In addition to the extremely low goal count on the season, perhaps the most damning statistic about Newcastle’s offensive struggles is the fact that Ciaran Clark is joint-second top scorer on the team with two goals. While it’s good that defenders are making the most of set pieces, Newcastle should not have to rely on corners and set pieces to get goals.
Unless the opposition is a top-six side, in which case, unlocking the defense will be exceptionally difficult, corners and set pieces should not be the primary means of putting the ball into the back of the net. As a Premier League side, Newcastle needs to have a functional offense that can get goals through open play.
Last season, Newcastle relied heavily on the almost telepathic connection of Jonjo Shelvey and Dwight Gayle. That is not to say that Jonjo Shelvey would bag many assists with Dwight Gayle polishing off the chances. Instead, unexpected long balls by Jonjo Shelvey to Dwight Gayle would break opposition lines and push the attack up the field. This type of play would present Newcastle with opportunities, since the defense would be shuffling to regain shape. For example, consider Ayoze Perez’s goal against Arsenal in the second half of last season.
With Gayle gone (temporarily) and Rondon now donning the number 9 jersey, this type of game plan is simply not logical or even feasible. As we all know, Rondon is a target that relies on service into the box via crosses.
One of the problems that Newcastle’s attack has right now is that wingers such as Kenedy and Ritchie are having a hard time bypassing their matchups to deliver good crosses into the box. By the time that the two find time to cross the ball, the opposition’s defense is already set up in the box to snuff out the threat.
As of right now, Newcastle’s only solution to this problem is to deliver early crosses. It is no coincidence that this is how Newcastle has scored a large sum of its goals from open-play. Early crossing allows Newcastle to find Rondon and other aerial targets in the box before opposition defenses get set up.
One thing you may have noticed is that Newcastle struggles most offensively when the opposition sits off and allows Newcastle’s time with the ball. With this defensive approach from opposition sides, the efficacy of early crossing gets reduced significantly. Not only are the opposition defense even more prepared for balls into the box, but Newcastle’s wingers have significantly less space to deliver early crosses. Using this method, opposition wingers and full backs work much more closely and effectively crowd out the wings, greatly reducing any crossing opportunities.
The simple yet premium solution to this problem is a Number 10 that can play killer, defense splitting passes to wingers (so that they can quickly cross) or directly to the striker. Though Miguel Almiron is currently plying his trade in the MLS, where the defending quality is not up to par with the Premier League’s, the Paraguayan attacker does have this instinct. The instinct for killer passes alone makes him instantly worth the price-tag.
A successful recent application of this technique can be seen through Manchester City’s well-oiled attack. As opposition teams sit back against Manchester City, they rely on the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to deliver defense splitting passes to the wingers. Therefore, it is no surprise that the majority of City’s goals come from crosses, despite the fact that they have very few players with any semblance of aerial presence.
It goes without saying that there are obvious differences between Newcastle and Manchester City. Opposing teams afford Newcastle time on the ball because they do not think Newcastle will do anything with it. On the other hand, opposing teams afford City time on the ball out of respect for City’s game-changing players. Additionally, City plays low crosses to find their clinical finishers, while Newcastle plays aerial crosses to find Salomon Rondon and other aerial threats.
Regardless, Newcastle could benefit greatly from having a No. 10 with a propensity for defense splitting passes — either to the wingers or to the striker. A player like Almiron could add a new, much-needed dimension to Newcastle’s attack.