in place of Merino when necessary. If a starting-quality striker is the first item on Newcastle’s transfer wish list, the past few matches have shown that a viable defensive midfielder off the bench is a solid number two.