Just after halftime of Newcastle’s match against Stoke on Saturday, I sent to a friend a string of texts with sentiments that I imagine were shared thousands of times Tyneside and beyond:
“Joselu has missed three sitters”
“I’m talking siiiiittttteers”
What I said wasn’t a lie - to that point, Joselu had put a Mbemba through ball wide of the net, weakly took an open shot into Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland after a blocked shot by DeAndre Yedlin, and had squandered a beautiful pass from Christian Atsu just after the start of the second half. But my texts still felt a little dishonest, because I know that it’s reasonable to see those texts and think “Hey, it sounds like Joselu is having a poor showing,” which, as anyone who watched the 2-1 win over the Potters would attest, simply wasn’t true.
Since joining Newcastle, the side has looked significantly better with Joselu on the pitch than it has without, with the possible exception of Aleksander Mitrović’s ten frenetic minutes against West Ham. So far this season, Newcastle has created 1.94 xG/90 with Joselu leading the attaack, a rate higher than any Premier League clubs with the exception of Liverpool and the two Manchester sides. By contrast, Newcastle has created only 0.35 xG/90 with Dwight Gayle playing at the top of the formation, which would be 34% worse than Brighton’s 0.53 xG/90, currently worst in the top flight.
(For what it’s worth, Newcastle has created 10.15 xG/90 with Mitrović playing up top and 3.51 xG/90 in limited time without any of the three main center forwards. Sample size is a hell of a drug, my friends.)
With Joselu on the pitch, the three attackers sitting behind him, particularly the wingers, are given greater space and opportunity to create chances for themselves and others. This is partly due to Joselu’s positional responsibility when Newcastle are on the attack (as portrayed in the three squandered chances this week, which certainly can’t be blamed on movement) but is also due to Joselu’s defensive contributions. The position chart below shows that Joselu’s average position was behind that of Ayoze Pérez, the result of Joselu’s willingness to participate in holding defensive shape while Stoke was in the attack. This is something that Gayle and, to a lesser extent, Mitrović aren’t able to provide and allows the wing players the opportunity to gamble on breaks when possession is won.
All of this sounds as though the argument is that Joselu does everything you want from a center forward except score goals, and to a certain extent, that’s true - but I don’t think it will remain true for very long. The season is now only five games old, so the sample size of goal production is not only tiny but is easy to flip in a short amount of time, given that chances are being created. This isn’t a problem for Joselu, who, at this point in the season, is fifth in the Premier League in xG/90 among players with at least 200 minutes played. Unsurprisingly, the four players above him are from the three teams above Newcastle in the same metric with Joselu on the pitch, with Romelu Lukaku, Gabriel Jesus, Mohamed Salah, and Sergio Aguero the only players creating better opportunities. These four players also have 16 goals between them on the season, so it’s safe to assume that, for Joselu, the goals will come, and will add to the elevated level of play Newcastle has exhibited with him on the pitch.
Other odds and ends from Saturday’s match:
While they’re better known for their contributions on the attacking side of play, Pérez and Atsu deserve a ton of credit for their defensive performances this season, particularly against Stoke. Pérez, despite having the second highest average position for Newcastle on the day behind Matt Ritchie, managed to lead the match in tackles attempted (9) and won (7) while finishing tied for first among Newcastle players in interceptions. For his part, in addition to scoring the opening goal of the match, Atsu led the match in blocks for the second time in as many starts. These efforts will never be the first thought of when thinking about these two players, but the willingness of every man to stick in a boot and play a complete game is what keeps newly promoted clubs in the Premier League.
Chancel Mbemba continues to perform very well on the left side of the defensive line, making his third appearance at left back since the injury to Paul Dummett in the match against Tottenham. Mbemba has provided not only consistent, reliable contributions on the defensive side, cutting out Stoke’s aerial attempts at moving the ball down their right side, but also provided excellent service offensively, including on Joselu’s missed opportunity in the 26th minute. Stoke was primarily attacking Mbemba’s side of the field, but his defensive abilities allowed Mikel Merino to stay at home centrally when Stoke was in possession, a benefit given extra weight given Isaac Hayden’s continued roaming from the holding midfield position.
Newcastle continued a less than great trend of conceding possession, proving second best in both possession minutes and touches for the fifth time in five matches this season. This obviously hasn’t negatively impacted the club for the past three matches, however, primarily due to the responsibility defensively in not allowing its opponents great chances with the ball and the care for possession shown once the ball has been won. On Saturday, Newcastle only lost possession in its own half five times, almost half the number of Stoke’s dispossessions in their defensive half.
Matt Ritchie continued a run of spectacular performances for Newcastle with a pair of assists against Stoke. What has changed for Ritchie is the right back supporting his flank, with DeAndre Yedlin returning from injury, and the change had an immediate impact - Ritchie showed considerably more positional discipline than in past matches, primarily sticking to his position on the right wing. It’s possible that this is due to the return of Yedlin, a player with whom Ritchie is undoubtedly more comfortable than Manquillo, having played much of the last season with Yedlin on the right.